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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
In a previous article, The Parenting Plan and the Teenager, we discussed the impact of divorce on teens with thoughts on providing plans that promote the normal developmental cycle. Today we look at the needs of younger children. The younger child is experiencing the most critical stages of psychosocial development. They are learning how to thrive in their environments, make and maintain connections with others, and adapt to changing worlds.
Infants have little understanding of divorce, but are highly sensitive to stress and tension generated by adults and older siblings in the family unit. Toddlers are developing attachments to their primary caretakers. Disruptions caused by divorce may produce moodiness, withdrawal, fear or attention-seeking behaviors. These children need quality time and consistent, loving care. When there are transitions, providing familiar objects (bottles, blankets, etc.) and maintaining consistent time schedules (naps, bed-time rituals, meal times, etc.) are important.
Pre-schoolers are likely to experience separation anxiety, express feelings such as fear, sadness and anger, and may suffer sleep disturbances. These children also need consistency, reassurances of continued parental support, and space to express their feelings. Information about the divorce should be limited to what they need.
Children aged 6 – 9 are “fitting in” with peer social groups (including extra-curricular activities), but the family is still the primary source of security and belonging. Some of the “divorce” fantasies include magical thinking that parents will reunite. They do not fully grasp the idea of permanence of the divorce. Feelings of loss, anger, guilt, rejection and sadness are common. Loving support is basic, but consistent boundaries are very important. Discouraging fantasies of reconciliation, care not to provide material objects (toys, games, etc.) as a way to mollify the child’s feelings, and creating easy access to the other parent (telephone numbers, etc.) will help the child through this period.
From 10 to 12 years can produce angry reactions. Blaming and criticizing parents are common. They may worry about day-to-day needs (i.e., will there be enough money, household responsibilities, child care needs, etc.). There is a risk these children may feel the need to take care of one parent – at the expense of their own needs. They are also at higher risk for deeper emotional reaction to divorce such as depression, violent acting out episodes, and suicidal ideation. Providing opportunity for input into custody arrangements, cooperative and flexible attitudes of parents and positive reassurance are helpful.
Although each child is unique, these basic guidelines can help in recognizing the developmental needs and importance in creating a supportive parenting plan.