Kids and Divorce : An Age By Age Guide To Help Parents

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While parents divorce, the parent- child relationship is forever


I have been working with two families going through the process of divorcing and what has struck me is how the news that Mummy & Daddy are separating can vary depending on the age of the children.

How the news hits a 3 year old is very different to how an 11 year old understands the news.

The thoughtful, considerate and loving parents of the 3 year old sat their toddler down to tell her about their upcoming divorce. Carefully and gently, they told her that Mummy and Daddy were going to stop living together and would now live in different houses, but she would still see both of them regularly. They finished with the most important point of all, that she was not to blame and that Mummy and Daddy both still loved her and always would no matter what, and then they paused and asked if she had any questions.

The three year old sat in silence, looked horrified and her bottom lip began to quiver and then she sobbed, “But who’s going to look after me?”

I think this anecdote provides an insight into the differences in perception between a parent and a child in their experience of what divorce means.

These lovely parents had done all the right things. They’d sought professional advice, and had sat down together as we worked out what they were going to say, how they were going to say it and when they were going to say it, and tried to give their daughter the essential information without overwhelming her. Yet they failed to get across this key point, which may have seemed obvious to them, but wasn’t to her.

It taught us all a lot.

Parents naturally see divorce as the complex, challenging and life changing situation that it is. Young children tend to view it in concrete and self-centred terms. Big-picture reassurances will mean little to a child who is wondering, “Where will my hamster live?” “Will I still play with Emily?” “Will Grandad still pick me up on Thursdays to take me to the park?’

Understanding where your children are developmentally, can help you, to help them, adjust to the reality of the changes that divorce will bring.


0 to 5 years: Key developmental issues

Babies and toddlers
• have total dependence on you as parents

• they have no ability to understand the complex events, or to anticipate future situations or understand their feelings

So your ability to remain calm, relaxed and positive will be picked up unconsciously by your baby and they will take their lead from you about how you are coping.

3-4 year olds

• are beginning to develop independence, but they are still highly dependent on you.

• have limited ability to understand cause and effect; they are still unable to think ahead, understand time or understand what may happen in the future.

• they think that the world revolves around them as they are still highly egocentric and self centred, which is perfectly normal.

• the lines between fantasy and reality is sometimes a bit fuzzy and unclear so they will find what’s happening confusing.

• have some ability to think about their feelings, but they have limited ability and vocabulary to talk about them

So keep things simple.


What you need to watch out for:

Signs of distress in preschool aged children  often include fear, anger or emotional instability, which may express itself in clinginess, anxiety, whining or general irritability. Preschool children may also take a temporary step backwards in their development: for example they may become more babyish, start sucking their thumb or need their Teddy more often, or little ones that were sleeping through the night might start waking up more often, for example.

With their limited cognitive ability, three- and four-year-olds don’t really understand the consequences and repercussions of what a divorce means in their lives. For example if Daddy’s the one who leaves the family home, they might think, ‘Daddy left me,’ rather than ‘Daddy left Mummy. So young children need to understand that the decision to live apart is an adult decision and not their fault and while things will change the security and love they feel by both parents will help them through the transition of change until things settle down.

Your main things to be aware of at this age and stage is to be consistent and nurturing and to give your child the security of hugs and love which will give your child a sense of stability and reassurance.

So as much as possible, little ones need you both to stick to their normal routines of meal times, play times, bath time and bed as they thrive on routine and consistency. This, of course, is important to all children, but especially after divorce. If things aren’t going well at home, preteens and teenagers can escape by going to hang out with their friends but babies, toddlers and preschool aged children can’t !

I believe if you are relaxed and positive ( despite this being a major life change) then your child takes their lead from you and they feel more relaxed and positive too.

Preschool children need simple, concrete explanations. Stick to the basics: which parent will be moving out, where your child will live, who will look after them and how often they’ll see their other parent.

