The impact of divorce, on children of early childhood, influences the child’s development in several ways. In a study conducted by Ebling, Pruett and Kline-Pruett (2009), they revealed that three to seven year olds hold accurate, simple understanding of divorce. Most of these children defined divorce in terms of the changes that take place in a family post-separation. In addition, it was fairly common for the children to comment upon the parents’ negative feelings or attitudes toward each other. Wallerstien and Kelly (1980) maintained the new intellectual and emotional advances of children between the ages of six and eight increases their capacity to understand the significance of divorce as well as some of its specific consequences for them.
Sadness and Loss
In this age group, perhaps the most common reaction to divorce is feelings of pervasive sadness and loss at losing their family (Ellington, 2003) and the conflict they witness between their parents (Kalter, 1990; Wallerstein and Kelly, 1908). Wallerstein and Kelly (1980) found these children are intensely conscious of their sorrow, and had great difficulty in gaining relief from their unpleasant emotions. Children grieve over the losses in their life including changes in residence and possibly leaving their community and school. For some children, sadness is masked through denial that the divorce is occurring or believing that their parents will reunite. In addition, more often than not, these children experience pervasive fantasies of being deprived of food, of toys, and other relevant aspects of the lives. Other frightening fantasies include being abandoned by their remaining parent, fears of being without a family and guilt over believing they are the cause of the divorce-related events. These children often have fantasies about parents getting back together because they relieve separation anxiety. Thus, they may harbor an unrealistic expectation that their parents will get back together again.
Anger is another common reaction displayed by early elementary-aged children who are experiencing divorce. Children typically express anger toward classmates or friends, or toward a parent. Six to eight year olds may also express anger and aggressive behaviors toward one or both parents because they blame them for the divorce. Anger is generally displayed in the form of whining, complaining, and commonly uncooperative behavior. Additional signs of distress may include general anxiety displayed as fingernail biting, hair twirling or pulling, as well as, separation anxiety and clingy behavior. Distress at this stage of development may be noticeable by the loss of, or failure to achieve, developmental accomplishments. For instance, a child may revert to bedwetting or sucking their thumb. Children this age often demonstrate somatic complaints, ranging from tummy complaints to headaches.
Some children may even experience depressive reactions. They may become withdrawn and uninterested in previously pleasurable activities or interacting with friends. Their learning process may suffer as a result of the child’s emotions interfering with their ability to concentrate at school.
Children in this stage may worry about having to care for themselves, as well as, for the well-being and future life circumstances of their parents. In the event that one or both parents are exhibiting signs of distress, the six to eight year old child may take on the role of helper and assume adult-like responsibilies. Consequently, the boundaries between parent and child may become disrupted and heightens the possibility of creating an enmeshed relationship between parent and child (Wallerstein, 1991). Furthermore, these children are of an age to be enlisted by one or both parents in their parental warfare.
Unlike adults, children are not old enough to understand the complexity of family separation, or that time will help heal the pain that they are experiencing. For this reason, parents should not hesitate to reach out to professionals to assist their child with an outlet to talk about their feelings. Without this outlet, the pain of divorce can impact not only their childhoods, but carry into their adult lives as well. While the first few years following a family separation are typically a difficult and stressful periods for most children and their parents, families typically re-stabilize about two years following a divorce (Faber and Wittenborn, 2010).
Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC