This is intended to serve as a reference for you to consult to as you consider how your separation and divorce will affect your kids.
Ages 0-18 months
- Unlikely to be ready for overnight visits until they are at the tail end of this age range.
- Child should see both parents at least every other day.
- The goal for both parents is to build a trusting relationship with the child so the child feels safe and secure with either parent.
- It is important to minimize stress for the child. Even though they cannot communicate very well and may not understand what is going on they will be able to sense when their parents are fighting.
- Minimize drastic changes as much as possible. While one, or both parents, will be moving out keeping the same babysitter during the day will create some normalcy for the child.
- May be clingy to primary caregiver.
- Have familiar, favorite toys at both homes to help child adjust.
- Consider sending videos or video chatting with your child so they can see and hear you. If it is too difficult for child to see primary caregiver and not be with them then send a voice recording so they can hear your voice.
Ages 18 months – 3 years
- Child may regress in development.
- Will need frequent contact with both parents and lots of physical affection such as hugs.
- When one parent is absent the child may think parent has abandoned them or disappeared. Encourage their positive connection with other parent and reassure child they will see them again.
- Assure child you are capable for caring for all of their needs. Don’t forget to feed them.
Ages 3 – 5 years
- Bedtimes and mealtimes may cause distress for child because the absence of their other parent is felt strongly at these times. Consider developing predictable routines related to bedtime and mealtime to help them adjust.
- Prepare them for transitions so they are ready to go with the other parent.
- Child may think they are unloveable and that’s why the other parent has left. Assure them this is not the case and promote their positive self image.
- Set limits on bad behavior.
- May fantasize about a reunion between parents. Gently inform them that will not happen.
- May regress in their sleeping, talking, eating and toilet habits.
- May be more clingy to primary caregiver, aggressive and withdrawn.
- Be on time for all parenting exchanges, picking up from babysitter and school.
- Should see primary caregiver every 3 to 4 days.
- May be on best behavior for parent who left. Upon return to primary caregiver they may act out because they feel more secure. This is not an indication that one parent is better than the other or that the child likes one parent over the other.
Ages 6 – 8 years
- May be deeply saddened by the divorce. Needs to spend 1 on 1 time with each parent.
- Both parents need to stay involved in the child’s activities.
- Make it safe for them to talk about their feelings.
- May feel they have to choose one parent over the other. Do not encourage this.
- May feel they have to care for parent who is sad and will neglect themselves in order to do so.
- May have a difficult time enjoying themselves like they used to.
- May be more aggressive and angry.
- Child may be frightened to lose things that are important to them such as a favorite toy since they “lost” their parent.
- Post the parenting plan on the fridge so the child knows what to expect.
- Encourage their relationship with the other parent.
Ages 9 – 12 years
- Support the child’s relationship with their friends and encourage their increasing independence.
- Stay involved in their activities and know who their friends are.
- This age range goes through a lot of developmental changes and divorce may interfere with that.
- May have psychosomatic symptoms.
- May have intense anger or rage and take it out on the parent they feel is responsible for the divorce. Do not allow your child to hit you or bad mouth you. Continue to set limits on bad behavior.
- May pretend everything is okay and they are not bothered by the divorce. Be ready to support your child when the facade cracks.
- Listen to your child without judgment.
- Show child you and the other parent respect one another and can work together. Consistency between the two households is key.
- If child is have an extremely hard time adjusting be flexible with the parenting exchanges in the beginning but do not allow child to alienate their other parent.
Ages 13 – 18 years
- Child is coming of age during this time and there are important milestones approaching. Divorce threatens to overshadow this.
- Continue to ask questions about their life. Stay involved. Initiate communication. Child still needs parents but may not show it.
- Child may become more independent or less.
- May take on the role of the absent parent. Do not encourage this.
- Allow flexibility with parenting exchanges but do not allow child to alienate the other parent.
- May need to attend therapy. Take all threats of suicide seriously.
As time goes on your child will adjust to their new life. Continue to be their parent and not their friend. Make your home a safe place where they can be themselves and are loved unconditionally. Working together with your ex to help your children adjust will produce happy, secure adults.
- McGhee, Christina. Parenting Apart: How Separated and Divorce Parents Can Raise Happy and Secure Kids. New York, Berkley Books, 2010.
- McKnight, Marilyn. Mediating Divorce: A Step-by-Step Manual. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1999.