As a parent, one of the greatest concerns was the effect of divorce on my kids. Children’s reactions to divorce by age can vary greatly. This is how my 8 and 11-year-old reacted to divorce. While only time will tell the long-term results of their parents getting a divorce, based on my kids’ immediate reactions, I am hopeful. Very hopeful.
How we told our kids about divorce was intentionally planned for low drama. However calm communication does not necessarily mean a low-key reaction. After all, I have an eight-year-old daughter with a flair for the dramatic.
Immediate Children’s Reactions to Divorce by Age: 8
My daughter started processing the divorce, asking questions, and sharing her thoughts and feelings right away.
She and her dad, Rainbow, sat on the couch immediately following our telling the kids. They discussed the divorce and how she felt about her dad being gay.
At the age of eight, she is already used to sharing her feelings. To help her cope with divorce, we sent both children to a therapist for a brief period. At one point she told the therapist “…it’s okay for your feelings to show on your face.”
This ability to share her heart was reflected when speaking to Rainbow. She told him,
“I still love my gay Daddy.”
Rainbow shared with me later that he was overwhelmed with emotion at those sweetly uttered words. They even took a selfie during their heart-to-heart chat.
Her amazing spirit and emotional insights were further demonstrated when she brought Rainbow her bath bomb fortune: Life doesn’t get better by chance. It gets better by change.
She seemed to grasp very quickly the idea of change being an opportunity to improve life. Her reaction to divorce was very positive from the beginning.
For several days after the news, her questions focused on physical representations of the divorce. She wanted to know things like, “What happens to family movie night?” and “What about Sunday morning kolaches?”
Littlest Pet Shops Save the Day
We saw further internal processing of the divorce occur through her Littlest Pet Shops (LPS) toy characters. She loves watching YouTube videos of LPS “sitcoms”. These short videos depict a wide variety of human-like interactions via the LPS characters.
Over the following days, her LPS playacting shifted from what she watched on YouTube to more personal reflections of her life.
Her video themes became centered around what families look like. She began mocking out scenes where the LPS parents are separated by evil forces. Then the LPS vanquishes the dark forces causing the separation, followed by the parents reuniting. The family is once again whole and as it was before the evil forces appeared.
She even created a twenty-minute video three days after we shared news of the divorce. (I’m working on shortening the video and adding clarifying comments around the storyline with plans to post later for those interested.)
On the family vacation, she and her cousin had many a make-believe session with LPS using this same theme. Several times my family or I overheard the girls discussing various effects of divorce and what new family life looks like.
My initial reaction to her imaginative play was horror. Yes, horror. My heighten state of emotional upheaval and anxiety exaggerated all tiny details of life. My daughter demonstrating her upset and fear through make-believe LPS “sitcoms” pushed me over the sharp emotional cliff I was walking along.
Additionally, the idea that her Dad and I might somehow get back together freaked me out! She wasn’t fully understanding the why behind the divorce despite our well-crafted explanations.
Not only that, I didn’t want to get divorced. I’ve always known I wanted to share my life’s journey with someone. I needed to get divorced for my own long-term mental and emotional health, regardless of the short-term distress and life explosion the divorce created.
Thankfully, my therapist spoke (separately) with both my daughter and me.
The therapist assured me my daughter’s reaction to divorce was normal and healthy. She relieved my concerns that somehow my daughter was having an extreme reaction. My fears of destroying her life forever by getting divorced were unfounded. My daughter being scared and having hope (despite the circumstances) of her parents’ reconciling was an expected child’s reaction to divorce for her age.
Immediate Children’s Reactions to Divorce by Age: 11
My son was more reserved in his reaction to divorce. At first, he didn’t seem to be processing what we told him.
At bedtime the day we told him, he imploringly asked Rainbow, “Why is this happening to me?”
This was the first authentic response from him related to the divorce. His subdued muted tone very different from his normal silly, light-hearted style with dancing eyes.
Unfortunately, neither Rainbow nor I recall the exact response to his question. I have vague memories of Rainbow telling me he told our son he himself has asked the same question – but that’s not much of an answer.
In hindsight, I wish I would have been better prepared for that type of question. It is a question I never asked myself during this process.
As strange as it may sound, it never occurred to me to ask why. My Dad always repeated the phrase “C’est la vie” or “such is life” growing up. As a result, I hardly ever ask myself why something is happening; only what I am going to do with it now that it has happened.
After additional consideration of “why”, I did find an analogy I thought kids would understand. I made time to explain Dad’s changing sexuality to both kids in the following days. Specifically, I focused on why the divorce was necessary due to homosexuality.
The morning after telling the kids, I invited both to join me on my morning walk. To my surprise and delight, my son abandoned his video games to join me.
Strolling among the white picket fences, we discussed many things. In addition to “why is this happening?”, his most pressing concern about the family vacation. He wanted to know why Dad wouldn’t be joining us on vacation with my side of the family.
Cowboys and Divorce
“If we are still going to be a family, why isn’t Dad coming on vacation with us?” he asked.
This is a fair question and one I had prepared for.
“What do you think of when I say, cowboy?” I inquired.
A little befuddled by the question, he replied, “A man with a cowboy hat and tall boots with spurs. Someone that rides a horse and lives in a small town. Someplace dusty and hot.”
“Me too, buddy. Have you ever noticed that Coach Kent [my son’s baseball coach] calls you and all your friends, “cowboy” when you are up-to-bat or have done something well?”
“Are you wearing tall boots with spurs, riding a horse, or in a small town?”
