Children's Experience of Separation and Divorce

A child's understanding of divorce is affected by age and experience. Infants can sense parental tension and distress, but have little concept about what is happening. Toddlers will be aware that Mommy and Daddy don't live together, but won't know why. Elementary school-aged children may understand that their parents are separated, but their concept is that of a child without experience in adult relationships. Teenagers are most likely to understand what divorce means, but do not necessarily accept it. In fact, teens may be most vulnerable emotionally because they are relying on having a home safety nest while they are trying out their own wings. Divorce can undermine that feeling of security unless parents take steps to reassure them that parents will continue to serve as their support network.

Typical Responses of Children to Separation of the Family

Children are affected by the stress inherent in separation of the family. Parental attention to these responses, and reduction in exposure to parental conflict, will help children adjust to life in two households.

Infants and Toddlers

  • Regression/decreased progress in mastering skills
  • Sleep disturbances or trouble going to sleep
  • Fear of leaving parent, clinging behavior
  • General crankiness, temper tantrums and crying

Age Three to Five

  • Regression to infant behaviors
  • Immature grasp of situation, fantasizing
  • Blaming self and feeling guilty
  • Anxious at bedtime, sleep disturbances
  • Fear of being abandoned by both parents
  • Emotionally needy, seeking nurturing and contact
  • Increased irritability, aggression, temper tantrums

Age Six to Eight

  • Pervasive sadness; feeling abandoned, rejected
  • Crying and sobbing
  • Fantasizing about reconciliation and fear of unrealistic fantasies
  • Conflicts of loyalty, feeling physically torn apart
  • Problems with impulse control

Age Nine to Twelve

  • Able to see family disruption clearly
  • Fear of loneliness
  • Intense anger at the parent they blame for the cause of separation
  • Physical complaints: headaches, stomach aches
  • Become overactive to avoid thinking about situation
  • Feelings of shame about what is happening to their family; feeling different from other children


  • Fear of being isolated and lonely
  • Experience parents as leaving them; feel parents are not available to them
  • Feel hurried to achieve independence
  • Feel competition with parents
  • Worry about own future loves and marriage; are preoccupied with the survival of relationships
  • Chronic fatigue; difficulty concentrating
  • Mourn the loss of family life they knew in childhood

If symptoms persist, consider getting outside help for family members to adapt to the separation.