We know little about the effects of divorce on children younger than two or three years of age. Young children do not always suffer if a divorce occurs. However, problems may occur if a close relationship or bond between a parent and child is broken. Parents should agree on parenting and childcare arrangements so the child does not grow up experiencing conflict between his or her parents.
Infants may not understand conflict, but may react to changes in parent’s energy level and mood. Infants may loose their appetite or have an upset stomach and spit up more.
Children from three to five years of age frequently believe they have caused their parents’ divorce. For example, they might think that if they had eaten their dinner or done their chores when told to do so, Daddy wouldn’t have gone away. Preschoolers may fear being left alone or abandoned altogether. They may show baby-like behavior, such as wanting their security blanket or old toys, or they begin wetting the bed. They may deny that anything has changed, or they may become uncooperative, depressed, or angry. Although they want the security of being near an adult, they may act disobedient and aggressive.
Some psychologists believe the adjustment to parental divorce is more difficult for elementary school children than for younger or older children. School-age children are old enough to understand that they are in pain because of their parents’ separation. They are too young, however, to understand or to control their reactions to this pain.
They may experience grief, embarrassment, resentment, divided loyalty and intense anger. Their ability to become actively involved in play and activities with other children may help them cope with their family life situation.
Children this age may hope parents will get back together. Elementary aged children may feel rejected by the parent who left. They may complain of headaches or stomachaches.
Teens also experience anger, fear, loneliness, depression and guilt. Some feel pushed into adulthood if they must take responsibility for many new chores or care of siblings. Teens may respond to parents’ low energy level and high stress level by trying to take control over the family. Others feel a loss of parental support in handling emerging sexual feelings. Teens also may doubt their own ability to get married or to stay married.
Teens may understand the causes leading to their parents’ separation. Their ability to remember the conflict and stress of the divorce may interfere with their ability to cope with the changes in their family. They may also feel pressure to “choose” one of their parents over the other, or to fault one parent over the other for the “cause” of the divorce.