The way a child reacts to a family break up depends on the age of the child. An older child is better equipped to understand a break-up than does a younger child. Depending on the parent-child relationship, the child may show a range of emotions from sadness to rebellion when the relationship has changed.
Often times when a family splits up, the young child does not have the ability to process the break-up. The child does realize that things are changing. To cope with the changing situation, children will likely change their behavior. Toddler and school age children have vivid imaginations and sometimes think a parent has left because of something the child had done. As a form of security, the child clings to one of the parents or to a favorite toy. Conversely, the child may become angry with the parent for leaving, and express that anger in temper tantrums.
Encourage children to ask questions so they can better understand what is going on.
School Age Children
School age children have the ability to understand family break-ups better than the younger children. However they do not have the ability to control the emotions as an older child would. During this age, the child withdraws from others. The eating habits and sleeping habits change. The feeling of rejection comes from the absence of a parent. The children feel abandoned and wonder about the security of the future. Instead of withdrawing, the child may become angry with the parents because of that loss of security. As a result, children may begin misbehaving in school and lose focus in class.
To help children cope, parents must encourage the child to talk openly about her feelings. Avoid discussing adult issues such as money problems in front of or with the child.
Pre-teens and teenagers have the ability to understand that their family is separating. They may not accept it, but do understand it. At this age, the teenager is able voice an opinion in situations, such as which parent to live with. Some teens manipulate the situation to get their way. The teen may refuse to have contact with the other parent until the parent meets the teen's terms. Some teens may try to take on the burden of uniting the families. Finally, the teen may feel anger when he realizes the parents are not getting back together.
Encourage the teen to talk about her emotions. Develop a steady routine of day-to-day activities. Monitor the teens' activities to ensure that the teen is behaving appropriately. Enforce the fact that the teen must show both parents respect at all times regardless of how the situation changes. Keep adult discussions (again, money and logistics) between the adults, and away from the teen.