Page 9: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 7 - Helping Children at Every Age

Although all children and teenagers share many of the same developmental needs – such as a deep need to trust others – their particular age and stage of development are major factors in determining how they react to any situation. Awareness of how children and teenagers grow and develop can help you understand how your children might react to change and the kind of attention and support they will need.

A Child’s Age and Stage of Development Make a Difference

This section is designed to help you better understand the developmental needs, typical behaviours and signs of stress in each stage of your child's life. With this knowledge, you will be better equipped to anticipate and respond to your children’s needs and to promote their ability to adapt and grow.

You may wish simply to skip to the section that relates to the age of your own child. Remember that every child is unique – the way children react and the way you can respond may not “fit” their age categories precisely. Therefore, you may find it helpful to look over the sections covering the age range just before or after your child’s age. Reading later sections may also help you to anticipate your children’s needs and changing behaviours as they grow up.

Infants and Toddlers

There is significant rapid growth in children's development during the first years of life. From birth, children quickly learn to understand a great deal of what is being said and happening around them. Physical development also proceeds rapidly, from crawling to running. Although these changes give children a sense of independence, they still rely primarily on their parents.

A major task at this age is the development of secure attachments, in other words, loving and trusting bonds with parents. This requires regular, consistent and predictable contact with each parent. Infants have a different experience of time. Thus, infants and toddlers may become upset when the parent who takes care of them the most leaves, if only to move into another room in the home. Being apart from this parent for just a few hours, even when the child is left with someone familiar, can be stressful.

During this critical stage of development, infants and toddlers need plenty of loving attention. When babies receive warm, responsive care, they are more likely to feel safe and secure with the adults who take care of them. Very young children can sense when a parent is upset and can in turn become upset, too. At any age, children are quite vulnerable to anxious and troubled feelings of their parents. How could they not be, when their physical and emotional security depends on the physical and emotional security of their parents? (See box Typical Behaviours, Developmental Issues and Signs of Stress.)

Despite rapid progress in their learning, infants and toddlers still have a limited understanding of their world. Changes in routine and conflict between parents are quite bewildering and stressful for very young children. Their lives can feel unpredictable, confusing and at times frightening after their parents separate.

Typical Behaviours, Developmental Issues and Signs of Stress
Age of Child Infants: Birth to 12 Months Toddlers: 13 to 36 Months
Typical behaviours and developmental issues Completely dependent on parents or caregivers for their survival, babies are born with a unique temperament. For example, some are fussy and fearful while others are content and easy-going. (See box What Is “Temperament”?) A baby cannot understand concepts or feelings. But their brains are amazingly active and absorb everything. In fact a baby’s brain grows to twice its size just in the first year of life. Babies sleep less and less with each passing month. Young children of this age begin to show independence by saying “no.” They are self-centred, perceiving that the world revolves around them and that “everything is mine.” Their growing curiosity and increased mobility means getting into everything and asking “how” and “why.” It is hard for them to sit still and stay focused for any length of time. Children this age have a very limited ability to understand concepts or feelings.
Signs of increased stress Watch for signs that a baby is experiencing difficulties. Changes in sleeping, crying and eating may be signs that your baby is reacting to disruptions in care or routine. More severe signs of stress include lack of energy, unresponsiveness or intense upset. A child with a more fussy or shy temperament will experience more difficulties with any change in routine. (See box What Is “Temperament”?) When toddlers experience stress, they often revert to earlier behaviours such as waking during the night, having toilet-training accidents, returning to crawling or using less language. Toddlers get angry when they are frustrated. Expect temper tantrums when schedules are disrupted, when enjoyable activities are cut short or are less frequent, and when they must wait to be fed, read to, cuddled or played with. Other indicators of distress include fearfulness (particularly during separation from a parent) and changes in mood (such as over-reaction to minor frustrations, withdrawal and listlessness).

Parental conflict is harmful. Many parents don't realize how upsetting continued conflict with their former partner can be to infants and toddlers. They may assume that because very young children cannot understand the arguments they hear, they will be unaffected by them. In fact, although toddlers rarely understand the details of angry words between parents, they feel the emotions very strongly. It is important that you try to keep a calm, positive attitude in your child's presence.

