There is no doubt that divorce is difficult for children of any age. However, there is a tendency for younger children under the age of ten to react differently than adolescents. Adjusting to two households and accepting that their parents no longer want to be together is a major event in their lives. Regardless of how well the parents handle the divorce, the children’s lives will never be the same.
Adolescents Vs. Younger Children in a Divorce
Frequently, although not in every instance, children under the age of ten tend to become more insecure and dependent. Their development can become regressive and clingy. They understand that they are entirely dependent on their parents, and a split can crash their secure world into bits. Even toddlers know when something is wrong.
Teens, on the other hand, may pull away from their parents in a deliberate attempt at being more independent. They are already at an age where distancing themselves from their parents is the norm and expected. They are beginning to rely more on their peers and friends than their parents. Their world, by definition, is larger than the family unit. It is easier for them to accept a parental divorce
Prior to any mention of divorce, younger children reveled in the security of the family. It is their entire world. Now, they need to learn to function in two separate households, with perhaps different rules. Their life has shifted from safe and secure to unstable, unfamiliar, and uncertain.
Many young children have difficulty accepting the reality of divorce. They understand that there are problems, sure, but they can work hard at convincing themselves that mom and dad will get back together. Ironically, parents who strive for an amicable divorce and present as a unit for special holidays, outings, or school events for the sake of the younger children may be feeding into the children’s fantasy reunion. Parents need to be especially clear with them about the fact that while they still care for each other, there will be no reconciliation.
Adolescents are more independent than their younger siblings. They will be less concerned about who will feed them or pick them up from soccer practice. They can usually find a way. However, a divorce can fill younger children with a host of uncertainties. “Who will help with homework?” “What happens when I get sick?” “Do I still get my ice cream for dessert?” Children that age are by nature very self-oriented and are specifically worried about how the divorce affects them. It is important that both parents (preferably as a unit) answer a child’s questions and keep reassuring them that they will continue to be loved and be taken care of.
At this point, it is not unusual for younger children to regress in their behavior. They may begin to wet the bed again, throw tantrums, and become unable to care them themselves in fundamental ways. They are frightened and crying out for attention. This can be an awkward way to garnish parental concern in the hopes of making them forget about the divorce.
By way of contrast, teens are likely to become hyper-independent, channeling their anger and anxiety about the divorce into rebellious behavior. Since they believe the parents as being more concerned about themselves than they are about the children, teens see no reason to follow parental rules and edicts. Like their younger sibling’s bedwetting, they are signaling a need. For teens, however, it means disassociating themselves from the parental unit as much as possible. They are more angry than scared. They can easily adapt the motto, “I’ll do exactly what I want, when I want it, just like them. And they can’t stop me.” They punish the parents by acting up. They feel wronged and imagine themselves entitled to rebel. Parents need to be aware that their teens may be tempted to engage in dangerous behavior at this time.
What Can Parents Do to Help?
The more parents work together, the better the chances are that children of any age will survive the divorce intact. They need to understand that they are safe. Continuing old, familiar routines, such as weekend brunch or game night, even if only one parent is present, can help children adjust. For them, known rituals are important and comforting.
The children will be living in two homes. It is important for parents to create routines in both. Children tend to interpret routines as security. While this is happening, both parents need to continuously reassure younger children and teens that they are loved and still a part of a family.
Should Parents Remain Together for the Sake of Younger Children?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. Can the parents remain together and act in a civil manner toward each other? If so, perhaps staying married until the children are older makes sense. Their lives won’t change for the time being, which will be a huge positive for them. However, children are smarter than we give them credit for. They are remarkably adept at detecting a chill in the air. The parents are no longer touching. Everyone is being overly polite. The kids probably sense something is up. Be sure staying together is the right thing for them. If you decide to remain together for a while, ensure that your own misery does not affect their happiness. There are parents who can pull this off and are eventually glad to have delayed the divorce.
In the event parents are incapable of civil behavior, a divorce is best regardless of the children’s age. Loud, violent arguments, the tossing of objects, and chronic fighting and threats create a harmful environment. The children will not feel secure in their own home; they will be constantly under siege. And they will have difficulty establishing positive relationships in the future. Under these circumstances, the quicker a divorce happens, the better for everyone concerned. When there is violence in the home, a quick divorce will provide the children with needed security.
And the parents, together or separately, should see a counselor determine their need for conflict and inability to resolve problems in a constructive way.
There is no good age for children to undergo a parental divorce. What is important is that the parents work together to re-established a sense of security for their children.
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