Recently, I was speaking with an acquaintance who was in an unenviable position. She was faced with the decision of getting a divorce or, as she put it, “trying to stick it out and make it work for the kids.” In her mind, she had determined that the marriage was over and her husband felt the same, but she was concerned that their young children were at a particular age where they were not able to understand or process the breakup in a healthy manner.
While each parents’ decision to stay or not stay in a marriage is their own to make, I was reminded that parents and children struggle with different aspects of the divorce depending on the age of the children involved. As a family law attorney with over 15 years experience, I know how critical this time can be in children’s lives.
Kids of all ages are negatively affected by divorce. However, it is important to recognize that the age of the child may affect their resiliency with certain divorce related situations and strategies can be employed by divorcing parents to minimize the negative feelings the child may experience.
This blog will focus on some of the issues that are common in divorces involving children between the ages of 0 and 10. This is a critical time frame in the development of children and it’s important for parents to be informed of their children’s primary needs and to have and resources available to help them make good decisions during this difficult time.
Age range: 0 to 3-years-old.
With infants and toddlers, it’s important to recognize that their primary need is bonding with both parents. It’s critical that these children have regular and consistent contact with both of their parents throughout the week. Despite popular belief, no support has been found for the notion that children in this age range need to spend significantly more time with mom than with dad.
Many family law attorneys and mediators encourage their clients with really young children to exchange the children consistently, frequently and freely. This is because the children will do much better if they have daily contact with both parents as this assists the child in making strong attachments. As the child gets closer to the age of three, special consideration should be given to providing guidance on how to separate from the parent during drop offs or exchanges.
It’s important that parents take appropriate steps to develop a plan that supports the goals of freely exchanging the children in a healthy manner and creating strong attachments. The child/parent attachments made during this developmental stage will last a lifetime.
Helpful tips for parents of 0 to 3 -year-olds:
First, consider what life was like for the child before the divorce. Attempts should be made by both parents to mirror the structure and consistency that was in place before the separation. The goal is to mimic or recreate the routines and structure that the child became accustomed to prior to the restructuring of the family.
It is usually best to approach parenting roles as interchangeable and not static during this age range. In other words, with limited exceptions both parents can step in and fulfill the parenting role at any time. Parents should be hesitant to push some activities or roles to one parent and other activities or roles to the other parent. Doing so can create a situation where the child is spending a significantly unequal amount of time with one parent, thus reducing the attachments made with the other parent.
As new issues arrive, it can be helpful for the parents to offer information to one another and help generate options that are more in line with the infants needs as they change. This may seem second nature for parents who still a friendly with one another. For parents that are more resistant, or who are not on the same page with parenting issues, it could be helpful to float new information and new ideas under the heading of “experimenting.”
Helpful phrases are similar to “You know, I’ve noticed that what we’re currently doing, isn’t working as well as we hoped. I wonder if we can experiment for the next few weeks by doing ______” or “Johnny sometimes struggles when ________ occurs. I wonder if we could try experimenting with doing __________instead and see if Johnny doesn’t react in a different way.” These types of observations that are communicated without blame are underutilized by high conflict parents.
Other helpful phrases that get at the heart of the issue are similar to:
- “How can we create a schedule that gives our infant the ability to bond and have quality time with each of parent?”
- “What are some ways we can work together to provide our little one routine and structure in both of our homes?”
- “How can we mirror the structure and consistency in both of our separate houses so that our child has positive feelings about each home?”
The overarching goal is to get parents thinking about how they can create a sense of safety and security in each home. Consistent routines and structure are critical in this regard.
As children get closer to the age of 3, parental and child behavior at drop offs or child exchanges become more important. Parents need to be cool, calm and level headed especially since the child may not be—it’s difficult separating from a parent no matter how long when children are at this age. While high levels of communication are critical for divorcing parents, the drop off or exchange is not the time to have detailed parental communication. Any parental items that need more than a brief discussion should be dealt with before or after the exchange and outside of the toddlers presence to make it easier on the toddler (and the parents).
Age range: 3 to 5-years-old.
Children in this age range are developing their identity and establishing their self-esteem. Parents should work hard to offer special guidance aimed at assisting the child with these important tasks. Children in this age range see, hear and absorb much more than we know. It is critical that parents work hard to safeguard their children’s self-esteem. Parents should shield the children from hearing negative comments about the other parent and especially from witnessing any conflict with the other parent. The child knows that they are half of each parent and if they are witnessing conflict or hearing negative comments about a parent this can have a negative effect on the child’s self-esteem or sense of worth. After all, if the child is hearing that mom is a bad person, and the child knows they are half mom, does that mean that the child is also a bad person? Children in this age range often make this logical leap so it is important to make sure they do not hear or feel negativity towards the other parent.
Helpful tips for parents of 3 to 5-year-olds:
Often, parents who are going through divorce find it difficult to find or say something nice about the other parent. When this occurs, it can be helpful to ask the child what are the favorite two or three things about the other parent. A four-year-old may say something like “I love how mom plays board games with me” or “I really like how dad sings songs with me when I wake up in the morning.” The parent can now reinforce these attributes by saying something to the child like “aren’t we fortunate that mom is so good at playing games with you?” or “you and your dad really have good singing voices and I can tell that he really enjoys his time singing with you.” Reinforcing the positive attributes of both parents is an important step in this developmental stage. Believe it or not, these phrases are helping build your child’s self-esteem and establishing that they are a good person—just like their parents!
