“People commonly think there is a ‘his’ divorce and a ‘her’ divorce – two versions of the same events that hardly seem alike. But there is a third version, as valid and divergent as the others. It’s the ‘child’s view’ of divorce. The child’s experience would astonish both parents…if they knew.
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 87)
If parents want to ease the pain that their children experience during a divorce, the first step is to have a detailed understanding of what children will feel and how they might react. Each child is unique, and will experience the divorce on their own terms. To get parents thinking about some of the different variables that play a role, here’s a quick summary of how different factors can alter the way a child experiences divorce:
A child’s age will impact how they experience divorce
A child’s age will affect their understanding of the divorce, as well as their reactions to it. In speaking on the topic, Judith Wallerstein states that “it is clear from my work and others that in our divorce culture the youngest children tend to suffer the most.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 159) But divorce also affects different age groups in different ways. For example, younger children are usually more emotionally scarred from their parents’ divorce, but they also more easily adapt to stepfamily situations and new parental figures. Older kids are slightly less vulnerable to its emotional impact, since they’re more advanced in their development, yet older children are far more likely to act in an openly hostile way towards parents or experience continued problems in step-family situations.
A child’s experience depends on his or her relationship with their parents
A child who has close, loving attachments to both parents may be well off in the fact that they’re surrounded by love. But this fondness for each parent can also make times away from either parent more difficult, and it can make them more sensitive to conflict between their parents. On the other hand, children who are close to one parent but not another experience a different type of conundrum. If the parent they aren’t close to somehow wins custody, their life will be a living hell. And even when the “right” parent has primary custody, they’ll still have to deal with weekends or long, uncomfortable absences in a home that is devoid of the parental affection and closeness they need. So either way, there’s no painless approach to handling the separation.
A child’s relationship to their parents will also influence how they act and behave. Any problems that existed before can be amplified many times over by the strain of divorce. So this can add to the adversity some children experience and further strain the parent-child relationship.
What children experience depends on their status within the family
Even within the same family, children may each experience a different version of the divorce. Older children may be thrust into the role of caregiver. Even if parents don’t saddle them with the “surrogate parent” tag, the oldest child often falls into this role anyway because their younger siblings look up to them for support. Older children are also more likely to know more about the divorce, which may influence their perception of what is going on. Younger siblings are more confused and tend to feel more helpless. Middle children may feel lost or ignored amidst the chaos. Yet only children may actually fare the worst, since they have no one else who shares their experiences. When parents become less responsive, only children feel utterly and completely alone.
A child’s personality type influences their experiences
Some children are very sensitive, others much less so. Some kids are highly reactive; others are barely rattled by change. These personality differences will alter their experience with divorce. For example, if your kid is the type of child who struggles with sleepovers and calls you in the middle of the night because they have difficulty being away from home, they are probably going to struggle much more with the disruption that divorce brings. Researchers observe that vulnerable or highly sensitive children “have exceptional trouble with rapid or radical change. The gains that parents work so hard to achieve (a baby finally learns to sit up, a toddler can make it to the toilet, a child is able to travel on the school bus) may be wiped out by divorce. Vulnerable children regress with frightening speed and recovery is painfully slow.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 232)
A child’s personality type will also influence the symptoms they experience, such as whether they react to the stress by withdrawing within themselves or acting out and becoming more aggressive and disruptive in their behavior.