How children react at different ages and stages

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Every child is unique and will react to separation or divorce differently. How your child reacts can depend on:

Research tells us that a child's age and stage of development is an important factor in how they react to their parents' separation or divorce. This section provides some information about how children may react at different ages and stages.

You will also find information about how children handle separation and divorce at different ages and stages, in Because Life Goes On ... Helping Children and Youth Live with Separation and Divorce.

Key factors for all ages

No matter your children's ages, though, there are three things that are important for them:

Try to find effective ways to communicate with the other parent about what is going on in your children's life. For example, you may try to communicate through conversations or e-mail. Effective communication can help make sure that your children don't "play" one of you off the other. In addition, because of the challenges facing teenagers, it is particularly important to be aware of what is going on in their lives.

You may have questions about your children's reaction to your separation or divorce. You or your children may find it helpful to speak to a counsellor, elder or religious advisor. This can help you to decide if there are any big issues you should be worried about, and if you need to get your children extra help.

Infants and Toddlers: Birth to age 2

At this age your child depends on you for their physical and emotional needs. Your child's attachment to caregivers and other significant people in their life is important to their healthy emotional and psychological development.

Infants and toddlers have a limited understanding of their world. They will not understand that you're separating or divorcing. But they will feel it when you're upset or in conflict, and they will react to this. Their early experiences can influence them later in life.

Infants and toddlers need predictable caregiving and routines. They need nurturing and emotional connections with you and other caregivers. Routines may not be exactly the same in each home, but the more predictability there is for children, the easier things will be for them.

What you should watch for in your infant or toddler:

How to help your infant or toddler:

Preschoolers: Ages 3 to 5

At this age, your child is growing very quickly both physically and emotionally. But they may not yet understand separation or divorce.

Children at this age see themselves as the "center" of the universe. They believe that they have control over, or are the cause of, what happens around them. Because of this, they may believe that the separation or divorce is their fault. They may believe they caused their parent's sadness.

At this age, children begin to develop a separate relationship with each of their parents.

Preschoolers can't always tell the difference between what's real and what's imaginary. So, they can be confused about what is happening. They may believe that Mom or Dad is leaving them.

At this stage, children can generally deal with more changes to their physical and social environment than infants, but they still need predictability.

What to watch for in your pre-schooler:

How to help your pre-schooler:

School-age children: Ages 6 to 8

At this age, your child is beginning to expand their social network outside the family. Your child may feel guilty because they think they caused the separation or divorce. They may tend to take one parent's side over the other. Developmentally it is difficult for them to see more than one perspective at a time. They may also fear losing their relationship with one of their parents.

Children at this age can think more abstractly. They may feel sad and worry about the future. They may wonder where they will live, who will take care of them, and what their place in the family will be. They may also have fantasies about their parents getting back together.

What to watch for in your school-age child:

How to help your school-age child:

Pre-teens: Ages 9 to 12

Your pre-teen is becoming more independent. They are focusing more on their friends and the world outside their family. But they still need their family for emotional support and guidance.

Pre-teens are able to see the separation or divorce as an adult issue, but they may still be angry with their parents. They often see the world in absolutes — black or white, good or bad, right or wrong.

Pre-teens may react in different ways. They may:

Pre-teens want to be treated like adults. When you're going through a stressful time, you may be tempted to treat your child as your friend and rely on them for support. While pre-teens may want to play this role, it's not appropriate for them to take on this level of responsibility. In the long term, this can cause them emotional problems.

What to watch for in your pre-teen:

How to help your pre-teen:

Teenagers: Ages 13 to 19

Your teenager is becoming more independent. They identify more with their peers. They're forming an identity that is separate from their family. The teen years can also be confusing for them as they adapt to physical and social changes. They need lots of emotional support from their family.

Teenagers may feel a range of emotions about the separation and divorce. They may be surprised that it's actually happening or they may feel angry that their parents "couldn't try harder."

Some teenagers may be in their first dating relationship. If not, they may be thinking more about dating. Their parents' separation or divorce may cause them worry or anxiety. They may be wondering if:

If your teenager already has a difficult relationship with you or the other parent, it's possible that the separation or divorce can make the conflict worse.

Your teenager may have very concrete worries about how the separation or divorce will affect them. They may wonder how much support, including financial support, you'll be able to offer. They may wonder how their schedule will change. Friendships are important to them, so they may worry they will have to change schools. They may also worry that they won't have much time for friends or activities.

It's really important to listen to your teenager's views about new schedules. But don't put them in the middle of any conflict between you and the other parent about this or any other issue.

What to watch for in your teenager:

How to help your teenager: