Elementary School Kids and Divorce: What Parents Need to Know – Part One of Two

Kids are often confused about the reasons behind a parental split.

Posted May 28, 2010

Ask a typical nine year old to name her favorite TV show or baseball player. She'll readily proclaim her fondness for "iCarly" and her deep admiration for Derek Jeter. But, try to engage that same child about why her parents have divorced, and she might just be stumped. That's because kids this age are often confused about the reasons behind a parental split-even as their parents insist they have tried more than once to explain.

Why the differing versions of reality? Kids' minds are different, for one. When children experience a traumatic event they may not understand or be able to label it. So the incident might not be encoded in verbal memory. Plus, kids cannot always understand complex adult situations-let alone describe their feelings about them. When things become really emotional, children often push them out of consciousness and waking life altogether. Meaning, instead of being aware of what they are thinking and feeling, they might act out in ways that appear silly, out of control, or even aggressive.

Given the way children's minds work, adults might have to do some detective work to ascertain a child's reactions to separation and divorce. More on this later. But first, what are some reactions children can have when their parents decide to separate or divorce? Symptoms and complaints are as varied as individuals themselves. In general, though, anxiety and depression are both common reactions to separation. Both are seen in kids whose parents have split.

Depending upon the child's level of psychological and cognitive development, reactions to separation and symptoms of depression and anxiety can look different, though. A parental separation might leave both a five year old and a ten year old feeling left behind or forgotten, for example. Struggling to control their loneliness and anxiety, both might have nightmares that disturb their sleep. But the nightmares and what the children say about them will be radically different, given the disparity in their ages and levels of emotional and cognitive development.

Take the five year old whose mommy or daddy has left the family's house. She might feel abandoned, scared, and unprotected, and might dream of a "black monster with big teeth" that bites her on the top of her head. She might also have anxious thoughts, which will be very concrete, or rooted in day to day reality. So, unable to fully understand the concept of divorce or separate homes, she might wonder, "Where is daddy? When is he coming home?" She might even be confused that he lives somewhere else and ask, "Why do I have two houses?" And she will likely be willing to ask you for details and to discuss her fears with you--though she may not be fully able to understand your answers.

A ten year old, by contrast, is capable of understanding an age-appropriate description of his parents' situation. Fears might take the form of guilt, anger, or repetitive anxious thoughts. Why? Kids often hear the word divorce, only to conclude that the split was their fault. A child who feels responsible might unwittingly turn his anxiety, guilt, and anger onto himself in the form of increased isolation, persistent worry, or frequent attacking and self critical thoughts.

And you probably won't hear much about your child's problems at this age. Older kids are often less communicative. You might not hear about sad or lonely feelings or be asked time and again to explain what happened with daddy. You'll have to discern exactly what your ten year old is thinking and feeling. And some days you might have to read his Facebook page to know what is really going on with him.

Bottom line: all children whose parents have divorced are prone to anxiety and depression-both are, after all, predictable and normal reactions to separation, current or imminent. But parents should expect to see very different manifestations of anxiety and depression in five year olds than they would in eight or ten year olds. Reactions to separation vary with a child's level of emotional and cognitive development.

Parents need to know what to expect and how children might react to news of a divorce, to be sure. But first, some generalities about the normal developmental stages of childhood, and how elementary school kids of varying ages think and reason:

Children five and six years old can reason a bit more than they could during preschool. But they remain concrete in their thinking. Meaning, they are rooted in reality and cannot yet master abstract symbolic questions. So even, a six year old might still struggle when asked "what is the moral of this story?"

Nevertheless, kids of this age are active learners that are internally driven to figure out their environments. This includes being curious about their families and being able to wrestle with big questions such as: where did I come from? Whom will I marry? Imaginary play is still the game of choice of most children of this age. They aspire to be like and imitate their parents. They have deep attachments to both parents and will react strongly to separation and divorce.

Seven and eight year olds begin to think in a more abstract manner and can understand things symbolically. They can think about the "what if," and will become very interested in moral questions and in following rules. They often enjoy playing board and computer games. They spend a lot of their energy mastering their favorites. So if your five year old lives to dress up in your favorite negligee and pretend she is a princess, by the time she is eight, you might find she is more likely to spend hours challenging you to a Yahtzee tournament.

Play for nine and ten year olds is mostly channeled into games and collecting things. Hobbies become very important. Thinking occurs on a more symbolic or abstract level, such that children can reason through problems, and can easily identify themes, morals, and lessons of a story.

Children in this age group also possess the capacity for sophisticated use of language; their inner lives and problems are more disguised than those of a younger child. This means that a ten year old girl struggles with internal dilemmas just like anyone else, but the objects of her struggles will be directed towards peers instead of family members.

To elaborate in a very general way: a five or six year old will most commonly worry about her place in the family. She might play games in which her dolls get married, have babies, and even use her dolls to "get rid" of a parent--when the mood strikes. A ten year old will be more preoccupied with being part of her peer group. Her thoughts might center on whether she is invited to the Halloween party and what costumes the other girls are wearing.

As to development in eleven year olds: You might have noticed some moodiness in a child of this age. MIGHT HAVE?

In terms of their cognitive development, though, eleven year olds are more like adults. They can reason through problems and think on the most symbolic, and least concrete, level of all elementary school aged children. Emotionally, many children of this age are like mini-teenagers. They argue, have a surly manner, need to sleep for hours on end, and exhibit dark moods, all of which are also signs of depression and anxiety.
So how to tell whether your surreal interactions with your surly eleven year old are the result of normal hormonal changes or a reaction to a major family event, such as separation or divorce? Read on.

Next: average, expectable reactions to separation and divorce in elementary school children.