Recent research shows that when divorces occur especially early in a child’s development s/he will have a harder time later connecting with parents. If divorce occurs when a child is between the ages of three and five children show a high level of feelings of insecurity towards one or both parents than if the child had experienced the divorce when s/he was older, and perhaps in a more resilient position to handle the trauma of a parental separation.
Attachment Theory: Specific Versus Diffuse Insecurity
The basic tenet of attachment theory is that an infant, or very young child, needs to have a healthy relationship with at least one parent, usually the primary caregiver, to have healthy social and emotional interactions with others later in life. Although parents are justifiably concerned about how their divorce will subsequently impact their children, research tends to show that children later in life only have a problem with fostering a relationship with their parents, rather than their peers and others.
That is, there’s a prevailing theory in psychology and in the public consciousness that children of divorce will suffer negatively in all their adult relationships because of an early divorce. This is not what research in attachment theory and divorce actually shows, however.
Research from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows that insecurity among children of divorce is selective rather than diffuse. This means that children of divorce don’t later have problems with all of their relationships into adulthood (peer, employee-boss, romantic, etc.) but rather children of divorce only struggle with forging a deeper bond with their parents. This makes future relationship problems specific to their parents rather than diffuse across settings and individuals.
Childhood Versus Adolescent Response to Divorce
Other research shows that children younger than age nine and adolescents from nine to around thirteen respond to divorce in fundamentally different ways. Although the lifestyle challenges for children and adolescents alike can be similar – e.g., trips from one household to another and only rarely experiencing both parents together – can be a challenging way to negotiate middle school and eventually high school.
It is very interesting to note that if a child under age nine experiences a divorce the tendency is for that child to have an increased dependence whereas with an adolescent the pattern is the reverse, and the tendency in adolescents experiencing divorce is towards independence. It seems that younger children tend to show more of a regressive reaction to divorce whereas older adolescents tend to react in a more aggressive and independent way to parental separation.
Coping Mechanisms in Young Children
Very young children tend to buy into the narrative that mommy and daddy are going to reconcile and that divorce isn’t as permanent as it is in reality. It is difficult to convince some children under age nine that divorce is a lasting situation and that these lifestyle changes (e.g., being shuttled between mom’s house and dad’s apartment) is how things are going to be from now on. Some psychologists worry that a parent’s unwillingness to be direct and honest about the finality of the separation could exacerbate a child’s false hope of a parental reconciliation.
Young children, moreover, may exhibit the following symptoms in their inability or unwillingness to accept the divorce for what it is:
– Excessive crying, moping and tantrums
– Fear of Separation
– Bed wetting or unconcern with caring for self
All of these symptoms serve to re-garner the parent’s attention. This is in line with the regression that young children of divorce can show – the underlying pattern is towards greater dependency.