Separation from a parent is difficult. Separation from a parent is difficult no matter what the circumstances. Attachment to a caregiver is key to an infant's healthy development. As long as there are no prolonged separations or serious threats to a baby's health, the baby will form an attachment to the main caregivers. Therefore, maintaining a strong bond with both parents is important for infants and toddlers. Frequent contact with the parent who no longer lives at home can help young children feel more secure. Parents who do not live with their children need to be patient with toddlers, giving them time to become reacquainted with each stay. Sometimes, the toddler's initial shyness is misinterpreted as a lack of love. The parent is understandably hurt and discouraged and may see the toddler less and less, which makes the problem worse. More contact – not less – may help. Online video communication is a good way for young children to see and hear the other parent. Both parents should do their best to help the toddler feel comfortable with parental visits.

What You Can Do

Maintain a routine. Infants and toddlers need consistency and predictability in their daily life. Once parenting and child care arrangements have been made, it is up to parents to maintain consistency in the child's schedule.

  • The time of day the child is dropped off and picked up should be kept as regular as possible.
  • Routines such as mealtimes, bedtimes and early morning rituals reinforce children's feelings of comfort and security.
  • Try to keep a baby or toddler's personal environment as consistent as possible, such as allowing their toys or a special blanket to be brought back and forth between homes.

Ensure regular and frequent contact with both parents. Young children, in particular, need regular contact with both parents:

  • Frequent contact with each parent helps young children keep an image of the other parent during a separation:
    • Use online video communication as a way for children to see and hear the other parent, perhaps even reading a storybook together.
    • Allow unrestricted phone calls, especially at the beginning.
  • Remember that young children may need more time to adjust to the beginning or ending of a transition:
    • The night before and morning of a transition, prepare young children by explaining the particulars of the transition, such as answering why, when and how.
    • In simple language explain where they are going and that they will be coming back – remind them that they will have their special stuffed animals and/or blankets with them all the time.

Provide lots of stimulation when you are with them. The brains of infants and toddlers literally soak up everything in their environment. They thrive in stimulating environments:

  • Talk or sing to them during changes, feedings, while in the car, and during errands. (Even children who cannot speak yet benefit from hearing lots of words, as this exposure to language will help them learn to talk.)
  • Hold and touch them frequently.
  • Read aloud to them every day.
  • Encourage play – with safe objects, toys, and of course, you!

Preschoolers (3–5 years)

The preschool years bring rapid intellectual, physical and emotional growth. This is a time of growing independence, curiosity and learning.

Despite their considerable physical and emotional achievements, preschoolers have a limited ability to understand separation and divorce. They may blame themselves for both their parents’ upset and the separation, may fear abandonment by both parents, and may harbour fantasies of you getting back together.

Typical Behaviours and Developmental Issues

Around age 3, children’s growing vocabulary allows them to be understood about most things. As this age they start to understand other points of view and with this emerging insight, they can feel and express empathy. They are transitioning from “this is mine!” to a growing ability to share with other children.

Four-year-olds take pride in their growing vocabulary and they like to show it. Parents can expect to be asked a lot of questions and listen to some elaborate tall tales. Some children of this age can be bossy or tattle on others.

Five-year-olds tend to be friendly with peers and adults. They begin to imitate grown-up behaviours. Around this time, children are gaining awareness of what is right and wrong – thus, the emergence of conscience and guilt.

Active imaginations. Children between the ages of 3 and 5 also find it hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is imaginary. This means that they may become confused. Children may think that they are being abandoned by their mother, unloved by their father or that they are being punished for angry feelings. Preschool children are very curious and will actively try to understand the changes in their lives. They now have the ability to try to find answers themselves, and will ask "Why?" "How come?" and "What if?" This ability to understand some events may add to their worries.

Preschoolers are fond of listening to and creating their own "tall tales." They love to exaggerate stories, and they often believe the story they have just told. Parents should not confuse this with lying – in fact, you can use these stories as a way to exchange information and build better understanding. (See Section 3 – Communicating and Connecting With Your Children.)

Need for both parents. A preschool child's sense of social and emotional independence is not fully developed. Preschoolers continue to rely on their parents and a secure home base to feel safe. At this stage, children need nurturing from both parents – they are beginning to develop a relationship with each parent. Children experience a significant loss when one parent is less involved in their lives. Not only will they often miss that parent's presence and affection, but some of their physical and emotional needs may not be met. They often have overwhelming fears that both parents will leave them. As with infants and toddlers, preschoolers need lots of visits with the parent who has moved away. Parents need to keep this in mind when they develop their parenting plan. Temperament is a major factor in development and plays an important role in a child's reaction to separation. By the time children are 3 to 5 years of age, most parents can recognize the ways their children cope with stress. (See box What Is “Temperament”?) Some children sulk, others "talk back" or get angry, still others become overly submissive or obedient. It may be helpful to understand that when children are unable to express emotion and cope with stress in their usual ways, they try different approaches. Children who are usually outspoken or talkative may suddenly become withdrawn, and those who are usually submissive or obedient may suddenly become uncooperative.

