It is inevitable that children are going to experience stress after their parents undergo a separation or divorce. However, it is important that, as a parent, you watch for signs of undue stress, because if your child manifests a significant degree of undue stress for an extended period of time, there may be a need for intervention with a specialist.
Children’s emotional needs, and their signs of stress, will differ depending upon the age of the child. Consider the following:
Age – 2: Babies require consistency and routine. Prolonged, unfamiliar disruptions in their routine will cause them stress. Manifestations of stress in an infant include: increased crying, clingy behavior (separation anxiety), marked changes in dating or sleeping. Note, however, that growth spurts, teething, etc., can also cause similar symptoms.
Age 2 – 4: In a toddler, stress signals include regressive behaviors, for example, a preschooler that was toilet-trained may regress and have “potty accidents”. As well, problems sleeping through the night and uncharacteristic anger may be demonstrated.
Age 6 – 8: Young children are concerned with the issue of fault, therefore it’s important to try not to place blame on the former spouse, and to keep reminding children that they are loved, and will always be loved. Children in this age group also sometimes fantasize about their parents uniting- it is important to be realistic with your children regarding this unrealistic fantasy (and be realistic with yourself, as well). Signs of stress may take the form of extended periods of sadness, uncharacteristic aggression, fractured friendships, or physical ailments including headaches and stomach-aches. Check with your children’s teachers to see if there are any manifestations of stress, in the classroom, as sometimes children will act differently with their parents in contrast to their behavior when their parents are not present.
Age 9 – 12: Older children are reaching for their independence between ages 9 – 12 and friendships, sports and hobbies are usually are higher priorities. Accordingly, it’s important to synchronize your children’s schedule with the other custodial parent to allow for continuity in your children’s recreational schedule. As well, children become more conscious of the views of their peers. Recognize this, give your children respect and demand respect for yourself, in turn. Also anticipate that your child may begin to express a strong preference for a parent of a particular gender, for example, the minor custodial parent – if so, try not to take this personally, and continue being a caring and involved parent.
Signs of stress in this age bracket may include fractured friendships, depression, anger, or physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches and learning problems.
Age 12 – 15: Young teenagers need consistent support, ideally from both of their parents. They are inclined to place blame on one parent, and if they become angry or reclusive, the lines of communication may be disrupted. Try to keep the communication a two-way street, and understand that there will be times that your children do not want to share their thoughts, which is acceptable, so long as communication is eventually shared.
Signs of stress include: depression, uncharacteristic involvement in drugs, alcohol or sexual activity, and exaggerated anger or “teenager tantrums”.
Again, it is helpful to talk your children’s teachers, and it may be helpful to schedule a meeting with a school counselor. However, this should be done with the cooperation and involvement of your children, as they will be sensitive to control issues.
Dating after divorce can be a sensitive issue, when teenagers are in the house. Your children may feel awkward about the changes that you are going through, and any potential boyfriends. Respect your children’s need for “personal space” and find a balance recognizing your right to re-enter the singles scene and their feelings on the subject.