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Families Change Guide to Separation & Divorce

4.11 - How Children Often Respond: Checklist

Read each of the six checklists below to find the ones that apply to the ages of your children. Complete the checklists for the ages of your children. You can save a copy of your responses and try this again in six months to see if anything has changed.

A. Infants (0 to 18 months)


Issues
  • consistency of caregivers, environment and routine
  • emotional connection with caregiver
  • nurturing and love
What to watch for Problem No Problem
sleeping changes
eating changes
clingy behaviour/difficulty separating
What you can do to help
  • maintain consistency in people and routines
  • change routines gradually
  • avoid angry expressions and emotional outbursts in front of the baby
  • don’t fight in front of the baby

B. Toddlers (18 months to 3 years)


Issues
  • consistency of caregivers, environment and routine
  • fear absent parent has disappeared
  • nurturing and love
  • concern about security (who will take care of me?)
What to watch for Problem No Problem
increased crying
trouble getting to sleep/nightmares
demanding to be fed by parent instead of feeding self
changes in toilet habits
increased anger (such as temper tantrums and hitting)
clinging to adults or security objects
What you can do to help
  • give love and affection
  • give verbal assurances (both parents say, “I love you”)
  • maintain consistency of people and routines
  • reassure the child that they will be cared for
  • provide a clear and simple explanation of changes
  • allow the child to express feelings through words or play
  • avoid angry expressions or emotional outbursts in front of the child
  • don’t fight in front of the child

C. Pre-schoolers (3 to 5 years)


Issues
  • fear of being abandoned/rejected
  • doubts they are lovable (did my parent leave because I’m not good enough?)
  • blame themselves for what happened (did I cause this because I was bad?)
What to watch for Problem No Problem
going back to younger sleeping/eating/talking behaviour
clingy behaviour/difficulty with separation
increased anger
increased passivity (over-compliance)
What you can do to help
  • give love and affection
  • give verbal assurances (both parents say, “I love you")
  • maintain consistency of people and routines
  • reassure the child that they will be cared for
  • provide a clear and simple explanation of changes
  • provide opportunities for the child to express feelings through words or play
  • avoid angry expressions or emotional outbursts in front of the child
  • don’t fight in front of the child

D. Young school-age children (6 to 8 years)


Issues
  • longing for absent parent
  • dreaming about parents getting back together
  • feeling the need to take the side of one parent concern about parent’s well-being
  • guilt that they are responsible for the separation
What to watch for Problem No Problem
sadness, grief, crying, sobbing, withdrawal
fear of losing relationship with parent
fear of losing order in their lives
feelings of being deprived or left out
anger and increased aggression
difficulty playing and having fun
What you can do to help
  • assure them with words that their parents will continue to take care of them
  • assure them they will continue to see both parents (if this is the case)
  • give the child permission to love the other parent
  • don’t criticize the other parent to the child
  • don’t put the child “in the middle” (see “Games some parents play,” page 20)

E. Older school-age children (9 to 12 years)


Issues
  • may see things as black and white: one parent is right, the other is wrong
  • may feel shame or embarrassment about parents’ separation
  • may feel the separation threatens their own identity
  • may feel need to overcome a sense of powerlessness
  • may feel loyalty conflicts
What to watch for Problem No Problem
physical complaints (headache, fatigue, stomach ache)
intense anger, especially at parent they see as to blame
taking one parent’s side against the other
difficulty with peers
difficulty playing and having fun
What you can do to help
  • listen to child’s feelings and complaints without taking sides or judging
  • don’t criticize the other parent to the child
  • encourage the child to see good in the other parent
  • don’t fight in front of the child
  • say positive things about the other parent occasionally
  • don’t pressure the child to take sides
  • support the child’s contact with the other parent (if this is possible)

F. Teens (13 to 18 years)


Issues
  • upset that parents may be unable to provide needed support and limits
  • already stormy relationship with parent may worsen
  • premature or increased independence
  • may be asked to assume more responsibilities at home that pull them away from peers
What to watch for Problem No Problem
school problems, such as difficulty concentrating, fatigue
acting out emotional distress through sex, drugs, crime
internalizing emotional distress: depression
anxiety over close relationships
grief over loss of family and childhood
becoming distant and aloof from family
What you can do to help
  • provide opportunities for teens to share feelings, concerns, complaints
  • discuss issues and situations honestly
  • avoid relying on teens for emotional support
  • don’t pressure teens to choose sides
  • occasionally say positive things about the other parent
  • allow teens to have appropriate friendship and peer activities

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4.11 - How Children Often Respond: Checklist