At early ages, the way that children experience the world evolves at a rapid pace.   This evolution includes the way that children experience the divorce of their parents.   Children in the early elementary years understand and experience divorce in a much more sophisticated manner than younger children; however, they are still young enough to require significant support to help them manage this major life change. 

The good news is that there are several strategies that parents can employ to help their kids with this change:

Helping Kids Regain Control

At ages 6 to 8, kids have a clearer understanding as to how divorce will affect their lives (e.g. moving across two different households, potentially changing schools, impact on extracurricular activities, etc.) and can adapt to co-parenting more easily than younger kids.    However, this understanding can make them feel that their lives are now outside of their control.  

Parents can help their children regain a sense of control over their lives by allowing them to give their input in decisions that will affect the kids’ lives.   Seeking input, and being open and respectful about that input, can help kids feel that they have some control over their lives.   This process can also help parents gain a better understanding about the underlying concerns that their kids may have with the divorce.   For example, if a child needs to change schools, they may want reassurances that they will still be able to get together with their best friend from that school.   In this case, the child’s issue may not be the actual change in schools, but the ability to maintain important relationships that they have developed.

Making Sure Kids Feel Safe and Secure Throughout the Divorce Process

Children rely on their parents to help them feel safe, secure and for their self-esteem.    The ability for kids to adjust to divorce is best when the divorce is not contentious.   Conversely, when a divorce is contentious, the feelings of safety and security are undermined.  Consider the following:

  • Control your temper – If you cannot control your temper, decrease your face-to-face interactions with your ex-spouse (e.g. do transitions at school instead of at the home).
  • Encourage a positive relationship with the other parent – Reassure your child that you want them to have a great relationship with your ex and provide opportunities for that relationship (unless there are safety issues).
  • Take care of yourself –Kids are naturally protective of their parents and will move to a caretaking role if they are worried about their parent’s adjustment to divorce.  Get help for your feelings and struggles from your friends or a professional so that you can provide an environment for your child to continue being a child.

Looking Out for Signs of Distress

All kids react to divorce, but if you are concerned that your child’s reaction is extreme or is not improving over time, get help for them.   Things to look out for include the following:

  • Regression – losing already developed skills is a common reaction to stress for kids
  • Sadness – Crying and withdrawal are signs of sadness and are normal, but if you feel they are affecting your child’s functioning, seek help from a school counselor or psychologist
  • Anger – Angry feelings and oppositional behaviors are ways to express their unhappiness about divorce.   Consistent rules and discipline (within and between houses) provided in a warm and loving relationship is critical for managing behavioral issues.
  • Academic issues – 1st to 3rd grade are foundational academic years, so if you feel your child is struggling at school, get help right away to prevent longer term issues. 

At this age, books about divorce may help them to normalize the thoughts and feelings they are having and can promote useful discussions with you to understand their experience.

Many kids will have divorced parents.  Understanding what matters at each age and developmental stage will help you smooth that transition for your child.