Worst Age for Divorce for Children’s Emotional Health

Published June 30, 2020
Upset kids by parents fighting

Divorce is a huge life-changing shift for everyone in the family, and for kids, it can certainly impact their emotional wellbeing. Research is conflicting regarding the worst age for children to experience divorce, however, regardless of age, there are ways you and your co-parent can minimize the psychological impact of divorce on your children.

Will Divorce Hurt My Child?

There's no way around the pain associated with this significant life event, and for your child, it may feel overwhelming, heartbreaking, and scary. Teenagers may be able to understand why you and your partner are divorcing, but they may still experience anxiety, pain, and fear of what the future may look like post-divorce. For a child and teen, divorce can bring up:

  • Nervousness about if and/or when their parents may begin dating other people
  • Anxiousness about what their new routine will look like
  • Fear that the divorce is their fault
  • Worried about not seeing one parent as much
  • Upset that the family they grew up with is changing

Even if your co-parent was abusive, your child can still feel mixed emotions about what the divorce will mean for them and that's okay. Be sure to let them process their feelings openly and ensure them through consistent actions that you will continue to be the stable, loving parent that they can rely on, even if their other parent isn't around (due to custody or other issues).

At What Age Does a Divorce Affect a Child?

Divorce can impact a child at any age. Infants and children can sense tension and conflict and internalize it. While they may not show outward signs of distress (or they may), in longitudinal studies, children who have gone through a divorce tend to experience more psychological difficulty as they get older. However, children whose parents didn't divorce, but had high levels of marital conflict tend to grow up with more psychological, as well as physical health issues than those who divorced, but maintained a healthy co-parenting relationship.

  • Research is conflicting as to what age is the worst for children to experience a divorce.
  • Some research indicates that younger children have a harder time adjusting than pre-teens and teens.
  • Other research notes that age just illustrates how one processes the divorce.
  • Within two years post-divorce, children, as well as their parents, tend to adjust to their new normal.
  • Problems may appear to peak around adolescents because that may be when they tend to begin to show interest in dating. This doesn't necessarily mean that adolescents struggle more than kids of other ages, just differently.
  • Age impacts how distress and struggles are expressed, not necessarily how much kids struggle.
girl listening to her parents arguing

Conflict Is the Real Risk Factor

Interparental conflict is a major risk factor when it comes to children's psychological wellbeing. While it's ideal to have a child or children raised in a household with two loving parents or caregivers, managing conflict within the marriage or post-divorce is the best step you can take to protect your child's wellbeing. You can do so by:

  • Creating a parenting agreement that you both stick to
  • Prioritizing the children's wellbeing
  • Refraining from speaking poorly about each other, especially to the kids
  • Seeing a therapist together to discuss how to co-parent if issues cannot be resolved on your own
  • Never arguing or being dismissive of each other, especially in front of your kids

Being a unified front is key to healthy co-parenting. It not only creates the best environment for your child, but makes co-parenting a lot less stressful when you both support each other.

How Can Divorce Affect a Child Emotionally?

The psychological effects of divorce on children will vary, and parents may wonder if staying together for the sake of the kids is the best solution for their family. About 72 percent of divorces occur within the first 14 years of marriage, and for those who remarry, about 40 percent will go through their second divorce, which can put kids at an even higher risk of emotional turmoil. Kids and teens may grieve, feel anxious, be irritable, experience symptoms of depression, feel abandoned and lonely, and worry about their future. Their emotional process may:

  • Lead to potential behavioral problems
  • Increase academic problems
  • Result in diagnosable mental health issues
  • Lead to an increase in risky behaviors

Effects of Divorce on Babies

Babies age zero to 18 months may notice that one caregiver isn't around as much. After a divorce they may show more clinginess, show regressive behavior, throw more tantrums, and develop new sleep issues. Because babies are so sensitive to their environment, it's important to work out how to co-parent in healthy ways and try to remove as much fighting and hostility as possible, as this can be really difficult for a baby to experience. Babies may not show outward signs of distress, but they can internalize stressful interactions between you and your co-parent.

