Children do not adjust to divorce in one short time. It is a long process. Divorce does not happen all at once, either. It is a series of events and changes. At different points, children deal with different issues. Also, different children react to the same changes and situations in different ways. Researchers believe that children react to divorce in three stages:
1. Initial stage: The first stage is when parents are making the decision to separate. This might be a very difficult time for children. Parents may be fighting more. The stress at home may be very upsetting for a child. Children can react very strongly in this time. It is also possible that the children do not know about the decisions their parents are making. They may not know there is any problem. Parents themselves may be in a crisis now, and they may be unable to pay attention to the child's needs, or they may hide the problems from the child. If the child knows there are problems, she might be worried about other issues like changing houses, moving, not seeing one parent at home, and so on. If there had been physical violence or bad fights between parents, the separation can be a relief to the child and the parent. Even then, the divorce will cause stress. Only a very small number of children are happy that a divorce is coming.
At this stage, it is very important for childcare providers to be steady and supportive of children. Providers also need to be aware of what is happening with the parent. They need to know if the children know about the problems. Situations can change very quickly, and parents may be very emotional. Many providers may want to make sure that other sources of help are available to the parent. They may want to help parents get some advice.
2. Transition stage: The second stage occurs when the family separates. One parent moves out, or both parents move to new homes. For some children this will be the first time they knew there were problems. For other children, this could be a relief, because the fighting and arguing will stop or slow down. All families start working out different arrangements for childcare, housing, money, custody, and visitation at this point. The child slowly begins to get used to a different family life. She gets used to one parent not being at home and to visiting that parent. She may make new friends, adjust to a different financial situation, and so on. This stage can last for as long as two to three years.
Providers may notice that many things change during this stage, too. This might be a good time to sit down with parents and make some decisions about the child's care. Parents might be more willing to talk now. Again, providers can help parents find other resources.
3. Restabilization stage: This stage is when the new life becomes normal. Some families can take up to five years to reach this final stage. They reach this stage when the family is used to all the changes that divorce created in their lives. The fears and anger are not as strong in this stage. The family can now become a single-parent family or a stepfamily. Many families do become stepfamilies - often in the first three years after divorce. That change also brings about new stresses!
If parents first come to the childcare setting at this final stage, providers might not know there was a divorce, so it is important for providers to talk to parents. Providers need to know about visitation plans. They need to know who is allowed to take the child. Providers also need to realize that parents may not stay in a stable stage. They may sometimes get upset or angry. This might happen when there is a change in custody arrangements. It might happen when one parent stops paying child support. It also may happen when one parent remarries. Again, providers can help if they know how to connect parents with other resources.
Purdue University, School of Consumer and Family Sciences
Department of Child Development and Family Studies
by Nithyakala Karuppaswamy and Judith Myers-Walls, PhD, CFLE
Reviewed by athealth on February 8, 2014.