Unsplash / Jordan Whitt

Many a miserable marriage has continued with parents who stay together “for the sake of the kids.” But are the effects of divorce on children really all that bad? Around 1 million children go through a divorce with their parents each year in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And it can be rough on everyone. “Divorce represents a pivotal and often traumatic shift in a child’s world — and from his perspective, a loss of family,” according to the journal Pediatrics. “When told of the news, many children feel sad, angry, and anxious, and have a hard time grasping how their lives will change. The age at which a child’s parents divorce also has an impact on how he responds and what he understands about the new family structure.” This is how divorce with kids affects different age groups:

Divorce with kids under age three

The issue of kids and divorce isn’t nearly as thorny when kids are quite young. From birth to about age 18 months, for example, babies involved in a divorce may sense the tension but won’t know its source. They may become a little clingy or cry a little extra. All of these reactions can be countered by a consistent daily routine and extra snuggles and toys and textiles that provide security. From 18 months to 3 years, it can be a bit tougher for a child of divorce. Those are the “home is my whole life” days for little kids, so the disruption may cause regressive behaviors, like thumb sucking. Kids this age can also have a genuine fear of abandonment, which can make getting to sleep tough. Parents need to really work towards setting a schedule for kids this age to ease the transition.

How preschoolers handle divorce

Preschoolers who are 3 to 6 years old won’t “get” the idea of divorce. This is also an age when kids really need to feel in control, so they aren’t going to accept the split easily. Other reactions to divorce at this age can include repressed anger and nightmares. The AAP noted that some kids this age would benefit from talking to a counselor. With an impartial person, they can give voice to all those fears. Age-appropriate books on the subject are good, too. Most importantly, reassure young kids that they will continue to see whichever parent they won’t be living with. This is actually a good conversation to have with any age children of divorce, even if it makes the preteens squirm.

School-age children and divorce

Once a kid is about 6 years old, don’t be surprised if the divorce makes them worry about being abandoned. In a child’s mind, you’re divorcing them, too. This is also a common age for the “my parents will surely get back together” fantasy. In contrast, kids who are 8 to 11 years old might be more apt to take sides and blame a “bad” parent, without any regard for the gray area. The best ways to reduce the negative for kids in this age bracket include the following:

-Never fighting in front of the kids, or on the phone where they can hear you

-Not running down the other parent, but not making excuses for their absences or unkind remarks, either. If you protect your ex that way, a kid can’t own her own feelings about the oversights.

-Allowing your child to express anger without piling on. Your child should be able to express age-appropriate disappointment that you’re breaking up without it becoming all about you, the parent.

-Letting your child know both parents will always love him. The nice thing about this statement is on some level, it’s probably true. And if your ex is actually a cold-hearted human, your child will find that out at some age, but it doesn’t help to know that now.

The most important consideration might be seeking counseling for each member of the family before, during and after the divorce. This doesn’t have to be involved, maybe just a couple of sessions with someone recommended by your pediatrician or through your work’s counseling center. Nor does it have to be expensive. You could find sliding-scale family therapists or see if your church has accredited counselors. Even if one parent won’t go or doesn’t support the idea, it’s critical that a child get emotional help dealing with divorce to be able to move on and thrive.

Should you stay together for the kids?

Children of divorce do experience many negative impacts, though they can each be minimized with attentive parents committed to co-parenting after divorce. But Mel Schartz, LCSW and other psychology experts assure parents that sometimes a child’s best interest is served by parents who split up. “Under no circumstances am I suggesting that divorce be taken lightly. Divorce is indeed a major life transition and in some cases traumatic,” Schwartz said in Psychology Today. “We owe it to our children to make our most valiant attempt to work out our differences and live in a supportive and loving atmosphere.”

In a crisis, both partners should make every effort to salvage the marriage, particularly through individual and couple’s counseling. But if that doesn’t succeed, parents in an unhappy marriage need to know that “sticking it out for the kids” isn’t always the best solution. For one thing, the children may merely be serving as an excuse when one parent can’t face up to the losses and unknowns of being divorced. For another, kids in a contentious household can move forward as their parents do after divorce. “Research indicates that most children [of divorce] adapt to their new circumstances within a few years,” Schwartz added. “Having two parents successfully move forward with their lives teaches an invaluable lesson: that we deserve to be happy and to feel loved. Conversely, remaining in relationships that perpetuate anger, devaluation, and lack of positive interactions leaves an indelible scar on children.”