Be prepared for questions; and provide short answers, then wait to see if there are any more questions. Don’t expect one conversation to do the job; plan on several short talks. Keep it simple.


6 to 11 years: Key developmental issues

6- to 8-year-olds
• have a growing ability to think and express their feelings more so listen, more than you talk.

• they will have a broader, less egocentric view of what’s going on around them, but they will still be limited in their understanding of complex circumstances such as divorce – so keep it simple and straightforward.

• they will be developing more relationships outside of the family home (friends, school, & clubs) and will be beginning see the world as a bigger place.

So find time to have informal, little chats with them and read books and stories around the topic of divorce to open up the conversation if they want to talk.

9- to 11-year-olds
• they are developing the ability to understand and think and talk about their feelings and their circumstances related to the changes during the divorce

• relationships outside the family (friends, teachers, ) are developing and they understand more about what’s happening between you.

• tend to see things in black and white; and they may begin to blame one of you for the split – but they will take their lead from what you say so be mindful and careful about what messages you are giving them. Don’t blame, judge or criticise their other parent as it damages their confidence, self esteem and sense of who they are – as they are half of Mum/Dad.

8 year old Rosie asked her Dad ‘Why are you fighting? Is it because Mummy deleted something from your iPad ?’ Ross asked ‘Are you splitting up because I was naughty at bedtimes and kept coming into your bed?’ Both children were trying to make sense of their circumstances but they couldn’t fully understand the whole picture.

What to watch for:

School-aged children often show their distress as fear, anxiety, anger or sadness, and some display very clear signs that they are missing their absent parent. Lots of children, of all ages hold dreams & fantasies about their parents getting back together and wonder what they can do to make that happen. Children who think that they might be able to bring their parents back together, or that they somehow contributed to the divorce, will have trouble getting on with their own healing process. So they need to understand that they are not to blame and that they don’t need to feel responsible for what’s happened and gently to understand that this is a permanent change.

Your priorities:

Provide stability as much as possible and routines as they are still important. Kids at the upper end of this age range are more able to talk about what they’re feeling. However, just because they can doesn’t mean they’ll want to.

So be mindful of talking when they want to talk – not when you want to !

Stop what you are doing, stop peeling the potatoes, put down that newspaper and turn off the TV and give your child your full attention.

Approaching the topic indirectly can also help your child start by reading a book around the subject ( I’ve suggested a few good books at the bottom) or by simply saying, “Some children feel sad, afraid or even angry when their parents divorce,” is less threatening than asking directly, “Are you feeling sad?” Books about divorce can also help kids focus on their feelings.

12 to 14: Key developmental issues

• older children have a greater capacity to understand issues related to divorce depending also on their maturity.

• they have the ability to take part in discussions and ask questions to increase their understanding

• they are also beginning to what more for independence & naturally also start to question your parental authority so add the anger, confusion and instability to the mix and you may find you have a volatile teen on your hands.

• also at this age relationships outside the family increasingly important and friends take on a much bigger importance in your child’s life.

What to watch for:

Irritability and anger are common, at both parents or the one who moved out. It can be hard to gauge how much of a young teen’s moodiness, sullenness or emotional changes are related to the divorce. So stay grounded, calm, open to conversations and try not to become overwhelmed with The Big G of Guilt.

Parental priorities:

Keep the lines of communication open – build bridges, not walls between you as that decreases the chances that emotional problems slip under the radar and escalate. Children in this age group can be a bit harder to reach, and sometimes they act as if they don’t want to be reached, or that they don’t care. But most teens and preteens still need and crave connection with you. In fact they may well be testing you to see how much you love them – so reach out don’t back off.

15-18 Key developmental issues

  • conflict over what they want for themselves and others.
  • they may feel torn between you both as parents.
  • they are most likely to feel anger – usually directed at one parent or the other for messing up their life.
  • they may feel ashamed or embarrassed about the divorce. Any public display of parental disagreement is extremely uncomfortable for children at this age.
  • they often worry about you and feel tremendous responsibility for your well-being.

