State University Extension Service
FS-442 (Revised), May 1995
4-H Youth Development Specialist
Parent Line Program Specialist
Reprinted with Permission under Creative
Divorce is a Form of Change
Divorce is not the end of a family but a
transition to a new form of the family. This transition is usually painful for
family members. The distress of the adults can interfere with their ability to
respond to their children and their children's needs. However, parents can find
ways to help themselves and their children through this difficult transition.
Explaining the Divorce
When do we tell the children about the
As soon as you think divorce is inevitable,
tell them. Don't be surprised if they already know. In the case of a separation,
the children should be told at or about the time it occurs. The key is honesty.
Don't hold out false hopes that the marital relationship will continue if it's
obvious it will not. Don't blame your spouse for everything, and make it clear
that the separation is in no way the children's fault. Children frequently blame
themselves for their parents' marital problems.
Don't hesitate to get advice from a therapist.
Take advantage of the guidance available for you and your children during a time
when you both may need it.
How do we tell the children?
- Keep the explanation simple and straightforward.
- Have both parents tell their children at the same
time to avoid looking as if one parent is responsible.
- Don't dramatize or become sentimental.
- Avoid an air of remorse or devastation.
- Reassure the children that you both love them.
- Let them know with whom and where they will live if
that's decided. If it isn't, both of you should encourage them to express
what they want while making it clear they will not have the burden of
choosing or rejecting a parent.
- Don't make promises or hold out false hopes of
- If there's likely to be a contest over custody or
grounds, assure the children they will not have to be involved in the court
proceedings -- if that is the case. Children tend to be apprehensive about
appearing in court and speaking against a parent in public.
- Don't in any way encourage children to take sides.
Eventually you will have an ex-wife or ex-husband, but your children will
not have an ex-mother or ex-father.
- Assure the children that both of you will always be
there when you're needed -- if that is the truth.
- Get professional help for any child who appears
unable to cope with the situation.
Ages and Stages
Children grieve over the loss of a parent in
the home. They frequently exhibit behaviors from an earlier stage of development
in times of stress.
Infant to Age 2
- Irritability or hyperactivity
- Sleeping difficulties
- Dreams become nightmares
- Food refusal
- Digestive upsets
- Dull and unresponsive
- Begins to mimic the negative or sad voice tone of
How Parents Can Help
- Have parents visit the children rather than having
- the children move from place to place.
- Keep the relationship with custodial parent,
grandparents and caregivers as consistent as possible.
- Supply as much hugging, cuddling and lap-time as
- Provide consistency.
Ages 3 to 5
- Fear abandonment or separation
- Fear being alone
- Fear parents will stop loving them because they no
longer love one another
- Regress back to behavior from an earlier stage of
development like bed wetting, thumb sucking or baby talk
- Fantasize about parents reuniting
- Continue to include Mom and Dad in playing house
- Misbehave more
- May act out aggression on dolls or toys
- May act out angry feelings toward custodial parent
- Blame themselves for parent leaving
- Need parental attention/support
- Decreased ability to learn or remember
- Difficulty staying on task
- May experience problems with sexual identity if
same-sex parent is the absent parent
- Possible withdrawal.
How Parents Can Help
- Provide constant reassurance that the children are
- Give reassurance that the children will still see
the other parent if this indeed will happen.
- Reassure children that they were not responsible
for the divorce.
- Admit the pain of the divorce to the children,
explaining that the two of you are sorry you cannot work things out.
- Explain specifically what lies ahead for children
regarding living arrangements, visitation and other situations. Calendars
- Keep the day-to-day life as consistent as possible.
- Stop hurtful physical and verbal actions towards
self and others.
- Provide listening support and substitute activities
- Keep involved as a parent by separating
post-marital tension from parenting issues.
- Keep children involved with the same-gender parent.
If that parent is not available, use other resources such as child care
providers, Big Brother/Sister programs, relatives.
- Avoid negative comments about the other parent.
Children are a part of both parents.
- Absolutely do not communicate with the other parent
through the children. If parents cannot speak appropriately to one another
by phone or face to face, utilize a mediator or send notes and letters.
- Never ask children to report on the other parent's
- Talk with other parents struggling with the same
Brown, K., & Brown, M. (1986). Dinosaur's
Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press. Uses
cartoon characters to help children understand difficult concepts and
definitions related to divorce. Ages 4 and up.
Prokop, M.S. (1986). Divorce Happens to the
Nicest Kids. Warren, OH: Alegra House. A self-help book for children ages 3
to 15 and adults.
Ages 6 to 8
- Sex-role identity difficulties if lack of contact
with same-sex parent
- May idealize the absent parent
- Often more aggression and anger shown toward mother
if she is custodial parent
- Feel betrayed by parents
- Attempt to take on role of protector, often
destroying any normal routine
- Nightmares of violence and disaster
- Break into tears easily
- Separation anxiety reappears
- Feeling of "what are we going to do" panic may
result in severely disorganized behavior
- Cannot use fantasy to deny as preschoolers can, yet
not mature enough to understand the grief process
- Difficulty letting go and grieving
- Easily distracted, difficulty focusing on work or
- Feel parent took an active and deliberate role in
- Feel unloved, and may make up stories about the
- Lonely for one parent when staying with the other
- May complain of stomachaches or headaches
- Claim all is well, deny any discomfort or sadness
- May develop long-term unhealthy coping patterns
such as lying, stealing or aggression
- Demand more to compensate for having less, even to
the point of stealing
- Struggle with pressure to support one parent or the
- May attempt to connect mother with new partner
- Strong desire to reunite parents.
