The Effect of Divorce on Early Childhood Development

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The decision to end a marriage may come easily for some couples; however, the decision may come with much consideration for you. If you have young children, your negotiations likely revolve around custody arrangements and child support. When decisions are made, it is important to consider the effects on your young child's development to ensure that your decisions meet his best interests.


Divorce causes a tremendous upheaval in families. The period between birth and age three is a time of significant growth and development. During this time, children begin to discover how their world works and form relationships with caregivers, parents and siblings. "These developments may be affected by changes in the child's environment, such as parental divorce," the University of Missouri reports. As a parent, the opportunity to positively impact these immense changes and lessen harm to your child's development is crucial. Taking the time to care for your child's emotions is equally as important as preparing to care for her financially.


Children identify problems and sense stress even in infancy. The toddler may have trouble sleeping or have bad dreams, he may exhibit more temper tantrums, and he may cry more. According to the University of New Hampshire, a three- to five-year-old child may feel responsible for the divorce. He may show signs of anger or aggression or may revert to baby-like behaviors such as thumb sucking. A child in his early elementary years may have the most difficult time adjusting to the divorce, according to the University of New Hampshire. He may feel grief, embarrassment, and divided loyalty. He may complain of stomachaches, trouble sleeping and bathroom problems, and may begin to have trouble in school.


The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress says that the process of divorce and deciding custody can be traumatizing to a young child. It stated, "At early stages of development, children become aware that events surrounding the custody decision are intended to determine with whom the child is going to reside." A school-aged child may be asked to provide an opinion as to whom they may want to live with, giving the child a feeling of guilt toward the parent that she does not choose. She may feel forced into a decision and responsible for the outcome. It is important for parents to consider the potential trauma to a young child's development and seek appropriate attention before long-term damage is created.


La Leche League says, "The child from birth to six is by nature vulnerable. During divorce and separation, the child's emotional well-being is at considerable risk." The group suggests some steps to promote emotional well-being to allow your child to develop a sense of security for coping with problems and challenges throughout his life. The primary focus is to ensure that he has easy access to the adult he has formed the most emotional bond with, often the mother. The group recommends that the child spend the night with the parent they have the strongest attachment with. This may help to control sleep disturbances that may develop as routines are disrupted.


North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service recommends strategies to help children cope based on the age groups. For the younger children, the service suggests maintaining usual routines, creating a nurturing a loving environment with plenty of one-on-one time. Reassure your child that she is not responsible for the divorce and that she is loved and safe. For school-age children, keep the lines of communication open and honestly answer all of your child's questions. Consider consulting the child's school for guidance, monitor her behavior, watch for signs of depression, and do not downplay your child's emotions.