What Is “Temperament”?

  • Temperament” is the word used to describe an inborn quality that a child brings into the world. Just as children possess different physical features, they also possess different temperaments. Temperament impacts children’s style of learning, their strengths and vulnerabilities.

  • Temperament is not the same as personality. Personality is the whole person. It includes temperament as well as the effects of the environment through family, neighbourhood, education, life events and culture.

Parents need to resist any temptation to let a submissive or obedient child become their caretaker or to ignore the child who makes fewer demands. It is also important to resist simply punishing an angry and disagreeable child instead of trying to deal with the child’s underlying unhappiness.

Child care arrangements. Knowing with confidence who will take care of them, and where, provides preschoolers with feelings of stability and security. You can help by:

  • selecting a regular setting for child care
  • letting the child take familiar objects to the child care setting, such as stuffed animals, a prized blanket or toys
  • maintaining a regular schedule for dropping off and picking up your child at the child care setting
  • keeping consistent morning, dinnertime and bedtime routines

If at all possible, it is helpful for you to keep your existing child care arrangements, at least during the beginning stages of separation and divorce. A familiar routine creates a feeling of security for children. When this schedule is disrupted, preschoolers may get upset. If changes in the daily schedule are unavoidable or necessary, you should explain the reasons for the changes. You can also help your preschoolers adjust by going with them to visit the new child care setting before they are dropped off for the first time.

Reactions to Stress

A young child's distress is often shown by returning to behaviours that they have outgrown. Problem areas may include:

  • sleep – a return to bedwetting or recurrent bad dreams, avoiding going to bed
  • eating – eating less or more than usual or refusing favourite foods
  • physical activity and leisure – such as preferring a tricycle to a bike
  • language – returning to baby talk
  • emotional development – reverting to crying, clinging or thumb-sucking
  • social relationships – refusing to play with other children

Preschoolers can display a wide range of emotional behaviour in a short time. Anger is the most common way for preschoolers to show pain and distress. Hitting, kicking, throwing things, pinching and spitting at other children are common ways for young children to express anger. During the separation, children’s expression of anger may increase.

Fearfulness is also a sign of anxiety or tension in preschoolers, particularly when it is in response to events the child used to feel comfortable with. Troubled preschoolers may also show sadness, withdrawal or lack of energy.

Many of these feelings and responses in preschoolers can be related just to growing up. They do not, in themselves, indicate trouble. However, if they are unusually intense, last a long time or interfere significantly with a child's life, they may be signs of distress.

If your preschooler is showing signs of distress, you can help by trying to reduce the sources of your child’s distress, and by providing reassurance, stability and comfort.

What You Can Do

  • Children need both parents to be active in their daily lives – preschool children will adapt to longer separations from a parent when they can spend sufficient time with each parent.
  • Keep routines consistent and remind children of the routines.
  • Preschoolers need simple, concrete explanations – what, why, when and where.
  • Listen closely to your preschoolers, watch their actions and respond by communicating with care and understanding.
  • Encourage expression of your child’s feelings.  
  • Read stories about children whose parents are separating or now divorced.
  • Reassure your children that they are not the cause of the separation and that it is important to love and have a relationship with both parents.

Help Make Transitions Easier for Children

The actual move from one household to another, whether it happens every few days or just on the weekends, can be a hard time for children. Transitions represent a major change in your children’s reality. Every reunion with one parent is also a separation from the other – each “hello” is also a “goodbye.” Transition times are inevitable, but there are some things you can do to help make exchanges and transitions easier – both when your children leave and return. For example, try not to schedule transfers near bedtime or mealtime. Keep the transfers short and address other parenting business at another time.

When Your Child Leaves

As children get ready to go to your ex-partner’s, try to stay positive and deliver them on time. You can use the following strategies to help make transitions easier:

  • Help children anticipate change. A good way to do this is to hang a calendar in the kitchen or in the child’s bedroom, colour coding the days and nights they are spending at each household. You can then count out with them the number of “sleeps” they have with you until they leave to join the other parent. Another way to help younger children prepare for change is to remind them of the things they will be doing at the other parent’s home.
  • Be prepared and pack in advance. Depending on their age, help children to pack their bags well before they leave so that they don’t leave important things behind. You can prepare a checklist and post it in their bedrooms. Go over each child’s upcoming schedule to see if special equipment or clothing is needed. The better prepared you are, the easier the transition will be for your child.
  • Always drop off, not pick-up. It’s a good idea to set up the practice of each parent dropping off the children at the other home after their agreed-upon time has ended. If parents come to pick up the children when their time with the other parent is ending, they may interrupt or curtail the important good-bye transition.

