After Divorce – photo courtesy of the United States Marine Corps – photographer: Cpl. Stephanie IngersollCredit: photo courtesy of the United States Marine Corps – photographer: Cpl. Stephanie Ingersoll

It comes as no surprise child custody issues are a huge factor that can impact the mental health of divorce children.  Furthermore, the developmental age of children is a key factor when looking at the effects of divorce on children; different age groups of children share characteristics of the effects of divorce, before, during, and after divorce. 

The Effects of Divorce on Children Aged Eighteen Months to Three Years 

During this stage of development, the child is exploring the world in a safe and secure environment.  The presence of the mother and father gives the signal to children it is okay to explore as they begin to mimic the adults in their lives. 

When there is discord in the home environment, disruptions to routines can occur which cause stress to children.  Children, not adept at verbalizing their feelings will often begin to display their feelings through nervous out of control behavior.  Their imagination is far worse than the reality and they begin to fear if one parent leaves, the other will soon follow, leaving them all alone and unsafe.  Symptoms can include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Bed-wetting
  • Whining
  • Trouble eating
  • Clinging 

Children of Divorce at Ages Three to Five Years 

This stage of child development is usually considered the most difficult for children with divorced parents.   It is during this stage the emotional blueprint is established.  How children complete the tasks associated with this stage determines their attitudes and their outlook on life.

Starting school during this stage takes children out into the world with their self concepts and the belief their parents will be there to protect them when needed.   It is also during this time the opposite sex parent becomes more influential as the child begins to experience his or her innocent sexuality and have a vague notion of the ideal mate.  

Two other developments occur during this stage that can significantly impact how children cope with divorcing parents.  Children’s egos give them the beliefs they are the center of everyone’s world; and they begin to develop a conscious.  These two factors often bring about the turmoil that children believe they are the cause of their parents splitting.  Possible reactions to divorce include:

  • Denial
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Cloying need for approval 

Divorce Children Between the Ages of Six and Ten 

This stage of a child's development is known as early latency and children at this age strongly identify with their parents as gender-role models and ideals of behavior.  At this stage, children view their parents as a cohesive unit and if one leaves; it signals it is imminent the other will also leave.  Children become insecure and fearful, feel betrayed and helpless to ensure their own security.  

Children at this age often engage in isolating behaviors.  Helpless to mend the break of their parents; they at times are torn between loyalties; accepting the role of a “go-between” and on the surface enjoying the attention it brings until eventually they cannot tolerate the discrepancies and retreat to a self-induced lonely place. 

The Effects of Divorce on Children Ages Nine to Twelve 

Children of this age tend to have black-and-white morality with rigid codes of ethics and few shades of gray.   While at this stage children are looking for outside sources to bolster their self-esteem; they continue to gather Children of Divorce May Show Anger – photo by Ryan DickeyCredit: photo by Ryan Dickeyself-esteem through their parents’ accomplishments.  

If the parents break the family rules, the children feel betrayed and angry. When parents began to bicker and the family is in discord; the children see one parent as “bad” and the other as “good.”   They direct their hostilities towards the “bad” parent; feeling righteous indignation that both they and the “good” parent have been betrayed.  Though children of this age do not blame themselves for the divorce; they often have a lingering feeling of if their parents really loved them, they would stay together.  

Children and Divorce During the Teen Years 

The teen years are the most changing for children in that they fluctuate between stages as they navigate their thirst to explore the boundaries of their lives.  They can present as a mature individual on the cusp of adulthood one moment; and a tantruming toddler in the next.  As teens create their worlds, the family provides a safety net.  The leaving of a parent can be felt as a personal abandonment by the teen. 

Divorce is a complex issue and the impact on children can be so varied.  It is simplistic to state that if a child is five he is going to feel excessive guilt; or if it happens when he is eleven he will have problems in peer relationships.  It is often said children are resilient; however, it is clear divorce does impact children, just as it does the parents.   

The level of impact depends on the developmental level and the aftermath of the divorce.  Furthermore, the manner in how the impending divorce is told to the children, the issues of child custody, and the continued relationship between the parents all will affect how children will cope with the divorce of their parents.  



Hirschfeld, Mary. The Adult Children of Divorce Workbook. Los Angles: Tarcher, 1992. 



The copyright of the article “The Effects of Divorce on Children” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.