The main developmental task for teenagers is getting themselves ready to leave home and live responsibly on their own. While they may function and act like adults in many ways, they are not yet fully fledged mature adults. There are still some developmental milestones to be met in their emotional and moral development. So be patient as it may feel like one step forward and 3 steps back some days.

Teenagers are often not able to look realistically at the future. They lack real-world experience and may still believe that bad things only happen to other people.

What Teenagers Experience in Divorce

  • they may feel anxiety about leaving home.
  • they may feel responsible for the divorce.
  • they may believe that the parent who has moved away no longer loves them.
  • they may worry about their plans for the future and have concern that there isn’t enough money now, due the separation, to carry them out.
  • they may feel rejected or neglected or sidelined.
  • they may feel frightened or burdened by a parent’s neediness, confusion, anger or distress.
  • They may resent you as parents for messing up their life. They are also likely to feel embarrassed or ashamed about the divorce.



How to Recognise Signs of Distress

  • leaving home earlier than planned.
  • talking of delaying their own plans so they can be at home to help out or to look after you
  • fear about leaving home because there will be no home to come back to.
  • being extremely negative and/or critical of one or both parents.
  • increased aggression.
  • watch out for alcohol or drug abuse, suspension from school, getting into fights, running away from home, sudden drop in school performance, withdrawal from activities and friends, self-injuring behaviour, getting into trouble with the law.


What You Can Do to Help

  • Be a positive model for your children how to take care of yourself and deal with your feelings.
  • Offer love, encouragement and support.
  • Remember to stay in the role of parent even when it may be tempting to be a friend to your teen. Your kids may have many friends but they only need two parents and your child still needs you to be their parent. State your expectations clearly and set consistent boundaries with consequences.
  • Encourage your teenager to continue having plans for their life. Don’t encourage or allow them to postpone their plans because of you or what’s happened.
  • Be discreet about your sexual activities as it’s important to be the kind of role model that teaches your kids responsible sexual behaviour.



  • Give your teen your verbal and emotional permission to know and love their other parent. Encourage them to spend time with their other parent. You may have split up but family relationships are forever.
  • Tell your teenager often that you love them and ruffle their hair, give them a hug and show affection, They may pretend to not like it but physical love is important – no matter how old your teenager is.
  • Allow your teenager to have an opinion about the co-parenting timetable and be prepared to make some changes in the schedule as your child becomes older and more independent. This is especially relevant if you have had a parenting plan in place for several years. Remember things change !
  • Don’t take it personally if your teen chooses to spend more time with their other parent. In this developmental stage it isn’t unusual for kids to want to spend more time with their same-sex parent.
  • If you are the parent who has moved out of the house, remain involved as a parent. Make efforts to stay in touch with your teen through phone calls, e-mail, attending their assorted functions, and getting together for meals.


Keep in mind that the signs of distress listed for each of these developmental stages are based on what the research says about the average child of each particular age. Your child may experience your divorce quite differently. As always, rely on what you know to be true about your own child. Use this information about child development simply as a guide as you know your child better than anyone else.

Also keep in mind that it is very likely that your children will have questions about and reactions to your divorce with each developmental stage that they enter. Moving from one stage to the next often brings questions. That means you are probably going to have many conversations with your child about your divorce over the course of your child’s life.



What to watch for:

Sullenness, anxiety, hiding in their rooms for long periods of time, anger, outbursts, not eating. Find a time to chat about how they are feeling that doesn’t appear forced or too contrived, perhaps when you are both in the car, or walking the dog keep the pressure to talk off and allow conversations can flow more easily. Listen more than you talk.

Be ready for opinions, judgements and confrontation but make sure your children know that you love them and whilst you have split up from their Mum or Dad you both love them unconditionally and they were not too blame.

Don’t become tempted to confide too much information to your child. They are your children NOT your friend.