When Your Child Returns

The beginning of your children’s return to your home can be awkward or even rocky. Think about how you feel on the first day back at work from vacation. Transitions take time. You can try the following to help your child adjust:

  • Keep things low-key. When children first enter your home, try to have some down time together such as reading a book or another quiet activity. This gives children the freedom to adjust at their own speed. Above all, refrain from asking questions about the other parent or household.
  • Double up. To make packing simpler and make children feel more “at home” at each residence, have children keep certain basics such as toothbrush, hairbrush, pajamas and some photos at both houses.
  • Allow children some space. If your children seem to need some space, do something else nearby. In time, things will get back to normal.
  • Establish a special routine. Play the same game or serve the same special meal each time your children return. Children thrive on routine – knowing exactly what to expect when they return to you can help ease the transition.

Early Elementary School Children (6–8 years)

Children in this age range are trying to gain mastery in school and form new peer friendships. They are proud of their accomplishments. Young school-age children have different needs and abilities than preschoolers. Although early elementary school children are able to express their thoughts and feelings better than younger children, they may still regress to earlier behaviours.

Although children are forming outside friendships and attachments, the family is still the central influence in their lives. Like younger children, early elementary school children need time with both parents, or with role models of both genders. The relationship with the parent who may be less involved with them is very important to children of this age.

Early elementary school children are beginning to understand that parental conflicts are separate from themselves. Yet at the same time, they may be prone to getting into the arguments and to take sides. In this period of development, children’s thinking is still black and white – there is right or wrong, good or bad.

Typical Behaviours and Developmental Issues

Use of denial and other defences. Denial involves refusing to admit to yourself that you are hurting, or that anything is wrong. Denial is a typical reaction of younger elementary school children to separation and divorce. Children may also become angry and frustrated and bicker with brothers, sisters or classmates, or they may become stubborn and uncooperative at home. These are short-term attempts to cope with their own emotional pain, but neither denial nor anger is an effective defence in the long run. Denial prevents children from accepting and dealing with a difficult situation, while anger usually gets them into trouble with adults and peers at home and at school. Most importantly, neither of these defences helps children overcome their sadness.

Unexplained headaches and stomach aches can be the result of anger or anxiety. Fear and anxiety can also be shown in nervous habits, such as biting nails, rather than fear of a specific event or object.

Increased capacity to imagine the future. Children in early elementary school are learning to form complex thoughts. This results in the ability to imagine other future realities. For children whose parents divorce, this can mean that fantasies, such as being abandoned by the parent they live with, are more likely to arise. These fantasies worry children and heighten their distress over separation and divorce. If a parent remarries, children at this age may fear being replaced by a new baby.

A strong sense of family. Early elementary school children have an increased understanding of their place in the family and how their family fits into society. As a result, their identity remains strongly tied to belonging to a family. (See “Attend to Your Children’s Sense of Identity and Belonging” in Section 5.) Not only are their separate relationships with each parent important, but their love and trust in family have begun to emerge. Thus, separation disturbs the feeling of family that is so important to children of this age.

Feelings of loss. Deep feelings of loss and sadness are the primary features of the process of separation and divorce for young elementary school children. These feelings can come from:

  • the loss of peace in the household because of parental conflict
  • the loss of security when a parent becomes anxious or upset
  • the change in or loss of a relationship with the parent who moves away
  • a more distant relationship with the parent they live with because of increased work on the job and at home, or a new adult relationship or remarriage
  • the loss of contact with grandparents and other extended family members
  • the loss of a sense of stability, control over events and confidence
  • the fear that their parents' divorce makes them different from their peers
  • the loss of financial resources for their activities

Communication Is Important

Parents can help early elementary school children adjust to the process of separation by talking directly to them and being clear. Indirect communication may also help – stories about other children who have gone through separation can help your child see how other children cope and help them realize that they are not alone. Tell your children the reasons for the divorce, using an approach and language that's appropriate to their age. Sometimes, it may not be wise to tell them the specific reasons and the details. (See “Talking to Your Children About Your Separation and Preparing Them for Change” in Section 3.) Assure them over and over that the divorce is not their fault.

Many parents hesitate to have the first talk with their children because they don't want to hurt them. However, some pain is unavoidable. Children may already be sad and upset by their parents' arguing and general stress and tension. They may feel relieved by finding out what is really going on, and what is going to happen next.

