The Effects of Divorce on Young Children
Few things in life are as devastating as divorce. In fact, of the ten most stressful life events categorized by the Holmes and Rahe scale, "divorce" ranks second highest, following "death of a spouse."
Divorce ranks higher (by at least 10 points) than imprisonment, the death of a close family member, personal injury or illness, and dismissal from work.
Why? Because you're losing your adult attachment figure. Because the process of divorce can take years. And because divorce will cost you tremendously in time, money, and emotional energy.
Adults often seek therapy before, during, and after a divorce. Adults have the agency, intelligence, and resources to seek out the support that they need. Therapy becomes the safe place to process emotions, unpack histories, and plan for the future in the face of life-changing moments, including divorce.
And most parents realize that their children also experience the stress of the divorce. They know this intellectually, but struggle to really think about the impact of the divorce on their kids. It's excruciating to realize that the thing causing your pain and devastation is also affecting your child.
Some parents will seek out counseling for older children, especially if that child can verbalize their emotional needs. Older children also sometimes express their emotional pain in concerning behavioral ways. This often propels school-aged children to treatment.
Younger children cannot verbalize their emotional needs, but their behaviors often serve to communicate their internal states and needs. Behaviors often noted among young children experiencing divorce can include increased frequency and duration of tantrums, separation anxiety, difficulty sleeping or eating, significant distress during transitions, and aggression. On the flip side, some young children work exceptionally hard to "be happy" and "be good." These children also need support despite seemingly doing well. Even with these signs, many parents hesitate to seek out therapeutic help for their young children.
Because young children's memory systems are forming but not yet maturely developed, we want to believe that the experiences they have in early childhood are less impactful. Many adults try to find comfort in the idea that if the child doesn't remember, it won't matter.
Child psychologists, neuro-scientists, and developmental specialists know better. Early experiences in childhood do shape human development, both in how we understand the world and how we understand ourselves. Here we're talking about the fundamental psychological underpinnings of regulation, sense of safety, and formation of the self (esteem).
Let's try to understand what divorce (and the conflict leading up to divorce) looks like to a small child.
- I love my parents. I love my mom. I love my dad. I love them both, and I love them differently. *Children develop attachment relationships with primary caregivers. These relationships are important even if they differ in quality. Being separated from primary caregivers causes stress.
- Sometimes I notice that they get mad. I don't know why they are mad. They probably are mad at me. *Young children operate as though the world revolves around them. If they cannot point to a reason, they often internalize, or unconsciously believe that they are the problem.
- When they get mad, they both get loud. I feel scared because of the loud noise and because I don't know what is happening, but I know it's bad. *Young children are sensitive to tone of voice, volume, and changes in body language. If they perceive that something is wrong, they often become more vigilant because they are looking out for potential danger.
- If I say something, if I do something funny, if I give hugs, I can make it all better. *Some young children work really hard to try to make things better, taking on the adult responsibility of providing care.
- There was a time when my parents were very loud, and someone left. I didn't know if they were coming back. My other parent was home with me. They were sad and crying. I was scared. *If there was an incident where one parent left, young children may be left with a lot of confusion and fear, particularly fear of abandonment or being left behind. These incidents remain in their memories, even if they never talk about it.
- Now I live in two houses. Every few days, I go to the other house. Things are different at the other house. I don't always remember the different rules. I don't always have my favorite things. I don't like having two houses. *Many parents want to focus on the benefits of having two things, but, for most children, the novelty wears off and they realize how difficult it can be to have two homes. Maintaining similar routines and schedules becomes an important but difficult task.
- Whenever my parents are together, I notice they seem different. I don't know why. Maybe I did something bad. *Where there is tension between parents, children often notice, become anxious, and internalize.
- My parents sometimes have big feelings. Sometimes they seem mad. Other times they are crying and sad. I don't know what to do and feel scared. *Any person experiencing divorce will need to grieve and process big emotions. However, when young children witness flooded or extreme emotion from their parents they can feel overwhelmed and frightened.
Young children often feel confused during a divorce. Finding developmentally appropriate words and a narrative can be challenging. Navigating new routines, increased transitions, and changes in relationships are all difficult. And doing all of that while also processing your own grief as a parent and an individual can sometimes feel impossible.
This is where therapy for young children experiencing divorce matters. A therapist specializing in working with young children can help you and your ex- develop a concrete plan for talking about the divorce. Therapists help young children communicate their feelings and their worries. And they help parents process understanding and holding onto their children's experiences.
Therapy particularly matters if there is continuing conflict between you and your ex-. One of the primary jobs of a child therapist is to stay in the emotional middle, to stay with your child, who loves you both and desperately dreams of peace and connection. Many families who work with a child therapist often find that the child therapist's role helps reduce conflict. Therapy for your child helps keep the focus on minimizing adverse outcomes for your children, which can help you both put aside some battles.
If you are in the process of separation or divorce, and especially if you have young children, seek out the support that your family deserves. Don't wait for things to get hard. Your proactive engagement in therapy will serve your child and your family. This is hard. You don't have to do it alone.
To find a local therapist specializing in young children, locate your state's infant/early childhood mental health association here.
Other resources are listed below.
Comments? Questions? Ideas to share? Leave us a comment below.