Parental priorities:

Keep the lines of communication open – build bridges, not walls between you as that decreases the chances that emotional problems slip under the radar and escalate. Children in this age group can be a bit harder to reach, and sometimes they act as if they don’t want to be reached, or that they don’t care. But most teens and preteens still need and crave connection with you. In fact they may well be testing you to see how much you love them – so reach out don’t back off.

Surviving the Split

Research shows that three factors help children of any age adjust after divorce: having a strong relationship with both parents (when possible and when the child wants it); plain good, consistent parenting; and minimal exposure to conflict. No real surprises there. The challenge for parents is pulling it off ! It’s not always easy but it’s going to be worth it.

Nurturing the bond between you.

The loss of a strong parent-child relationship after divorce can happen when one parent drifts out of a child’s life, for whatever reason or when one parent (or both) undermines the other’s relationship with the child. Children caught in the cross fire don’t thrive as well as children whose well being is put at the heart of the process.

You can’t control all of these factors or your ex but what you can do, apart from maintaining your own strong, loving ties with your child, is to respect their relationship with their other parent. If you criticise their other parent in front of them you are essentially devaluing their relationship and they may never recover from that.

Good parenting.

It’s hard to maintain normal good parenting when you are grieving, angry, depressed, isolated, or transfixed in fear about where you are going to live, preoccupied with lawyers, court dates and lack of money. But do your best to keep the adult issues separate from your interactions with your children, and get outside help like counselling or parent coaching if you need it. Research has shown that parents who get the support they need are far more confident, have clarity, direction and positivity through the stressful process.



My 5 Top Tips For Reducing Conflict

• Put respect & dignity at the centre of your intentions. Limit the conversations when exchanging the children. Stick to the basics like confirming pickup and drop-off times. Keep it business like and polite.

• Don’t use children to send messages back and forth with your ex. This makes them pawns in an adult game and it’s not fair.

• Exchange important details in writing. Some parents use email; texts, or WhatsApp while others use a book that goes back and forth with the children. There are apps for this sort of communication that you can both download. If things are really tense, have someone else (a counsellor, mediator or a friend) screen your email for inflammatory language before you send it. Press your imaginary Pause Button and always send when the iron is cold, you haven’t had a glass of wine and you’re not angry.

• Respect your child’s other parent’s time with them. Be on time (or have your children ready) for pickups. Make sure anything they need to take with them (homework, clothes, special equipment) is ready as well. It is the oil that lubricates the transition to make it less stressful for everyone.

• Respect your ex-partner’s privacy. You have a different relationship now; you’re aiming for more of a business-type partnership. You don’t need to know as much about his or her personal life as you once did. So don’t keep asking your kids for bits of information. Focus on healing yourself first.

Here is my article The 7 Stages Of Recovery During A Divorce that many people have found to be helpful.

Children’s Books About Divorce

1. Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Laurene Krasny Brown and Marc Brown (Little Brown, 1988). Helps explain divorce in a friendly and easy-to-understand manner. Ages 4-8

2. I Don’t Want to Talk About It by Jeanie Franz Ransom, illustrated by Kathryn Kunz Finney (Magination Press, 2000). This storybook explores the range of emotions that children are likely to f
Kids and Divorce : An Age By Age Guide To Help Parents

3. My Mom and Dad Don’t Live Together Anymore: A Drawing Book For Children of Separated or Divorced Parents by Judith Aron Rubin (Magination Press, 2002). Allows kids to express their feelings through art. Ages 4-12

4. What Can I Do? A Book for Children of Divorce by Danielle Lowry (Magination Press, 2001). Offers resources to help children understand and sort out feelings they face over divorce. Ages 8-12

5. ‘Always Mom, Forever Dad’ by Joanna Rowland is a lovely book about divided households that is wonderfully reassuring – you can buy it here

Explore my  Divorce Conversation Cards designed to help you start and address those tricky conversations.

To work with me 1-2-1 click here

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