The first talk is an opportunity for you to take responsibility for the problems. It allows your children to know what to expect, and to feel relieved that the arguments may come to an end.

Children need to know exactly what will happen to them. The more information you can give them, the better. Children want to know where they will live and with whom. Things to discuss with them include:

  • how often and where they will see the other parent – including the kinds of activities they may do together and what the limitations are, if any
  • any changes to the family's schedule or routine, such as a parent returning to work or new chores
  • how their siblings will be affected – for example, will all of the children spend time together with the other parent, or separately?

If a change of school is unavoidable, give your children every opportunity to learn about the new school before they start. Also, if one of you is planning a major move, give your children as much time as possible to handle this change in their lives.

Encouraging discussion. It is particularly important for early elementary school children to have opportunities to talk about their feelings and ask questions about the separation and what will happen to their family. As hurt and upset as you may be, it is important to put aside this pain when you talk to your children. Assure them that most children have all sorts of feelings when their parents divorce, and that these feelings are okay.

Signs of Stress

Some common signs that children are having difficulty with the changes include:

  • behaviour problems such as being aggressive, impulsive, manipulative or depressed
  • frequent sadness, crying or withdrawal
  • problems with sleep, including nightmares and bedwetting
  • problems at school, including poor concentration and daydreaming

Ongoing behaviours such as bedwetting or reverting to baby talk are signs that you should discuss with your paediatrician, doctor or counsellor. In addition, ask teachers and other caregivers to watch for changes in the actions and attitudes of your child. The more you know about your child during this transition, the more able you are to help the child adjust.

Prolonged parental hostility. As with children of all ages, strong or long-term hostilities between separating parents are a major source of stress for early elementary school children. Children at this stage of development are especially vulnerable to fantasies about what might happen when parents become angry, and they often worry that they may have caused their parents' relationship troubles.

Early elementary school children want to help their distressed parent. Being needed by a parent makes them feel big, important and loved. Yet children also want their "same old" parent back, so that the parent can resume caring for "me." Children who are allowed to take on too much responsibility for taking care of their parents are robbed of many of the fun, carefree and spontaneous times that belong to childhood. They may develop into "little adults" who feel responsible, yet without the resources to handle such responsibility.

What You Can Do

  • Work with your ex-partner to ensure that both parents remain active and involved in your child’s life. (See box “Virtual” Parenting.)
  • Reassure your children that the separation is not their fault. Help them to understand that they had no role in your decision to separate.
  • Encourage your child to talk directly to each parent and to develop a unique relationship with the other parent.
  • Show interest in school and extracurricular activities.
  • Allow and encourage phone calls and appropriate online communication with the other parent.

“Virtual” Parenting

The concept of online parenting has been around for a while. When parents travel on business, they make use of video conferencing and instant messaging to keep in regular contact with their children. The same is true for military families when a parent is deployed. Today, information and communications technology enables parents to “virtually” parent when they are apart, for whatever reason, from their children.

Virtual parent–child contact has the potential to provide separated parents with increased opportunities to communicate and touch base with their children despite physical distance. It also can provide the opportunity for greater consistency of contact by establishing a regular routine. Whether the children divide their time between two homes or whether a parent has relocated, virtual parenting can help maintain regular contact with the parent who is in a different physical location than the child.

In addition to video conferencing, instant messaging and social media, there are a number of websites that are devoted to creating online activities for parents and children. These new tools can help parents move beyond communicating about daily activities to engaging in virtual homework assistance, electronic learning games, all the way to participating in bedtime routines and going on virtual field trips together.

Virtual contact cannot replace physical time with a parent, as direct contact is essential to maintaining a meaningful parent–child relationship. But information and communications technologies can play an important role in helping separated parents and their children maintain a relevant and seamless relationship. Whatever the situation, virtual parenting opportunities can usually be included in the parenting plan.

Preteens (9–12 years)

Significant social and emotional growth gives preteens an increasing sense of independence. This feeling of independence means they place greater importance on the world outside their family. They have greater involvement in school, friendships and extracurricular activities.

Preteens have a growing understanding of human relationships and a more realistic understanding of separation. Although they understand more, they are still unable to deal emotionally with everything they experience. During this period, children are very impressionable and they are forming an internal code of moral values, largely based on what they learn from parents and other adults. About one out of four children this age will perceive one parent as “the good guy” and the other parent as “the bad guy.” (See box What Happens Next?)

What Happens Next?

