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Children's Reactions to Divorce -- Ages and Stages
Authors: Nithyakala Karuppaswamy with Judith A. Myers-Walls, Ph.D., CFLE

Children react to divorce differently at different ages. It is helpful for you as a childcare provider to know what thoughts and feelings to expect at different ages. This way you can change your behaviors to help children of different ages adjust to the divorce.


In the first years of life, children’s brains are still developing. Children are learning to trust and form close relationships with people who take care of them. If parents divorce during this time, infants will not understand what is going on. But they may notice changes in parents' energy level and emotions. Older infants will notice that one parent is no longer living in the home. They may cry for that parent. Infants may show their feelings through some changes in their behavior. They may become more irritable or fussy or cry more often. It may be hard for the parents to give the child what she needs because they are too upset.


Toddlers might be able to understand some of the words that people use when they talk about divorce. But it is difficult for toddlers to really understand divorce. Toddlers live in the present. To prepare them for a divorce is difficult, because they cannot understand the future. But they do understand that changes are happening in their life. They know that one parent is not living at home. Toddlers might show they are unhappy or upset about these changes by crying often or becoming cranky and fussy. They can pout. Or they can become aggressive with a parent or other children in the childcare setting. They may have trouble sleeping and may throw temper tantrums. Children do not feel guilt until around 3 ½ or 4 years, so toddlers probably will not blame themselves for their parents’ separation.

During a divorce everyone may be a bit confused. The toddler can notice this confusion. He might also notice that his parents pay him less attention, or that schedules have been changed. Toddlers can also start acting like younger children. A child who had begun to walk may go back to crawling. Children’s feelings can also show some changes. They may try to cling or cry when parents drop them off in childcare. Children who were comfortable and easy-going with you may now become cranky, anxious, and quiet. On the other hand, some children may also start staying close to adults rather than playing out in the yard with other kids. Their moods may change, swinging between fear and anger, or they may become shy and timid. They may also have nightmares and suck their thumbs. These are signs that the child is feeling upset.

Here are some things that childcare providers can do to help infants and toddlers during a time of divorce. You could share these suggestions with parents who are worried about the changes that they notice in their children.
     • Keep normal schedules and routines. Encourage parents to do the same at home. Try not to change any more things
       than necessary.
     • Reassure infants and toddlers. Let them know that you are still there. Use lots of hugs and loving words.
     • Keep children's favorite toys, blankets, or stuffed animals close at hand. If you do not allow children to bring items from
       home to the childcare setting, look for special toys at childcare. Find something that the child can hold for a long time.
     • Give children a little more time to say goodbye. Ask parents to spend more time when they drop the children off.
     • Be patient. Allow children to be upset. Let children be babyish for a while. The more advanced behavior should return
     • Find out what the children know about the divorce. Ask the parents what they have said. Ask what the parents would
       like you to say.
     • Ask the parents about their plans for schedules and living situations. Help the child understand what will change and
       what will not change.
     • Do not change the rules just because of the divorce. Discipline as you always would. The child needs guidelines.
     • Support parents during this transition time.

Preschool and early elementary children

Children from the age 3 to 10 will know that one parent no longer lives at home. Elementary school children begin to understand that divorce means that their parents will no longer be married and live together. They may understand that their parents no longer love each other. Children in this age group may blame themselves for the divorce. A child may think, “Mom and Dad are fighting because I was bad.” Children in this stage have a better understanding than younger children of how their lives will be different because of the parents’ divorce. They may worry about the changes in their daily lives. They may have nightmares. They may be sad because of the absence of one parent. Sometimes they may be angry with the parent who left. At other times, they may be angry with the parent who stayed. Preschoolers may be aggressive and angry toward one or both parents. Preschoolers and early elementary children also like to pretend. They might make up stories about how mom and dad are going to get back together.

As a childcare provider, there are steps you can take to help children. However, remember to check with the parents before you do anything to help the children. It is important that your words and actions fit with those of the parents. This way the child will not get clashing information and become confused.

What can childcare providers do for preschool and early elementary children?
     • Tell children that they are not responsible for the divorce. You may need to say it many times.
     • Explain who will take care of the children and what changes will happen.
     • Talk with children about their thoughts and feelings; be sensitive to children's fears.
     • Help both parents be involved in the childcare, if possible.
     • Do not take sides. Help the child feel good about both parents as much as possible.
     • Read books together about children and divorce.
     • Gently remind children that the divorce is final and that parents will not get back together again.

 How children experience divorce

Go to:  • Stages of adjustment to divorce
           • The effect of divorce on children: What makes a difference
           • Explaining divorce to children
           • Providers talking with parents about divorce
           • Visitation do's and don’ts
           • Does the child need counseling?
           • Resources

For more information, contact Judith A. Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE at

Please feel free to link to, print off, redistribute, or reprint
  any of these materials as long as the original credits remain intact.

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