How Parents Can Help
- Don't suggest to children that they need to be "the
head of the house" or "homemaker" now. They often take this quite literally.
Oftentimes in divorced families, children become "parentified."
- Explain reasons for the divorce in terms they will
- Accept the children's feelings as natural without
trying to change them.
Alika (1986). Feelings. New York:
Mulberry Books. Ages 6 to 12.
Heegaard, M. (1991). When Mom and Dad
Separate. Minneapolis: Woodland Press. Ages 6 to 12. A book for children to
Ages 9 to 12
- Loyal to both parents
- Actively angry, highly expressive
- Use anger as a defense against hurt, depression and
- Puberty begins and is sometimes difficult,
especially without a same-sex parent available
- Often appear more "together" even if struggling
- See parents as violating rules they have been
- Feel lied to
- Attempt to get back at the parent they hold
responsible for the divorce
- Manipulative behaviors including "games" between
- Ashamed of what is happening to their family
- Emphasize peers and what they think are important
- Confused trying to understand who they are and
where they fit
- May often cover up with negative coping behaviors
- Headaches or stomachaches common when parents are
in conflict with each other
- Often choose sides on issues with one parent.
How Parents Can Help
- Don't select children as allies against the other
- Stress positive points about the other parent to
the children, especially at this stage when children tend to base their
self-concept on their parents' perceptions of them.
- Be particularly cautious of statements made about
similarities in appearance to the other parent.
- Provide firm, consistent parenting.
- Accept children's feelings even though it may be
hard. They need to see, hear and feel love.
- Help children maintain a relationship with the
same-sex parent, especially now during puberty.
- Normalize children's activities as much as possible
by involving them in healthy ventures.
- Help children understand they do belong and they
are important members of the family.
- Schedule alone time with children for each parent
unless any danger such as abuse is involved.
Blume, J. (1979). It's Not the End of the
World. New York: Bantam Books. Older elementary school through teens.
Krementz, J. (1984). How it Feels When
Parents Divorce. New York: Knopf. Children's feelings expressed in their own
words. Older elementary and up.
Ages 13 to 18
- Anger at parents for divorcing, may be turned
against people or things
- Relationship with parents may be more distant as
they become more independent
- May blame parent they hold responsible for the
- May criticize parents and vow not to make the same
- May be responsible for younger children
- Difficulty in choosing sides on issues regarding
- May appear more mature than they are at this age
- May choose to avoid conflict in the family by
leaving either physically or emotionally
- At a greater suicide risk; may become withdrawn,
depressed and isolated
- May get involved in alcohol, other drugs or
inappropriate sexual activity to escape pain
- Can make decisions that will alter their lives in
dramatic ways positively or negatively
- May begin to get involved in older-than-their-age
activities, take on more than they can handle
- May regress back to childish behaviors becoming
- Often not sure where to go when they are "going
home" to visit, particularly for children in families that have moved
- Difficulty witnessing a parent dating again
- Exploring own sexual issues, makes it difficult to
see parents expressing affection to new partners
- May wonder about their ability to follow through
with a relationship when parents failed
- May actually feel relieved that the constant
conflict is over when the parents separate, particularly if violence was an
How Parents Can Help
- Be honest with teens to avoid any distrust.
- Empower teens through negotiation.
- Avoid any critical comment of the other parent.
- Allow teens to make their own determination of the
- Provide consistent rules and guidelines from both
- Maintain stability. Avoid enormous change if
- Talk about teens' fears of being abandoned.
- Enter teens in supportive counseling if necessary.
- Avoid seeing teens as the problem.
- Avoid overburdening teens with parental
Gilbert, S. (1982). How to Live with a
Single Parent. Silver Spring, MD: New Beginnings, Inc. For young adults and
Brogan, H., & Maiden, U. (1986). The Kids'
Guide to Divorce. New York: Fawcett Crest Publishing. Preteens and teens.
The bottom line is that divorce is very hard
for children. But if parents work through divorce together in a reasonable,
amicable way and focus on the needs of their children, they can minimize the
negative effects and help their children to be healthy people.
Recommended Reading for Adults
Kalter, N. (1990). Growing Up With Divorce.
New York: Fawcett Columbine. Detail on behaviors at different age levels and how
Garon, R., & Mandell, B. (1985). Talking to
Children About Separation and Divorce. Columbia, MD: The Family Life Center,
Adapted from the following sources:
Abelson, D. (1983). Dealing with the Abdication
Dynamic in the Post Divorce Family: A Context for Adolescent Crisis. Family
Process, 22, 359-383.
Francke, L.P. (1983). Growing Up Divorced.
New York: Lincoln Press/Simon and Schuster.
Friedman, J.T. (1984). The Divorce Handbook.
New York: Random House.
Hetherington, E.M. (1979). Divorce: A Child's
Perspective. American Psychologist, 34(10), 851-858.
Michelle, A.K. (1983). Adolescent Experiences
of Parental Separation and Divorce. Journal of Adolescence, 6(2),
Wallerstein, J.S., & Blakeslee, S. (1990).
Second Chances: Men, Women and Children a Decade After Divorce. New York:
Ticknor and Fields.
Wallerstein, J.S., & Kelly, J. (1980).
Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce. New York:
Basic Books, Inc.
FS-442 (Revised), May 1995
NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State
University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of
Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota.
Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914.
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One of the things I have
learned from adult children of divorce is that parents often fail to explain the
breakup. From the child's point of view, the divorce struck like lightning from
a clear blue sky. It was an unforgettable shock that blew the family to pieces.
Judith S. Wallerstein
Susan K. Smith
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