What Happens Next? Information for Kids About Separation and Divorce is a Justice Canada publication to help children between the ages of 9 and 12 years old cope with the separation or divorce of their parents. Its purpose is to help children learn some basic facts about family law and give them an idea of what their family may be going through when their parents split up. It is also meant to help children realize that it’s normal for them to have an emotional response to their parents’ divorce, and encourages children to voice their concerns to someone they trust.

The What Happens Next? Calendar for Kids is an online calendar for children that helps them keep track of important dates, including the time they will spend with each parent.

(See Section 11 – Resources for how to locate and download these publications.)

Typical Behaviours and Developmental Issues

Nine- to ten-year-olds display increasing independence, although children this age are quite willing to obey parents and follow instructions. They may develop a tendency to worry or to complain of physical ailments such as stomach aches or headaches. Increased interest in friends and goings-on outside the family is typical for this age group.

Eleven- to twelve-year-olds may begin to become moody or go back and forth between mature or childish behaviour. This is a rapid time of physical growth, particularly for girls. Children of this age may start to quarrel more with their parents, either occasionally or on a regular basis. Peer relationships are extremely important at this age, with some children beginning to develop crushes or romantic interests. During this period girls may have a better relationship with the father than the mother.

Social withdrawal is a common sign of worry or fear among preteens. Relationships with other children and friends are crucial to the social and emotional growth of children at this age. Lack of involvement in activities with other children outside school, a change in social groups or spending too much secluded time online may be a signal to parents that a child is troubled.

Helplessness turns into anger. Preteens will frequently convert helplessness and sadness into anger. Anger helps prevent preteens from feeling unhappy and emotionally vulnerable. Lashing out at others – usually those closest to them – preteens use anger to project their pain onto others. Some preteens may show aggression, either directly through physical fighting with schoolmates and brothers and sisters, or in bitter, verbal attacks directed at one or both parents. Or a child may argue heatedly with a parent or complain about curfews, Internet and television rules and having to do household chores. Conflicts may also be expressed as physical problems – headaches or stomach aches that are very real and painful. (See “Attend to Your Children’s Sense of Identity and Belonging” in Section 5.)

The likelihood of preteens bullying siblings or schoolmates increases when parents separate – particularly when their parents are engaged in open conflict. When children see that it seems to “be okay” to be aggressive or disrespectful, they are more likely to think “it’s okay at school.” On the other end of the spectrum, a child who is feeling vulnerable or anxious as a result of parents’ separation can be a potential target for bullying. Children who bully other children seek out the most vulnerable in their peer group to pick on.

Let children be children. Although children at this age long to be treated like adults, parents need to resist the temptation to involve them in adult problems. For example, letting them choose the colour of paint for their room is far different from involving them in financial affairs. While many children are willing to provide support to their parents, they are too young to take on this kind of responsibility. Be aware that children who grow up "taking care of their parents" run the risk of emotional difficulties later in life. To make sure your children's developmental needs are being met at this age, encourage them to make friends and to take part in activities outside the family.

Emotional costs of conflict. As with children of any age, the emotional costs of allowing preteens to become directly involved in adult conflicts can be considerable and long-lasting. Preteens experience conflicting loyalties. They may experience strong feelings of guilt, disloyalty and fear. When parents draw children into the conflict, it places children in the unbearable position of choosing one parent over the other.

New adult relationships. When a parent begins to see someone new, preteens must deal with the reality that the parent may have less time and energy for them. They may:

  • confuse having less of their parent's time with having less of their parent's love
  • consider their parents “still together”
  • not be ready to recognize their parent’s sexuality – they have difficulty imagining their parents in a sexual relationship
  • feel conflict about whether they should enjoy being with their parent’s new partner

A wide variety of defences. Preteens use more elaborate defences than younger children. For example, they may show their fears in ways that do not make them appear vulnerable or in need of help. It may seem that they are upset at someone else – another child, family member or teacher – or are not troubled or angry. Depending on the maturity of your child, it may – or may not – be helpful for you to confront these defences directly. For example, some 9-year-olds think and act like they are going on 15 years of age, while others seem to act their age. Use your judgment based on how your preteen has responded in the past. If direct communication about their defences or feelings might be interpreted as threatening or invasive, you may want to approach the topic through indirect communication, such as talking about the feelings of characters in a movie. Some defences preteens may use are:

  • denying feelings, such as discussing upsetting events in an unemotional way
  • displacing feelings, for example, they may fight with friends and other children instead of showing anger at a parent
  • becoming overly devoted to a parent (or feeling the need to take care of that parent)
  • idealizing and identifying with the absent parent

Signs of Stress

  • intense anger at the parent blamed for causing the separation
  • problems at school, such as a drop in grades, or discipline issues
  • sadness or an “I don’t care” attitude about life
  • physical complaints, such as stomach aches, headaches or “not feeling well”

What You Can Do

Provide reassurance, structure and support. Parents sometimes think it's not necessary to explain the separation to their preteens because they are mature enough to see for themselves what is happening. Despite the apparent "sophistication" of some children this age, they do need to hear about the separation from their parents.

