Children will understand divorce different, depending on their developmental age.
“Preschool children (aged three to five) typically react with sadness, anger and fear. Boys may become more boisterous and restless,” says Fong. “In school, they might withdraw from friends or get into fights more than before. Girls tend to internalise their emotions and may react by trying to be overly ‘perfect’. Children in general may cry and become more demanding.”
She also notes that some may regress and act younger than their age during these stressful times. Examples of this include bed-wetting, sucking their thumbs, becoming more clingy or asking to be fed. They might also experience nightmares and sleep disturbances.
“Divorce seems to be especially difficult for six- to eight-year-old children,” says Fong. “There are a lot of adjustments in terms of a new routine, separate homes, access with the non-residential parent, and possibly new schools as well (if the care and control parent is moving).”
These children are likely to express their sadness, cry openly or blame themselves. They might feel that their parents have rejected them. Stress can also be demonstrated in trouble concentrating in school. Children at this age may harbour hopes their parents will reconcile.
9 – 12 years old
“Older children tend to be angrier as they are old enough to witness things and understand the context surrounding the divorce,” notes Fong. “Parents may also intentionally or inadvertently share details of the breakdown of the marriage with these older kids, which results in the children being prone to taking sides with one parent against the other and assigning blame. You may see school performance drop and other behavioural problems emerging, such as having trouble getting along with friends, getting into fights with peers or somatic complaints such as headaches or stomach aches.”
“Teens in general may adjust better to family disruption because they are at a stage where they are more independent and do not need as much supervision and guidance as younger children. Some teens I see try and distance themselves from the family as a way of keeping the family tension at bay,” says Fong.
“They may choose to focus on their studies and friends and become more involved in social and other recreational activities as a way of coping. Their main concern is about how the separation will affect their future such as schooling and finances. Adolescents are also more verbal and mature in thinking and probably can resist the pressure to be pulled into “loyalty conflicts” better.”