Relationships are never easy . Many times what seemed like it could last a lifetime stops working, making the decision to end the relationship.

Separation and/or divorce may or may not be a complicated process and cause profound suffering to one or both members of the couple. However, when the couple in question have children, it is necessary to take into account that it will also have an effect on their lives. It is essential for parents to deal with the issue with peace of mind and normalization of the situation so that they can process it. However, it should be borne in mind that a four-year-old child does not have the same cognitive capacity as a ten-year-old.

In this article we will look at how divorce can affect children according to their age or how it can be interpreted according to age. We’ll also see how this sensitive topic can be discussed with them.

Children in divorce

The divorce process can be complex for a child to understand . The child may not understand why his or her parents no longer want to be together when they always have been, or even think that he or she may have been at fault for his or her parents separating. Discussing the issue with them is essential.

No matter how old he is, he needs to know that the divorce is not something he is responsible for, that his doubts are resolved and that it is explained to him in a clear and appropriate manner. He should be allowed to be wrong and not criminalize his emotions about the situation, but limits and routines should not be removed. Likewise it is important not to try to turn him against the other parent , and unless there are reasons to do so to allow contact between the child and both parents.

It should be noted that the child may react by manifesting different emotions and thoughts, or it may be a shock that makes him/her initially unresponsive. The child may be slow to express pain, as he or she may enter a state of mourning and initially deny that the divorce is going to happen. It is important to try to live the process in a normal way and with as little stress as possible, because if the divorce is not well managed and treated at home it can generate frustration and anxiety. Eternating the proceedings or trying to pretend that nothing is happening can also prolong the situation and cause more suffering.

On the other hand, it must be understood that although the divorce of the parents is a painful event for the child , it does not necessarily mean that the child has some kind of subsequent trauma , especially considering that it is now common to see children with divorced or separated parents. In fact, it is more important to manage the fact and how it is represented and lived in the home than the fact of separation itself.

Psychological effects of parental separation on minors

The following is an indication of how divorce may be handled by children of different ages and some slight indications of how communication of the decision to divorce may be attempted.

1. Divorce in children under two years

When the divorce occurs at a time when the son or daughter is a baby, he or she does not have sufficient intellectual capacity to understand what is happening . However, the changes in the routines and emotional state of the parents can be captured, which can lead to fear, sadness, aggressiveness and crying.

The most important thing at this age is that the child does not perceive the separation as an abandonment by one of his or her parents, and it is necessary that both parents have access to the child often enough. The child can also be given an explanation of the situation, in simple and adjusted language.

2. When they are between two and three years old

It is at this stage of development that children begin to acquire speech and psychomotor skills, as well as several milestones in the acquisition of cognitive abilities. It is frequent that setbacks appear in the skills learned by the child as a result of stress, such as enuresis or encopresis. They tend to be more shy and have nightmares.

They also begin to be aware of their emotions but still do not know how to express them correctly. It is frequent that they feel abandoned, or that they fantasize about the return of their partner.

At this stage in his development it is useful to help him express his emotions s , to motivate him and to show him that both parents appreciate him. In spite of the situation, a certain routine should not be left out and the usual limits of behaviour should be maintained.

3. Between three and seven years

As children grow, so do their cognitive skills.

In this vital stage it is necessary to take into account that you are in a period in which your vision of the world starts with yourself, and in which there is often magical thinking.In other words, they are in an egocentric phase that may lead them to think that the break-up is their fault and in which they may also fear that they will cease to be loved. They often become extremely obedient and/or deny the break-up.

Therefore, at this stage of life, the divorce must be communicated in a comprehensible manner, as well as guaranteeing that you are loved and will not be abandoned and that you are not to blame for the separation.

4. Between the ages of seven and twelve

In this age, children have learned that there are different perspectives and feelings apart from their own and they understand that their parents may be suffering, which is why they may not communicate their thoughts to them. They may experience evident decreases in their school performance or behavioural problems such as fights with other students .

At this stage the child understands the situation, and it is of great importance to explain both the situation and the changes that will be brought about. However, they may still fantasize about possible reconciliation with their parents, in which case they may need to be made to understand that this will not happen.

5. Adolescents and their parents’ divorce

Once adolescence has arrived, the child will gradually build his or her identity and reach an ever greater understanding of situations. In the context of a badly handled divorce it is possible that one of the parents will be blamed , that they will experience even greater rebelliousness than usual in this vital stage, that they will resort to risky behaviour. They may also try to act as confidants or protect their parents.

The recommendation at this stage is to communicate the situation clearly and involve him in some aspects such as custody, as well as not assigning him roles that do not correspond to him and monitoring risk behaviour.

Bibliographic references:

  • Benedek, E.P. and Brown, C.F. (1999). How to help your children get through divorce. Spain: Ediciones Médicas.
  • Liberman, R. (1983). Children in the face of divorce. Barcelona: Hogar del libro.
  • Maganto, C. (1988). Marriage, separation, divorce and new couples. In: A. Espina (Ed.): Las relaciones familiares y su problemática. University of the Basque Country. Cuadernos de Extensión Universitaria. Editorial Service.
  • Mauldon, J. (1990) The Effect of Marital Disruption on Children’s Health. Demography; 27(3): 431-446.
  • Peterson, J.L. and Zill, Z. (1986). Marital disruption, parent-child relationships and behaviour problems in children. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 48, 295-307.