Children naturally turn to their parents for understanding, reassurance and support in difficult times. When you do not discuss your separation, children are cut off from their basic way of coping with their questions, worries and troublesome feelings. You can explain the separation and divorce to your preteens in a manner that reflects their level of maturity. Some preteens are young for their age and might relate better to communication styles appropriate for younger elementary school children, while other preteens might respond best to a direct approach that is best suited for teenagers. (See Section 3 – Communicating and Connecting with Your Children.)

Preteens need you to show your commitment in concrete ways. When you make time to attend school meetings, performances and athletic events, it shows your children that you are there for them. You can help your children build confidence and self-esteem – encourage them to develop their interests in school, sports and arts, help them make new friends, and acknowledge their new-found strengths and growing maturity.

Parents should continue to enforce reasonable limits, rules and curfews – preteens need structure and routine to feel secure. Be firm, but kind. (See box A Checklist for Authoritative Parenting and “Use Discipline to Teach,” both in Section 5.)  Relaxing the rules to compensate for feelings of guilt over the separation and divorce often leads to further problems.

Other adults can serve as allies and role models for your preteens. Find opportunities for your children to spend time with other trusted adults, such as relatives, neighbours or teachers.

The school is your ally. Keep in touch with your child’s teachers, particularly if you suspect your child is being bullied. A teacher can watch out for a child who is feeling more vulnerable or powerless. If a teacher informs you that your child is showing more aggression at school, help your child learn productive ways to express anger and work to reduce your conflict with your ex-partner. When bullying becomes an issue, seek help from school resources or from your family doctor.

Teenagers (13–17 years)

During adolescence, teenagers are learning to define who they are and to develop their own values, priorities and goals. Teenagers are also gaining a sense of belonging to a community and to the world around them. In short, teenagers are developing their own identity, a unique identity that is separate from that of their parents.

It's tough being a teenager, even under the best of circumstances. Teenagers have lots of questions, and you may not have all the answers. The teenage years are a time of great change, which adds to confusion and stress. Emotionally, teenagers try to adapt to physical and social changes while trying to become more independent from their parents. More than ever, teenagers need emotional support, love and firm guidance from their parents as they confront these considerable challenges. Despite their physical maturity (and claims for independence), teenagers still need their parents.

Most teenagers see their parents as having positive qualities as well as limitations and faults. After separation or divorce, some teenagers may begin to see their parents only in negative terms. Teenagers often have difficulty understanding how their parents could have let their relationship deteriorate. They may begin to perceive their parents as selfish or stupid. These impressions can be strengthened as children watch their parents fight or grieve.

Typical Behaviours and Developmental Issues

Many teens like to spend more time alone in their room, listening to music or engaging in social media. A growing independence can translate into experimenting with clothes and hair, or “trying on” different beliefs or attitudes. Teens generally want to spend less time with parents and more time with their friends. It is common for some teenagers to show less interest in communicating with parents or other adults about what is going on in their lives.

Conflicting emotions. Because of the confusion and turmoil of the teenage years, stability in teenagers’ lives is important. This is why parents' separation or divorce is one of the most difficult life events for a teenager. However, compared with younger children, they have greater resources to help them handle those challenges.

Teenagers are often genuinely shocked to learn that their parents are separating. Although they have usually been aware of tension between their parents, many teenagers do not believe that they will actually divorce. Surprise and shock are often quickly followed by anger and sadness. Teenagers do not like having their lives disrupted. And they are often disappointed because their parents could not keep the family together. Teenagers may recognize their own feelings, but may not understand exactly why they are angry, sad or intensely critical of their parents.

Teenagers may feel some of these common conflicts:

  • anger at one parent or both parents, versus love for both parents
  • loyalty to both parents, versus the tendency to take sides or choose one parent over the other
  • affection for a parent's new partner, versus anxiety over sexuality in the parent's adult relationship
  • giving the appearance that everything is fine, versus the need to be cared for and protected

Teenagers experience other difficulties as well. They may see the separation as "proof" that the parent who leaves does not really love them or want to be with them. Teenagers are also vulnerable because their parents may try to use them as spies and messengers, but they may also strongly reject these roles as well.

