Effect on Birth – 2 years age group
Children in this age group are highly dependent on their parents.
If one parent has taken on primary responsibility for care of a child it is almost certain that a strong physical and emotional dependence will develop between them. Lengthy separation from this parent can be a source of intense emotional distress. A child at this age has a very different concept of time than does an adult. For very young children a few hours will often seem to be a very long time and this needs to be considered when making parenting arrangements.
In this age group, children are likely to fret for the absent parent with whom they need frequent, short periods of contact to continue their relationship.
A high level of conflict between the parents can make visits extremely stressful for a child of this age. For this very young group, it can be helpful if parents stick to a routine and, where possible, provide reminders of the other parent such as photos. It may also be useful if some special toy or blanket travels with them between households.
Effect on 2.5 – 5 years age group
Children in this age group begin to be a little more independent of their parents. Separation can be a major crisis for these children and they can react with shock or depression. For instance, children in this group may show their distress by a change in sleeping habits, toilet habits or a deterioration in language skills.
In this age group also, children differ from adults in how they perceive time. They have less time distortion than do infants, but still experience a short period as being a much longer time than it is for an adult.
Pre-school children understand the world through very different thought processes than older children. They often fantasise about what they don’t understand and are likely to make up things from bits of their own experience. They are also often confused by time and days. A calendar showing when they will be with either parent may be helpful. They are sensitive to criticism about either parent and may perceive this as criticism of themselves.
Effect on 5 – 8 years age group
Children in this age group are beginning to be able to talk about their feelings.
They often have an intense wish to restore their parents’ relationship and say and do things they hope will bring this about. They often want to stay at home to be near the parent with whom they spend most of their time.
Similarly, they may feel reluctant to leave the other parent at the end of a visit and may exhibit behavioural problems which are noticed by friends, teachers and parents. Children in this age group can have difficulty expressing their worries and tend to demonstrate them through their behaviour which can be difficult to understand.
It may be helpful if both of you, or adult friends or relations, invite children of this age to express their emotions about the separation, particularly of their desire to get their parents back together.
You should discourage children from taking responsibility for making arrangements about contact.
Effect on 8 – 12 years age group
Children in this age group are able to speak about their feelings. They experience a conflict of loyalty between each parent and, if the conflict between parents is high, they may try to cope by rejecting one parent or trying to keep both happy by saying negative things about one to the other. They are also beginning to experience the world outside their family. They have sporting and other interests and social commitments. When you make parenting arrangements you should take account of your children’s interests and activities. This allows them the opportunity to join in the social and sporting activities which are an important part of their development. Where possible, it would be beneficial for children to continue their activities regardless of who is caring for them.
Effect on 12 – 16 years age group
In some respects adolescents are increasingly independent of their parents, even when parents are not separated. They need to be given time and space to work out their own reactions to their parents’ separation. If pressured by either parent, adolescents are likely to react with anger and rejection.
They particularly need flexibility in arrangements to allow them to participate in normal adolescent social activities and school events.