Additionally, parents should be placing high importance on understanding how the child is managing transitions between each household. It is common to hear parents reporting the child’s behavior is different when they come back from the other parent’s house. This is to be expected – remember, the child is transitioning between two different worlds.
Transition time is difficult on both of their parents and the children. To help alleviate this difficulty, each parent should consider having a “transition routine.” In other words, every time a parent receives their child, they should consider taking the same set of actions to create a predictable environment for both the child and the parent. For example, whenever dad receives the child, he sits down with them and does an age-appropriate puzzle. Or, every time mom receives the child, they do a drawing of something they hope to do together that day. This routine allows the child to have an opportunity to decompress and helps both the child and the parent get on track for their upcoming adventures together.
Age range: 6 to 9-year-olds.
Children are continuing to develop their self-esteem and establish their sense of worth during this developmental stage. These children are spreading their wings and doing new things like extracurricular activities and engaging in new social situations. This is a time when they are thinking about their own sense of worth and it is important that parents continue to safeguard their children’s self-esteem and also do purposeful acts to help the child develop a positive view of where they fit into this big world.
Additionally, it is common for children in this age range to want it to talk about the divorce. These conversations are critical and both parents should strive to be ready to handle this topic in a healthy and consistent manner when it comes up.
Helpful tips for parents of 6 to 9-year-olds:
The same tool mentioned above in regards to reinforcing and speaking about the positive attributes of the other parent is even more important in this phase. Parents should strive to find ways to build up the other parent in their child’s eyes even during this tough time. These efforts are difficult, but will pay off in the not-too-distant future. Role modeling positivity and making sure the child understands that both of their parents have positive and worthwhile attributes can help the child create a strong sense of self-esteem as they grow into adolescence and beyond.
Parents should be trying to create consistency and positivity surrounding the child’s extracurricular activities. If the child has soccer every Saturday, it’s important to both parents try to make sure he or she gets there and that the parent’s attendance (hopefully both attend) is stress free on the child. A situation where the child only attends half of the soccer games because mom or dad won’t take her to soccer when it’s on “their weekend” robs the child of critical time making new friends and learning new skills. It may seem obvious but she can’t score that goal that she will remember for the rest of her life if she isn’t there—so recognizing that both parents need to get her there, even if they don’t want to, is an important step.
Parents also need to be ready to have the often-dreaded divorce conversation with their child. It is almost certain that the child is going to bring it during this stage and this conversation can be difficult albeit extremely important.
When the topic of the divorce does come up, this is not the time to burden your child with all of the specifics. Rather, it is best to stay general and make sure the following messages are shared in a loving way:
- Kids don’t cause divorce—this divorce is not your fault.
- Kids can’t fix or change the divorce – this is a permanent change in the family no matter how much you wish or hope that things will go back to the way they were.
- However, just because you can’t change the divorce doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to handle the divorce—both of us will be here to help you in this difficult time.
- Finally, there once was love between the parents and while the same amount of love is no longer present, both parents are committed to loving the child and trying to create a happy childhood.
It’s important to provide guidance to the child and not shy away from this difficult conversation. Children may fantasize or have ideas that they can save their parents’ marriage. Parents should address this by reinforcing that no matter how much they wish or hope that things will change, the divorce is going to happen. While this may seem harsh to some, when a child believes they can fix the marriage, they often blame themselves for the failed marriage or struggle under the heavy burden of trying to fix the unfixable.
Children in this age range will also worry about losing their relationship with a parent or even worry about being replaced in the family (particularly if there are new family members like stepbrothers or stepsisters). It is important to reinforce the notion that both parents love their child unconditionally and that the child holds a special and irreplaceable place in the family.
This age range is especially difficult for both the parents and the children going through the divorce. Parental communication is critical in this phase. New things are going to be coming at both the parents and the child. Parents should be proactively talking to each other about how to make decisions on extracurricular activities, how to attend the child’s activities in a stress-free manner, how to deal with the children’s new friends and how to deal with tracking items between homes.
When the topic of the divorce does come up, hopefully the parents I’ve had some type of pre-meeting so that they can both reinforce the same important concepts. Namely, the parents once had a tremendous amount of love for one another and while they still don’t love each other the same way this is not the child’s fault. Additionally, while the child can’t fix or stop this permanent change in the family, the child can learn how to deal with this new situation and both parents will be there to help guide the child through this difficult process. Most importantly, both parents have an incredible amount of love for their child and nothing can cause this to change.
Recognizing how divorce affects children differently depending on their age is an important step for both parents and professionals providing family law services. While I have attended many seminars on these and other parenting topics, I found the Co-Parenting Specialist Certification Training Program with Christina McGhee and Susan Guthrie (offered through Mosten Guthrie) to be especially helpful in understanding these dynamics and how I can better assist couples with children thorough their divorce.
Finally, parents who find themselves going through a divorce should consider the use of mediation to resolve family law conflicts. One thing I know from my experience as a litigator is that parents who minimize conflict have children who stand a better chance at thriving in adulthood. Mediation offers a conflict reducing model that many families find superior to the standard litigation model. More information can be found on the benefits of mediation at my website Wagnerfamlaw.com.
Jason Wagner has more than 15 years experience handling high-stakes family law disputes at the litigation-based law firm of Dick and Wagner in Sacramento, Ca. During his career, Jason assisted in the settlement of many types of cases totaling hundreds of millions of dollars in assets resolved.
In 2022, Jason founded Wagner Family Law which is a mediation-based firm where he is now a full-time mediator. Jason Wagner can be contacted at 916-432-2372 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Wagnerfamlaw.com