Is there some “best” age for children to deal with the change and stress of divorce? My children are 10 and 13. One of my friends said her parents waited until she was in her twenties, and she resented them for waiting that long, when they clearly were unhappy. I haven't been in love with my husband for years. I hope that this will not be my problem!
--Is Timing Everything?
Dear Time-Sensitive Parent,
We all want to protect our children as much as possible in divorce, and it certainly sounds like there must be some ideal age to part, in terms of what kids can handle. The truth, however, is that while our actions absolutely can affect our children’s well-being, the timing of the divorce is generally not the most significant factor.
How well your kids do depends on who they are as individuals, and certain other factors that are largely in your control. They care about their own security, the love of their parents—and even their own parents’ happiness, as the story of your friend points out.
What you can do to help your kids adjust and thrive:
Minimize conflict between the two of you and strive for cooperative co-parenting.
Establish stability and a reliable routine in your home.
Recuperate from your own sadness or anger so you can be your best parent.
Reassure your children that you both love them and will continue to be a family.
“But what about their age?!” you ask. "Did I wait too long? Are we parting too early?" While well-meaning friends and family members will tell you their opinions about when you should or should not part, research doesn’t point to any one "better" age for divorce. Anecdotal evidence also varies.
I was at a networking event in Manhattan a few years ago, talking to a newly divorced woman whose youngest child had just started college. She said half the parents in her child’s freshman class were divorcing—all of them having decided it would be best for the kids to wait until they went off to school. This isn't true, according to your friend. Or to a woman I just met who told me that her parents divorced when she was in college, and she felt like it undermined everything they’d taught her about love and family, even religion. Ten years later, her father remarried. She said felt devastated by this new marriage—in her early 30s—and cried the entire weekend of her father’s second wedding. She kept asking herself how he could divorce. What did this say about her childhood and everything she'd been raised to believe?
I have heard more than one person say that the early teens can be tough for kids, regardless of their family structure. Divorce may feel like just too much, on top of the identify questions that plague many kids in junior high. But I’ve also spoken to adult kids of divorce who said they were so wrapped up in their own social lives, that their parents’ divorce kind of faded into the background.
Pay attention to how your children are doing, and be open to offering both of them the chance to talk to a counselor about their feelings. There are also parenting-in-divorce classes available online and in most states, as well as workshops for kids. I elaborate on how to support kids in divorce in Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well. Another book that many people find really helpful is M. Gary Neuman's Helping Your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way.
In my own case, my son was four when his dad moved out. The fact of having two parents in two homes folded into his life pretty easily. I told him his father was going to live on the next street, beside the fire station. He could visit the fire trucks any time he wanted. The divorce seemed notably not traumatic, perhaps because he was so young. (I also found this downloadable Divorce Toolkit from SesameStreet.org very helpful. It's too babyish for your children, but could be beneficial for any friends separating with younger kids.)
Today, my son says he doesn’t remember when we all lived in one house—though occasionally he says he would prefer if we did now. This is always sad for me to hear. Divorce is hard for the parents, for sure. There’s never a good time to have your child sleep in another home, or to be home with your kids for days on end, the only adult in the house.
Children, however, are very resilient. Your best bet is to focus on a decent relationship with your children’s other parent, doing everything you can to avoid an adversarial legal process, and helping your children tackle the myriad tasks of childhood—as you would, were you married.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.