The Worst Age for Divorce for Children

There are many things to consider when divorcing with children. Among them is your child's age. Age is a big factor in the effects divorce has on children.

It's hard to say that there's a single worst age for divorce for children. From newborn babies to young adults, a divorce could cause emotional turmoil for any child. Plus, there are so many other factors in how they react. However, certain age groups tend to have stronger reactions.

This doesn't mean you should hold off on your divorce until your kids reach a certain age, but be aware that they may need more help coping right now.

Children and parents typically adjust within two years of the divorce. To get to that point, parents need to be supportive and reassuring.

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Children's reactions to divorce by age

There's no way to predict how your children will react to the divorce. Here are some common changes observed in each age group.

Divorce with a baby (0 to 18 months old)

Choosing to divorce while pregnant or after having a baby is a big decision. You're dealing with the changes of becoming a parent to a new child and ending your marriage at once.

There are a lot of misconceptions about divorcing with a newborn. Many believe babies are too young to remember the divorce. However, it's possible for them to remember some events, though the memories usually fade within a few years.

They can also feel whatever emotions parents are putting out. It's important to shield them from conflict, even though they may not understand what you're saying.

After divorce, infants need physical comfort, consistency, routine and soothing items (e.g., teddy bears). Stick to the feeding and sleep schedule you've had so you don't break them out of their routine. A custody schedule for a baby should allow frequent visits for the parent who's leaving the home.

If you're divorcing with a newborn, you might notice:

  • Irritability
  • Clinginess
  • Developmental delays

Toddlers and divorce (18 months to 3 years old)

The effects of divorce on toddlers are largely emotional. Toddlers cannot understand what's going on, but they will notice that one parent is leaving home. They will rely on their parents for reassurance that they'll still be cared for.

Spend quality time with your child. Read to them, go to the park and discuss their feelings with them in an age-appropriate manner.

You can use simple language to explain the divorce: "Daddy's moving to a different house, but you'll be able to visit him." "Mommy isn't here right now, but you'll see her soon."

They may ask if you're getting back together. Explain that you won't be living together anymore but will continue to work together as parents. Video calls with the parent who's outside of the household could also help soothe them.

Try to keep a consistent visitation schedule for your toddler and similar routines in both households. You can specify exactly how you'll handle discipline, bedtime, etc. in your parenting plan.

Toddlers may:

  • Throw tantrums
  • Want more attention
  • Have trouble sleeping alone
  • Become controlling

Divorce with young children (3 to 5 years old)

Young children struggle with not having control of the situation. Even if their parents frequently argue, they won't want their parents to divorce.

It's a good idea to inform them of your separation after the parent who's leaving home has found another place to live. That way, your child can see they'll still be able to visit the parent and have their own space.

Preschoolers often bottle up their emotions. These repressed emotions can surface as tantrums and bad behavior. Try to get them to speak up about what they're feeling. Arts and crafts can help them to express themselves as well.

Once you set up a preschooler visitation schedule, follow it closely. The more confident your young child is that both parents will stayed involved in their life, the faster they'll adjust to the new living arrangement.

It's common for young children to:

  • Blame themselves for the divorce
  • Have nightmares
  • Bottle up their emotions
  • Reflect their parents' reactions

Divorce with school-aged kids (5 to 13 years old)

The school-aged years are probably the worst age for divorce for children; the potential for emotional trauma from divorce is highest at age 11. Children in this age group tend to be more self-centered, meaning the breakdown of the family unit can feel like a personal attack.

While they may not fully understand your reasons for splitting, it's important to sit them down — preferably with both parents and all children present — to tell them you're divorcing. If they take the news hard, speaking with a child or family therapist could help.

Give them age-appropriate books about divorce and encourage them to express themselves through arts and crafts. Doing their favorite activities together and encouraging them to express their feelings also helps. Choose a school-aged visitation schedule that allows them to spend ample time with each parent.

Don't bad-mouth one another in front of the child or use the child to communicate, which only make things worse.

Children in elementary school typically:

  • Believe they can save their parents' marriage
  • Blame one parent for the divorce
  • Have physical reactions like stomach aches and headaches due to stress
  • Exhibit behavioral issues (e.g., fighting in school, failing grades, bed-wetting)
  • Show signs of depression and anxiety

Teenagers and divorce (13 to 18 years old)

Teenagers can understand what divorce is. Some even show signs of relief that they no longer have to hear their parents argue. It's common for them to just want to move on with their lives.

Often, their greatest concern is that the divorce will affect their social life, so build your teenager custody calendar accordingly.

Break the news together in a conversation that's specifically about the divorce. Listen to their thoughts, and answer their questions in an appropriate manner.

They may become angry or annoyed. It's important to be patient and acknowledge their emotions. If they won't open up to you or seem to be struggling, ask if they need to talk to a counselor.

Take a genuine interest in what your child likes to do, and encourage them to explore it more. Also, try to keep track of their grades and what's going on in their lives to make sure they aren't engaging in risky behavior.

Teenagers often:

  • Become distant
  • Engage in risky behavior (e.g., drug use)
  • Have a more negative outlook or become critical of others
  • Show signs of depression and anxiety
  • Struggle in school

Adult children of divorced parents (18 years old and up)

Many people discount adult children when thinking of the worst age for divorce for children. However, it could impact them as well — even if they no longer live at home.

Be thoughtful about how you break the news. Do it together with all the kids present, if possible. Afterward, give them time to process. Seeing their parents split after so many years can be devastating. Even if it isn't immediately apparent that they're struggling with the news, new feelings could spring up after a time.

Since they're adults, you may feel like airing all the details of why you're getting a divorce. This could sow more discord as it prompts them to choose sides. If there are multiple children, each may side with different parents, putting them at odds with each other. It could even end the child's relationship with the parent they don't side with.

Parents often put a greater burden on their adult children as they believe the kids can "handle it." This sometimes includes asking for financial assistance and moving in with the children. Though they're adults, they're still your children. Lean on them for support, but consider the amount of stress you may be putting them under.

Adult children may:

  • Get angry
  • Become resentful
  • Feel betrayed
  • Have trouble trusting others

Use technology to help your kids after divorce

Divorced parents should do everything they can to work together. Creating a parenting plan is a solid start.

The Custody X Change app walks you through each step of creating a plan. Parents can link accounts to share potential plans and schedules.

The result is an organized plan that meets the court's standards and simplifies parenting post divorce.

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