Effects of Divorce on Toddlers

Toddlers age 18 months to 3 years old can definitely notice that one parent isn't around as much and may even understand that one parent has moved out. They may tell you that they miss their other parent when with you and have a hard time understanding why they can't live in the same house anymore. Toddlers may throw tantrums, be extra clingy with one or both parents, experience some regressions, act out more, experience difficulty sleeping, and complain of physical pain.

Effects of Divorce on Preschoolers

Preschoolers ages 3 to 5 years old may complain about stomachaches and headaches, may ask often about their other parent and why they aren't living with you, experience some regressive behaviors, may throw tantrums, as well as show an increase in aggressive behaviors. While some kids may continue to want to play with their friends and engage typically, others may withdraw a bit. Sleep issues and nightmares may also begin to come up.

Effects of Divorce on Children and Pre-teens

Children and pre-teens ages 6 to 12 years old may experience an increase in worrying, act out, and may blame you or your ex-partner for the divorce. They may also complain of physical pain, experience a change in appetite, and not want to engage in activities that used to make them happy. They may believe that they can fix your relationship with their other parent and ask lots of questions as to why it can't work out.

Emotional Impact of Divorce on Teenagers

Teens ages 13 to 18 may act out, disengage from you, show anger toward you and/or their other parent, may align with one parent, may begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and may experience symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. They may also understand why you decided to get divorced, but still feel pain, confusion, and experience issues related to self-esteem.

Mother consoling sad teenage girl

Helping Kids Adjust

There are many ways you can help your child deal with divorce. Know that it is completely normal for your child to take time to adjust to their new routine and to feel nervous about what that may look like. It is your job to help your child feel loved and like they have a safe, stable, and structured environment that just looks a bit different than before.

  • Take care of yourself so you can be there for your kids emotionally.
  • If your child is being extra clingy, comfort them, hold them extra, and reassure them that you love them. If you need additional help, ask a loved one who your child trusts to spend time with them so you can take a breather and recharge.
  • Be open to hearing them and validate their perspective.
  • Don't make the conversation about you, solely focus on your kids.
  • Give them options for how to process such as reading relevant literature, journaling, engaging in symbolic play, and creating art.
  • Don't bad mouth your ex-partner- it's not okay to force your kids into the position of having to choose which parent to side with and it's very psychologically damaging to do so.
  • Maintain your child's typical routine, especially with meals and sleep. If they have a lovey, make sure they have it if transitioning from your house to their other parent's home.
  • Assure your child that they are not at fault for the divorce and that you love them very much.
  • Know that they will process this in their own time, so don't pressure them to do it according to what you think is best.

When to Seek Help for Your Child

If your child is struggling with acts of daily living and just doesn't seem like themselves, you may consider reaching out to a child psychotherapist who can help them process this situation. You know your child best, so if you feel like something is off, be sure to reach out for help right away. Common signs that you should take seriously include:

  • Joking or mentioning that they have suicidal thoughts as well as any self-harming behaviors (look for cutting, burning, hair pulling, and scratching)
  • Experiencing regressive behaviors such as bedwetting, thumb sucking, and excessive clinginess that aren't normally typical for your child
  • Having difficulty getting out of bed
  • Having a change in appetite that is not caused by another medical condition
  • Experiencing physical aches and pains not associated with another medical condition
  • Expressing significant worry
  • Struggling in school, as well as difficulty focusing (if that's not typical for your child)
  • Having a hard time falling asleep or a significant increase in sleeping
  • Engaging in risky behaviors such as using drugs and alcohol to cope (especially if this is out of character for your child)
  • Increasing tantrums and aggressiveness

Waiting to Divorce Until Child is 18

Waiting until your child is 18 doesn't necessarily mean that they will be better able to handle the divorce. If you can maintain a peaceful household with your co-parent, and are both comfortable waiting until your child is 18, you can certainly choose to do so. But, if you and your partner feel it is best to divorce in order to preserve your co-parenting relationship, that may be the healthier route to take. A significant factor between kids who adjust well into adulthood and kids who struggle is parental conflict, whether their parents are divorced or stayed together.

Effects of Divorce on Children

While there isn't a worst or best age for children to experience a divorce, there are steps you and your co-parent can take to help them adjust in healthy ways. Focus on creating a new structured environment for your child filled with warmth and love and be sure to up your level of self-care so you can continue to support your child's emotional wellbeing.

Worst Age for Divorce for Children’s Emotional Health