When Divorce Happens to Young Children

Little ones under five years of age have a way of expressing their emotional worlds that is paradoxically simple and intricate.  When it comes to their experience of divorce and their parents’ separation, they express their internal worlds in ways that all parents separating or divorcing need to keep in mind.

What do they really understand?

Most parents hope that their small children are really not aware of what is happening around them.  The number one question in my office is often “but do they really understand?”  The answer is “yes” and the scary part is that they understand with 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5-year-old information.  Studies show that infants younger than 6 months can usually notice there is conflict and marital strife (Medina, 2010).  The infants feel the conflict physiologically, with blood pressure changes and stress hormones flooding their brain.  These studies report that you can see these effects in a simple urine sample.  For the older ones,1-5, there is a spike in the stress hormones in their brain and that causes many little ones dealing with divorce to have a higher fight, flight, freeze response. In this age group it looks like challenging and impulsive behavior as well as difficulty in learning at school.  They may not understand the ambiguity of fights or quick sarcastic remarks, but they feel the negative energy between the adults, just like an adult would feel the unspoken tension of two people who cannot stand each other.  The antidote is to speak openly about the shifts and to explain the fights in an age appropriate manner (e.g.  Mommy and Daddy were mean to each other and it scared you; we are working on speaking kindly to each other).

When mommy & daddy fight.

Young children under 5 are highly disrupted when there is strife and conflict in their parents’ marriage.  Children, between 6 months -4.5 yrs. old tend to understand cause/effect and the world around them as how “they” make things happen.  So if the little one is playing with a car and it falls and then they hear mom/dad fighting, they make the quick assumption that dropping that toy car caused mom/dad to fight.  They take on the responsibility for the actions of those around them.  From the standpoint of attachment, consider that a child looks to the parents, the parents’ emotional state, and the parents’ verbal/non-verbal communication for his sense of safety.  If the parents are fighting and have lost control and the child is nearby, when they look to the parents for their “safety” information, the message to them is “you are not safe.”  Although divorce is always a difficult choice when there are young children in the home, sometimes the option of separating or divorcing is what is best for your children.

Finding control in all the wrong places.

Young children show their distress and/or “negative” emotion overtly sometimes and subtly, other times.  In the case of a child dealing with the early separation of the parents, he/she may become obsessed with an object, a particular type of shoe, for example.  In general, it is usually one that cannot be worn on all occasions.  They may tantrum for the shoes and talk about the shoes, but what they are really doing is expressing a sense of control over something they can control.  Just like an adult, the child needs to be prompted to recognize that it is not the shoe that they need so desperately; it is that they miss their mommy/daddy that is not always with them anymore.  They need it explained to them that it does feel “yucky” to not have control of when or how to see mom/dad. The difficulty in this is that the person that needs to have the conversation with the little one is mom and/or dad.  In the midst of the process of divorce, speaking to your little one about missing the other parent can be difficult, but very important.

I hate you mommy, no, I hate you daddy.

Young children are prone to ask for the parent who is not with them in times of distress, frustration or conflict with the caregiver; this is due to their uncanny expertise at problem solving.  I hear it in my office often that the child was “mean” or “rude” and was “pushing them away” asking for the other parent.  Some parents worry that the other parent is “turning their child against them.” The truth is that this interchange is the child problem solving on how to stop feeling a negative emotion. Their best solution is to go to the other parent who is currently not setting a boundary about something they truly want.  It is important in the case of separation and divorce that both parents find a way to agree on consistent rules and boundaries for the little one, which will decrease these types of exchanges.  It is also important to keep in mind that for children, their parents are their number one source of love, approval, and information.  No matter how poorly the adult/parent is treating them they will always return and figure out how to remain in relationship with their parents.  Believing that the little person does not love one of you anymore is far from the truth and highly unlikely.  

If you left them, then you will leave me.

Anxiety is the number one result for young children who have gone through divorce but have not been supported appropriately.  Since children in this age group are prone to attempt to problem solve, to make sense of their surroundings by experimentation and to decipher cause and effect, they tend to personalize the loss of the parent.  What that means is that they make the assumption that if mom/dad left each other, then there is a high probability that they will leave them as well.  A child in this age group will rarely openly speak about this fear.  They instead will play out games of good and evil.  They will tell stories like wild animals coming to their home to take them, mom, or dad away.  Or they might begin to misbehave at school or with other caregivers in the hopes that mom/dad will come and save them.  The most important way to support a child’s anxiety is to tell them exactly what will happen (e.g. mommy and daddy will live in different homes. You will visit daddy on Saturday, and daddy will take you to preschool every morning) and repeatedly remind them that adults can get mad at one another and stop being with one another, but mommies and daddies never leave their children.

Divorce does not have to hurt your children. Take these precautions and they will be resilient.