Divorce is a classic excuse for prepubescent antics and teenage apathy. It’s the prime mover of malfunction, the subject floundering twenty-somethings dig in on with their therapists. But not all “children of divorce” have the same experiences. Babies and toddlers of divorce don’t have the opportunity to internalize marital strife. Divorced parents making it work becomes their status quo. As such, divorce has a very different effect on that specific population.
Experts agree that, while it’s true that very young children may not fully understand the implications of a divorce, they are entirely capable of experiencing stress—and all of its developmental implications. “Stress has effects at any age,” explains Dr. Jarret Patton, a pediatrician based in Reading, Pennsylvania. “An unpleasant divorce can cause stress at toxic levels. Although a one-year-old may not understand what a divorce means; it can feel stress.”
The implications of this early exposure to stress are manifold. Studies have shown that particularly ugly divorces can even have long-term impacts on a child’s physical health. Children from broken homes have shorter lifespans, suffer immune deficiencies into adulthood, and may even be more likely to catch the common cold. Indeed stress, rather than divorce, seems to be the driving force behind these negative outcomes. One study from the early 90’s demonstrated that any family conflict, whether it ends in divorce or not, is strongly related to illness later in life.
“We know, through decades of research, that toxic levels of stress on a child has long-lasting health impacts that can last for years, through adulthood,” Patton says.
These effects are most pronounced—and most reported—when adolescents and teenagers experience the dissolution of their families. But in some cases, the stress that comes from an ugly divorce can hit small children even harder. “Teenagers understand the nuances of relationships better, which may help them cope,” Patton says. Younger children, on the other hand, “feel that they themselves are a reason for the divorce.” This can lead to feelings of guilt.
One important point to keep in mind is that divorce, when handled responsibly, does not need to be a source of long-term trauma for a child of any age. “How the divorce is handled makes the most difference on overall health and development,” Patton says. “A highly contentious divorce that places the child in the middle produces stress upon the child.” On the other hand, an amicable divorce, or one that frees a child from domestic strife, can be a positive development.
“In highly toxic parental relationships, such as those with domestic violence or open emotional abuse, the impact of stress on the child is already at a very high level,” Patton says. “A divorce may help promote a more stable environment with less stress, which can be beneficial.”
In any case, it is clear that even very young children are at risk of suffering the effects of an unpleasant divorce. Parents can avoid some of the trauma by getting ahead of the counseling curve. “The best thing parents can do in a divorce is to start counseling early in the process,” Patton says. “Ideally counseling should be started before a divorce is imminent, and continue months to years after the divorce is finalized.”