Anger: A common and visible emotion. Teenagers are sometimes overwhelmed by their own anger. Intense conflicts between parents can be very upsetting to them. They find it difficult to admit that their parents put themselves in such unpleasant circumstances and that they hurt each other so much. Teenagers may also learn from arguing parents that the uncontrolled expression of anger is acceptable (or the opposite – that anger should be concealed or disguised). Troubled teenagers often express anger toward parents, brothers and sisters, teachers, friends, other children and physical objects. Fighting, destruction of property, and yelling and screaming are the clearest examples of anger in action. Drug and alcohol abuse, withdrawal or refusal to participate in activities, poor grades, skipping school, stealing and poor eating habits are often the result of anger, although the teenager may not be aware that anger is motivating this behaviour.

Other common responses. In addition to anger, teenagers may also:

  • feel a great amount of stress
  • develop a fear of the future
  • feel an exaggerated need to organize their world
  • question the concept of love and whether it can last
  • worry if they will ever be able to have happy relationships themselves
  • perceive parental dating as a threat or resist a parent's new partner

Signs of Stress

  • drinking and experimenting with drugs
  • drop in school grades or behaviour problems at school
  • intense anger or outbursts
  • withdrawal and isolation from family and friends
  • seems not to care about anything or always tired
  • spending time with friends who take greater risks

What You Can Do

Direct communication is best. Although younger children often benefit from indirect communication, teenagers can cope with the news better if both parents discuss the separation directly with them. It is best for you to talk with teenagers together with any younger children in the family, and then again separately. This helps teenagers feel that their increasing maturity is recognized.

Parents should talk realistically about the divorce and what they think it will mean to the everyday life of their teenagers. Parents can stress the need for mutual patience and sensitivity – just as it takes time for teenagers to adapt, parents don't "have it all worked out" either.

Direct communication and a willingness to compromise on some issues of disagreement will help teenagers adapt to their new circumstances and continue the regular growth and development of adolescence. A sensitive combination of direct communication, negotiation that acknowledges their needs while setting reasonable limits, and respect for their growing independence will generally be the most effective strategy. Remember, fair but consistent rules teach teenagers to respect themselves and others.

Learn about adolescence. In the past few decades, research has yielded a lot of information on what is going on physically and mentally during the teen years. Ask your family doctor or a counsellor for some good books or articles on the topic or search online. Even without any major changes in their home or school, it is expected that teenagers will often exhibit different or negative behaviours. Testing the rules, arguing with parents and siblings or becoming uncommunicative are fairly common behaviour changes in the teenage years. The more you know, the more likely you will be able to figure out if these changing behaviours are related to the separation or to the ups and downs associated with adolescence. The more you know about your teen, the better able you will be to help your teen manage this confusing stage of development and the transition into young adulthood.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Your willingness to compromise on some issues will go a long way when you need to stand your ground on major issues related to their well-being and safety. For example, give them more freedom to decide on dress and hair or what they put up on their walls. Some fights just aren’t worth it. And by showing that you are willing to negotiate on some things, you show that you are acknowledging their needs and respecting their growing independence.

Help teenagers keep their friends. If possible,keep teenagers in their current school where they have already developed a network of friends. Some of these friends may have experienced divorce in their own family. Make it easy for teenagers to see their friends regularly, and work to ensure that the separation and divorce process does not take up all of their time and energy. It's natural for teenagers – regardless of whether or not their parents are together or separated – to sometimes choose to spend time with friends or extended family members rather than with a parent. If there is a move to a new location or long trips between their parents' residences, teenagers will need to make new friends and adapt to new situations, which can make this life event even more difficult and stressful. It will take time for them to adjust.

Other things you can do:

  • If your teens are having trouble telling their friends about the separation, assure them that it is okay to take their time on sharing the news. If they ask, you can share some possible language for them to use. (See Section 3 – Communicating and Connecting with Your Children.)
  • Respect your teen’s need to be alone at times, but make sure your teen knows that you are available if needed
  • Avoid making your teen your best friend or companion.
  • “Do as I say, not as I do.” Teens become very aware – and often highly critical – of their parents’ double-standards. They are particularly adept at detecting dishonesty, double standards and manipulation. Enforcing consequences after certain behaviours won’t work if teens see that you do not follow through on what you say you will do. Try to be consistent and model the behaviours you expect from your children.
  • Avoid waiting until things get out of control – seek help from school or professionals when you see troubling, recurrent behaviours or if your teen withdraws and appears depressed.
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