Divorce and Your Children's Developmental Stages

Divorce is difficult for the adults going through it, but as tough as it may be, adults have a couple of things going for them: they have some measure of control over the situation, and they are, well, adults. It can be easy to forget, in the midst of our own pain, how difficult it is to be a child whose parents are divorcing. Children experience stresses, including divorce, differently depending on their age and developmental stage. Understanding where your child is developmentally will help you address his or her needs during your divorce.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson is perhaps best known for coining the phrase "identity crisis." He also developed a theory that humans go through a series of stages with developmental tasks that must be accomplished during a given period. These developmental tasks impact how a child experiences divorce. 

Erikson's Psychosocial Stages and Divorce

The first stage, which takes place between birth and one year, is called "Trust vs. Mistrust." Essentially, if a baby has needs, such as food or comfort, and those needs are met consistently, the child develops a sense of trust. If the child's needs are not met, he or she may become frustrated and withdraw. When the parents of a child this young divorce, it is particularly important to maintain the consistency of care that will allow the child to develop an internal sense of trust. This will ultimately allow him or her to develop healthy relationships. 

Erikson's second stage of psychosocial development occurs between the ages of two and three, and is referred to as "Autonomy vs. Shame." Anyone who has ever heard a toddler say, "I do it mySELF!" has witnessed this stage in action. In this stage, the child first learns to assert his or her will. Successful navigation of this stage leads to the development of both self-control and self-esteem. Divorcing parents of toddlers will want to allow them to try to do things for themselves, but to set appropriate limits.

In the third stage, "Initiative vs. Guilt," the four-to-five year old child begins to develop a sense of responsibility. This causes the child to develop initiative. Children who struggle in this stage may become irresponsible, anxious, and guilt-ridden. However, divorcing parents should be aware that children at this age may have "magical thinking" about how their actions may have caused their parents to divorce, and gently correct this misconception. 

Stage four, "Industry vs. Inferiority," takes place between the age of about six and early adolescence. At this point, children are learning how and why things work. Success in this stage leads to a sense of mastery and control; failure leads to feelings of inferiority. Divorced or divorcing parents should foster children's abilities to master age-appropriate situations while being careful not to overburden them with physical or emotional tasks for which they are not ready. 

In the fifth stage, "Identity vs. Identity Confusion," the child between the ages of about thirteen to twenty-four is working to develop a sense of self. This stage is critical to the development of adult relationships. Divorcing parents of teens may feel that their children are mature enough to deal with the divorce, but they should remember that this stage offers important work for their kids. The development and maintenance of relationships with friends is particularly important at this stage, and parents should take children's need to maintain peer relationships into consideration when making parenting time arrangements.

What This Means For Divorcing Parents

Being aware of your children's stage of psychosocial development helps you, as a divorcing parent, in multiple ways. First, it reinforces that your children's needs change over time, and that children of different ages need different types of support during divorce. Also, having a deep understanding of how child development and divorce intersect can show your judge, your parenting coordinator, and others in your case that you are focused on "the best interests of the child," not on your own wants. 

Please contact us at Mundahl Law with any questions you have about how you can best support your children during and after your Minnesota divorce. We look forward to working with you.

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