Divorce and Separation: What is best for my child?
At almost every stage of their development, the most important thing for a child to know is that they are not to blame for their parents’ divorce or separation. This can be expressed in words, but must also be communicated in parents’ actions. A second consistent need for children of all ages but particularly for younger children is predictability, routine and structure.
Key features for each age-group:
From birth to 1 years old: Children learn to bond with one or both of their parents. They need to learn to form healthy attachments and experience stable and secure relationships. Children of this age will show distress by crying excessively, by having feeding or sleeping problems or by being withdrawn, irritable and depressed.
1 to 3 years old: During the toddler years children start to use language, begin to explore the outside world and start to want to exercise control over what happens to them. Often they can’t remember people who they don’t see often. They need to know that a loving parent is available to them and they thrive on security, love, and flexibility. A distressed child of this age may be withdrawn or clingy or may change his eating or toilet habits. Crying that lasts for more than twenty minutes is an indicator of distress. Extreme distress may result in developmental delay.
3 – 5 years old: Between 3 and 5 children start to engage more with the outer world and start to form their first friendships with other children. They begin to understand why their parents set limits or make rules. They become better at remembering people who they do not see all the time. They need consistent discipline. They need to be free from direct parental conflict. Many may benefit from spending time with each parent separately. Distressed children of these ages may regress in toileting, sleeping and eating. They may be irritable and clingy or show signs of anger or behavioural problems.
5 – 8 years old: At this age children begin to differentiate more between fantasy and reality. They start to notice gender difference and their relationships with other people start to deepen. They also develop a strong sense of fairness. It is important at this age to maintain structured and consistent time with each parent. Parents should also support their school and extracurricular activities and their expanding friendships and interests. A child this age who is distressed may complain of constant headaches, tummy aches etc. They may have trouble sleeping. They may wet the bed or use baby talk. They may begin to start to blame one or other of their parents for the separation.
9 – 12 years old: Children need to develop self-esteem and feel good about their friends and their physical development. They start to form their own values and test those of people around them. Their peer group becomes more important to them. They need to know that parents are there to give support when they need it. They need to know it is OK to love both of their parents even if they are not together, and they need to be able to communicate with their parents about their feelings. A child of this age who is distressed may withdraw from their friends and from social activities. Some compensate for distress by becoming ‘too good’. Others manifest rebellious behaviour or depression.
Adolescence: Teenagers being to develop greater independence from their families. Their sense of morality may strengthen. In forming their own identities they may need to express resistance and disapproval of those around them. (Just like the two year olds who need to say No a lot). They can be naturally self-centred. They want to be treated with flexibility and understanding. They may want a greater say in how parental contact is structured. They need positive role models. They need to be given consistent boundaries. Distress can be expressed by excessive anger, negativity and isolation. Others may try to be ‘perfect’. Some find school or friendships difficult. They may experiment with alcohol, drugs and sexual promiscuity.