Younger children (under the age of 5 or so) have diverse reactions to challenging information. Upon first hearing the news, some may cry briefly and then act as if they didn’t hear it. Some may change the subject (a young child’s typical way of defending against thoughts and feelings that are overwhelming). Some may show no emotion at all, and, after hearing the news, may just ask if he/she can go play. Never assume that the absence of an initial upset means that the child is fine with the divorce. A child’s response to this event will always unfold in time.
Preschool and kindergarten-age children typically process difficult information through their play. When faced with their parents’ separation and divorce, they may engage in play that involves themes of dolls/animals/ trucks coming and going, or leaving on trips, or yelling at and fighting with one another. In playing out all the parts (E.g. the leaver and the one left; or, the yeller and the one yelled at), they develop a sense of control and mastery over their feelings that arise from the separation and divorce. In contrast, adults process similar difficult feelings by thinking through, over and over, the circumstances that elicit these feelings, and also by talking through these feelings with their friends, family, and therapists.
Parents must allow younger children much time to play (the work of processing their feelings). It is also useful to engage in direct play with them. Encourage them to draw pictures of the divorce, to pound pillows or clay to let out their anger, to tell stories about animals or children whose parents separate. Read together with them any number of good books for children going through divorce (See Brown & Brown, 1986, Dinosaurs Divorce; Krementz, 1994, How It Feels When Parents Divorce; Lansky, 1998, It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear: A Read Together Book for Parents and Young Children During Divorce; MacGregor, 2001, The Divorce Helpbook for Kids). Listen especially well to them when they seem upset over anything. Often they will displace their upset about the divorce on to another person, situation, or circumstance.
Young children typically will not be able to process the implications of the separation without their parents’ help. From time to time, check in with them about their feelings regarding the separation and divorce. (“I noticed that you have been very angry lately—I wonder if you have been thinking about Mommy and Daddy being apart”). Then, if they open up, take all the time they need to help them express their feelings. They need to know that you are there for them, in spite of all the changes going on around them. And, what should be obvious is that they regularly need plenty of reassurance that they will continue to be loved and taken care of by both parents.
School-age children , upon hearing the news, typically will get sad and cry, or will get angry and yell. They may ask questions immediately, or get up and stomp out of the room, yelling all along the way. Often, they will come back into the room ten or twenty minutes later and ask more questions, then go away again to process more of their feelings. Expect much more emotionality out of school-aged children. They may ask for details about which parent wanted the divorce and they may ally with the parent who was left. Parents can manage this maneuver most easily by making sure that the mutual story of the divorce is confirmed and supported by both parents (see my article, “What Should We Tell the Children? Developing a Mutual Story of the Divorce ” in the Family Section). This deters the child from attacking one parent as a scapegoat as a way for dealing with his/her sadness and anger.
Children of school age are also likely to worry about what is going to happen to them, and they may ask for details about what they can expect ahead. They also tend to worry about their parents and may try to take care of their parents’ emotional needs instead of their own. They need reassurance and clarification about what is going to happen to each family member after the separation, and they want a guarantee that they won’t lose either parent to the divorce. They also need reassurance that each of their parents will survive the separation and will eventually be O.K. For example, they may ask if Dad is going to move away and never see them again, or if Mom is no longer going to have enough money to live on and is going to be kicked out of her house to live on the streets. These are very common worries of children and need to be specifically addressed.
Adolescents tend to show the most extreme responses—either intense anger and sadness, or no reaction at all. Those teens who readily show their feelings may blast their parents with anger, dramatically screaming such things as, “You’re ruining my life!” Or, “How can you do this to me?” They may try to make the parents feel guilty by calling them “selfish” and “inconsiderate.” They will loudly proclaim that this is the most “unfair” thing that has ever happened to them (and they may be correct!).
The adolescents who hide their feelings may present a cavalier attitude, seeming to take the news of the divorce in stride. They may act as if it is no big deal (“Oh, so you’re getting a divorce? Alright. Whatever!”). This casual reaction to the catastrophic news of divorce may throw the parents for a loop, leaving them thinking that this is going to be much easier than they expected. However, be prepared for a backlash later. It may be hours, days, or even weeks, but every teen will react to the separation and divorce in some overt fashion. Be available to them when they are ready to share their feelings, to ask questions, to make comments, and to ask for help.
College-age young adults most often respond to the news of their parents’ divorce in a more rational way, on the surface, but still have strong emotional reactions. They may feel angry, sad, depressed, and/or confused, and may accuse the parents of “not trying hard enough to work things out,” or of “being selfish.” They may worry intensely about their own future--whether they will be able to afford to stay in college, whether they will be able to concentrate on their schoolwork, whether they will be able to form intimate relationships of their own. They, too, may worry about their parents’ well being, a worry that can disrupt their concentration on schoolwork (It is not uncommon for college students to take a leave of absence from school during the initial phase of their parents’ divorce).
Research shows that the emotional response of a young adult is much like that of a preschool/kindergarten-age child, and of a young adolescent. This makes sense if you consider the fact that each of these three stages of development involve a transition from home—the younger child leaving home for the first time to be at school for full days; the young adolescent emotionally leaving parents for friends as their primary reference group; and, the young adult leaving home for college, or to an independent residence.
In the normal case (at least normal in previous eras), the child would leave home with the full expectation that their home (with both parents in it) would still be there when they returned (after a day at kindergarten, after spending the day or night at friends’ homes, or during summer vacation and holiday breaks from college, respectively). However, in the separation and divorce situation, the opposite occurs--home leaves the child. Commonly, the family home is sold, and each parent finds new and separate housing, leaving the children very unsettled as to where they now live and where their home base is. It is this odd turn of events that contributes much of the distress for these children and often produces a strong emotional response to the news of divorce.
Aside from their developmental stage, other factors also contribute to how children will react to hearing about their parents’ divorce. These include 1) the child’s personality, emotional resilience and temperament style (children who, prior to the separation, are generally better emotionally adjusted, more flexible and adaptable, and less sensitive tend to respond, initially, more favorably), 2) the circumstances of the separation (children will respond more favorably when the divorce decision is mutual, developed more rationally and over a longer period of time and does not involve the pain of marital betrayal, such as by an affair), 3) the degree of cooperation or conflict between their parents (more parental cooperation generally results in easier acceptance by the children), and, 4) the timing and the setting in which they are told (children may have more favorable reactions when the divorce discussion takes place in a relaxed setting, making plenty of time available to answer any questions that the children may have).
Nobody gets through divorce unscathed. Every child will need his or her parents’ help to get through a divorce. Some parents believe that every child going through their parents’ separation and divorce needs a therapist. This is not always the case. If the parents are emotionally available and take the time to understand and interact with their children, no therapist may be needed. If, however, the parents are either not available for their children (E.g. because of their own pain from the divorce), or too uncomfortably talking with their children, then the assistance of a therapist can be very beneficial. Therapy does NOT take the place of good parenting and will NOT “make everything all right” for a child of divorce. At best, it can help the child identify feelings that may be difficult to share with his or her parents and to offer strategies for managing these feelings. Moreover, this should not take more than a few sessions. Most of the good work of a therapist in these situations is to help the parents understand the needs of their child and to offer parenting strategies to help the child through the divorce. The only exception to this is when dealing with a child from a high conflict divorce. Then, longer-term supportive therapy for the child, and co-parent counseling for the parents can be of much help.
By understanding how children of different ages typically respond to hearing of their parents’ divorce, parents will be better prepared and able to help them process this very significant event in their lives.