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How does Separation and Divorce Impact Infants?

All children regardless of age experience separation and divorce as painful processes that disrupt their lives.  In fact, more than half of the children who experience divorce, do so by the 6, and 75% of these children are younger than 3 years of age.  If parents separate during the period of infancy, the infant will not understand what is happening but may notice changes in the parents’ emotions and level of energy. While they don’t understand divorce or separation, they pick up on changes in their parents’ feelings and behavior. Infants often mirror their parents’ feelings.

According to McIntosh and Booth (2021), three divorce related stressors threaten the infant’s care environment: the direct effects of parental conflict or violence, the effects of diminished quality of parenting, the effects of unsettled schedules, and repeat separation of the infant from the primary attachment figure.

Basic Care and Emotional Stability

Infants depend on their parents for their basic care and emotional stability.  Infants are learning to trust and form close relationships with their caretakers.  Separation interferes with an expected sense of predictability and stability in the infant’s life.  Infants become attached to the people who feed and care for them, and having one of them suddenly disappear is stressful. Three factors generally add to their state of confusion and anxiety:  (1) dramatic changes in daily routines, (2) the emotional distress of one or both parents, and (3) conflict between the parents.

Continued Conflict

While many parents understand the importance of predictable schedules, and consistent childcare arrangements, many are unaware of how distressing continued conflict between parents is to infants.  Although infants may not understand the words parents are using, they are very aware of the emotion being felt and expressed by their parents and are frightened by them.  Infants are attuned and observant and can sense changes in a parent’s mood or voice.  In addition, they are affected by changes in a parent’s facial expression, tone of voice, and body tension.

Separation from Parents

Separation can be hard for infants because they have strong feelings for the parent. They want to be with the parent all the time and don’t understand why they can’t. Older infants may notice that one parent is no longer in the home.  Thus, they may cry for that parent.  Infants may become distressed when a parent leaves the house or goes into another room.  They often worry about being separated from their parents for long periods of time, even when they are being cared for by a familiar caregiver.  Infants are aware of the absence of a parent and are increasingly fearful of separation, strangers and nightmares. They may become more irritable, fussy or cry more often.  In addition, infants may:

  • exhibit a loss of developmental milestones, such as retiring to the bottle, waking at night, crawling and refusal of enjoyable foods;
  • demonstrate fear by becoming clingy and refusing to separate from the parent, by shying away from activity with familiar adults and/or by not taking pleasure in exploring the environment;
  • exhibit intense feelings of frustration and anger through yelling, biting, hitting, throwing things or banging their head;
  • exhibit more crying;
  • changes in sleep patterns such as difficulty getting to sleep
  • become extremely angry when their basic needs are not met or when care taking schedules are unpredictable; and/or
  • appear listless and withdrawn

Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC

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