When Avra Kutcher’s parents separated, she felt a sense of relief. Though she was just 7 years old at the time, she knew that her parents “were always fighting, so, even at that young age, I figured it would be better for them to be apart,” says Kutcher, now a 24-year-old graduate student who still splits her time between her parents’ homes in White Plains and Dobbs Ferry, respectively. “And they did have an amicable divorce, so things did get better.”
That doesn’t mean her parents’ divorce didn’t have an effect on Kutcher. As she and her younger sister divided their time between two homes, her parents, especially her mom, would feel awful when the children would leave to go spend time at the other parent’s house. “It has definitely affected my decision-making, because I always want to try to make everyone happy.”
Divorce can be tough on a couple—but often, it’s harder on their children. Research shows that children of divorced parents are more likely to start smoking before the age of 18, to fall behind in math and social skills, to be overweight, and, eventually, to drop out of school. Still, experts in general believe that unhappy couples should not stay together just for the sake of the children. “If the parents are always fighting, that simply isn’t healthy for the kids,” says Leslie Montanile, a divorce attorney in White Plains. “And if the couple stays together for the kids, the children will blame themselves later in life because Mom and Dad were miserable for so long for them.”
So what happens when there is no alternative but to end the marriage? “Determining how well a child will adjust to the divorce really depends on the parents and the level of conflict they have with one another,” says Ilene Rabinowitz, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in White Plains. “If the couple is getting along and can talk easily about what’s best for the child, then the impact on the child will be lighter.”
In addition to each family’s particular situation, how divorce affects a child depends a great deal on his or her age. Here, a breakdown of what children whose parents divorce experience at various ages and stages—and how parents can help.
Preschool (ages 2-4)
It’s easy for parents to dismiss the impact of divorce on kids in this age group. After all, they’re so young they probably don’t even know what’s going on in their own home, right? Not true, says Elana Greenberg, a social worker in Armonk. “Even with no verbal skills, they still understand that one parent is no longer living at home. And that can feel like abandonment—especially if the child is being shuttled from one place to the other.”
Another issue is that children this age don’t have a good sense of time, so even though Daddy might come over every few days for visitation, to the child, it seems like he’s away for much longer. “As they get older, very young children can develop an overwhelming sense of fear that if one parent can leave, will the other parent disappear too?” says Greenberg.
What to do: Every child needs structure, but it’s particularly important for young kids. “Both parents need to keep up the same routine in both homes,” explains Greenberg. “And Mom and Dad need to keep the lines of communication open because the child cannot fully communicate for himself.” Parents also need to make an effort to be at the big events together, such as the child’s birthday parties, dance recitals, etc. According to Greenberg, this sends the message that the divorce is not their fault and that Mom’s and Dad’s love for them is greater than any negative feelings they may have towards each other.
Kids this age are experiencing school in a real way for the first time, dealing with academic challenges and trying to fit in to peer groups. If the support base at home isn’t steady—Mom and Dad are constantly fighting or one parent isn’t keeping up with his or her custodial duties—then the child will not feel comfortable in the social world, says Greenberg. “Kids are very egocentric at this age, so they can easily blame themselves for the divorce. They believe if they were better behaved, their parents would still be together.”
It is especially hurtful to the child when one parent is badmouthing the other. That’s what happened to the children of Natalie Martelli, an administrative assistant in Rye. After divorcing her husband of 23 years a decade ago, Martelli says her ex continually criticized and complained about her to their three kids, then ages 9, 20, and 23. This caused problems for the children in terms of adjusting to the divorce, as well as in their relationship with their dad. “One of my kids is already married and divorced, while another has needed counseling to learn how to deal with this,” says Martelli. “It has definitely caused anger and resentment towards their father.”
What to do: Parents need to adhere to a consistent schedule and maintain a sense of calm at home. And no matter what happens between them, they should never criticize each other in front of their children. “Often, the only way one spouse can get back at the other is through the child,” says Montanile. “They don’t realize the only person they’re hurting is their child.” The “best” type of divorce is when the parents work together so that their children realize they are loved and the world didn’t come to an end because Dad (or, in some instances, Mom) doesn’t live in the house anymore.
Friends really become important to kids at this stage, which is why their parents’ divorce can wreak havoc on their social lives. A child may want to see his or her dad on the weekends, but he or she also wants to go to a friend’s birthday party, sleepover, etc. “The ability to have activities that include unstructured time with friends is crucial,” says Rabinowitz. “And kids are so overscheduled during the week that they might only get that time on the weekends.”
So what happens when a child of divorced parents doesn’t get that time with friends? He starts to resent the parent coming between him and his pals, says Greenberg. “It has nothing to do with the actual divorce—it’s just that the parents aren’t as important anymore. His peers have become the center of his social world.”
And both Rabinowitz and Greenberg are quick to point out that kids not only want to be with their friends at this age, they need to. “They’re beginning to be cognizant of forming their own identity,” says Dr. Rabinowitz. “They’re asking questions like, ‘What interests do I have?’ ‘What kind of friend am I?’”
What to do: Parents need to respect and acknowledge their child’s social life and work together to make sure he doesn’t miss out on special events with his friends. Most important, says Greenberg, parents should never make their children feel bad about wanting their own lives. “Be flexible with schedules and make changes to the visitation without guilt.”
The teen years can be a volatile time in even the best circumstances, with many kids “testing the waters”—and limitations—both in school and at home. This is also the age when kids realize how easy it can be to manipulate Mom and Dad—especially when the parents are feeling guilty over the divorce. So if Dad always wants to be “good cop,” that causes confusion for the child about how to behave, as well as problems between the ex-spouses, says Montanile. “The child then always wants to be with the more lenient parent and that is where trouble starts.”
What to do: Even if they agree on nothing else, parents need to find common ground on rules for their child, such as curfew, cellphone use, access to social media, and dating. “Parents need to keep the lines of communication open so they’re always on the same page,” says Greenberg. “So when Mom says no and their child calls up Dad, he’s backing Mom up—not trying to be the good guy.”
When all is said and done, a child needs to know that, no matter what, he is a top priority and loved by both parents. And, Kutcher points out, children should not let the failure of their parents’ marriage define them or hold them back. “I was always an excellent student and that made school a great outlet for me,” she says. “Now, I’m pursuing my master’s. We are the makers of our own destiny.”