How children react to divorce

Mother with arms around sonThey're the hardest part of divorce, and we all know it. The children. They love you both the same - and, almost certainly, their biggest hope is that you can all stay together. Telling your children you're getting divorced is very hard.

Even if things have been rocky between you and their dad for a while, and even if a break-up has been on the cards for ages, it's highly likely that your children hope you'll find a way to patch things up and stay together.

So don't underestimate what a blow it will be when you tell them this is the end of the road, and you're getting divorced. And if your kids are older (maybe you've waited, hung on through a less-than-perfect marriage, until the children had grown up a bit) then don't assume that telling them about the divorce will be necessarily easier for them. Even grown-up kids can be very deeply affected by their parents' break-up.

"Young children are very interested in practical details - who will sleep where, will they have their own pyjamas at both houses and so on." ummadam

This isn't blame: it's just the truth. To do your best by your kids, psychologists believe, it's important to acknowledge the depth of their grief - and to understand the implications of your split on them.

 

How children react to divorce

Facing up to your parents' marriage split is like facing up to bereavement. Many children go through the same sorts of emotions in the days, weeks, months and years afterwards. They are: shock, denial, disbelief, blame, anger.

How children are likely to react depends on their age, and also whether they're boys or girls. Keep these factors in mind when you tell them, and as you answer their questions and talk to them about the split in the days and weeks afterwards.

Toddlers and preschoolers are often baffled by what's going on. They don't have the verbal skills to make sense of what's going on, so they may have behaviour or development issues - for example, bedwetting in a child who was previously dry through the night. They're likely to be very upset during visits to the non-resident parent, and at handover points.

Younger primary school-age children will often have fantasies about reconciling their parents, and may go through an intense period of grieving. They may want to talk a lot about what's happening and why.

Older primary children are better able to understand and to rationalise what's going on. They may be angrier than younger children, and they may show their anger a lot. Some kids of this age side strongly with one parent or the other.

Teenagers understand what's going on and often - especially if there's been a long period of unhappiness - they may seem to approve. But the problem for them is that they're going through a period of extreme change in their own lives - working out their identity, friendships, future etc. Their parents' divorce represents change in their family at a time when they yearn for a bedrock of something solid, because everything else in their lives seems turbulent.

Girls and boys may respond differently, too. Girls may become anxious and withdrawn; research shows they may become sexually active earlier than girls whose parents are still together. They may find a mother's remarriage difficult to deal with.

Boys tend to become more aggressive and disobedient. Where conflict between parents continues, they're more likely than other boys to get into trouble at school.

Mumsnet wisdom on when and how to tell your children

  • "Tell them together if you can and don't make too big a deal of it. Sounds silly I know, as it is a big deal, but if you want them to think that things will be OK you need to give them that vibe - not 'worried Mummy' vibes." ummadam
     
  • "It will come as a shock but don't play it down: and if you're 100% sure you will not get back together, don't leave them with hope that you might." GabrieleJ
     
  • "A good family with happy parents is definitely better than divorced parents. Divorced, but separately content parents is better than parents who are together but poison the children with their negative atmosphere." antlerqueen
     
  • "My children, age 12 and 14, are completely fine 15 months on from ex-husband leaving us. We have done all the right things - no bad mouthing each other, solid access routine, open-door policy to talk about anything etc. Yes,if they could tick a box with Mum and Dad in love, married holding hands they would - but they see that wasn't how it was for us, and are OK with what they now have instead." gettingeasier
     
  • "Plan the time of day when you tell them. Don't make it too near to bedtime. Make sure there's something that's happening about 15 minutes after they've been told - mine liked watching Coronation Street. I told them 15 minutes beforehand, dealt with their tears and questions, and then said, 'Right, let's calm down a bit and watch Coronation Street.' I think talking about it for too long is a really bad idea." ImperialBlether

 

Last updated: 06-Jan-2014 at 2:55 PM