Pushing further, “So Coach Kent’s use of the term cowboy doesn’t look or mean what you typically think of with that word, yes?”
“Yeah,” he admits.
“Does that mean Coach is using the word incorrectly? Or,” I gently prompt, “is it maybe there is more than one way to define and use that term?”
“There’s more than one way to define and use the term.”
“I agree. Your Coach uses the term cowboy as a way to encourage and motivate you. Cowboys have to be tough and brave to survive, first the wild west, and now the challenges of raising cattle. But that doesn’t mean you have to look like a traditional cowboy to have the qualities of a cowboy.”
Using this cowboy example, I segue-wayed into explaining the same idea is true of divorce.
Many people have pre-conceived notions of what divorce looks and feels like. While divorces do tend to have similar patterns, his Dad and I want divorce to look and feel different for our family. However, demonstrating our different perspective of divorce can’t and won’t happen immediately.
“Do you recall Dad and I mentioning yesterday how you are still going to see us hug?”
“That is one way our divorce will be different from other divorces. Most divorced parents don’t really hug each other anymore. They no longer have even a friendship love, which your Dad and I do have. We need to give space for extended family to adjust slowly from their current ideas of divorce to how Dad and I envision our divorce and maintaining our family,” I concluded.
Our walk continued and I expressed my love for him several times.
I encouraged him to keep asking questions in the days and weeks ahead. Emphasizing repeatedly that I can’t help if I don’t know what he is thinking or feeling. One of my greatest responsibilities and desires as a Mom is to love and help him!
Both children’s reaction to divorce despite their age differences seemed to be very positive. This immediate response was opposite of the devastating reaction I had envisioned in my mind.
Three Weeks Later
My children’s immediate reaction to divorce was better than I could have fathomed. However, I was still concerned about the longer term.
I was thrilled three weeks later at how well they were handling this family change. They are champs in my book and were managing this life event far better than I was!
Based on previous personal experience with major life change, Rainbow and I took each physical change due to the divorce slow-and-steady.
I know significant life change is easier if you have time to mentally process what will happen. Once you have an intellectual understanding, the heart will follow and prepare you for the emotional changes. After you are emotionally ready the physical changes are a natural progression. Life is more traumatic and dramatic when the mental, emotional, and physical changes occur simultaneously.
As such, we waited three days, between telling the kids and Rainbow moving to the guest room.
Words can not begin to explain how tremendously difficult it was to continue sleeping in the same bed. But again, what is a little self-control to protect and nurture the two people that matter most to me?
Approximately three weeks after telling the kids about the divorce, my son and I were leaving his martial arts class. Slogging to the car with his oversized equipment duffel, I offered to let him unlock the car doors. It was a little thing I knew he enjoyed, but we were so often rushing he rarely got to do it.
Just after he unlocked the doors, I turned and started around the front of the car to get in the driver’s side. As I rounded the hood, I caught the sound of his voice and glanced back at him.
I see his open-palmed right-hand flash downward in front of his body. “Nevermind, I’ll tell you in the car,” he finished.
Clearly I missed something he said.
Climbing in, I start the car as he is closing his door. I shift slightly to the right, catching his eyes.
“You and Dad all-of-a-sudden got nice again,” he stated.
I feel my eyebrows raise slightly. “What do you mean?”
“Well, ever since you told us you were getting divorced, I noticed you got nice again,” he gently shrugged. He then turned to look out the window.
His loose legs, settled hands, and distant observation of the scenery outside the car screamed, “No biggie! I did not just blow my Mom’s mind. At. All.”
My vision blurred and butterflies took flight in my stomach. The unique mix of heartbreak and elation causing my hands to tremble slightly. Heartbreak knowing my son thought his Dad and I hadn’t been “nice” for long enough he, not just noticed, but said something to me about it. Elation because his statement confirmed life wasn’t horrible even though his parents’ are divorcing.
Once again, sitting in the parking lot at martial arts, with my reflection staring back at me from empty shop windows, I am knocked on my ass emotionally.
All this time I had thought my kids didn’t notice anything wrong in my relationship with their Dad. Clearly, my son felt the tension and angst between us while we wrestled with Rainbow’s changing sexual feelings. The only person I had been deceiving was myself.
The casually plopped statement shattered any doubt I still harbored. My 11-year-old’s reaction to divorce was not only positive but affirming of my decision to divorce Rainbow.
Based on the bath bomb fortune given to her Dad, my daughter, on some level, must have sensed the tension too.
I reach over, touching my son’s knee.
“Thank you for sharing with me that Dad and I got nice again. It confirms our adult decision to divorce was the right decision for you too,” I murmured.
I placed the car in reverse, blinking rapidly to clear my sight.
The kids continued to ask questions and share their feelings over the next few weeks.
Six Months+ Later
Over six months later, both children’s reactions to the divorce are amazing. They act and speak as they did before the divorce. You would hardly guess they experienced a major home life change.
Whether their excellent adjustment is due to the true amicable nature of Rainbow and I’s divorce or some other factor, I don’t know. Rainbow and I still hang out together for periods of time to visit when drop-off/pick-up occurs. For example, when dropping the kids off the other day, Rainbow helped make a salad for one of my family gatherings because I was running late.
Regardless, neither child is extremely upset to leave either Rainbow or me to spend time with the other parent. Nor is the reunion after not seeing one of us crazy dramatic. Sometimes they don’t even seem interested in a hug upon seeing Mom or Dad after a period apart.
The kids are primarily with me which was the situation prior to the divorce. This decision helps keep the kids’ home environment the way it has been for years. However, it also means they don’t see their Dad every day.
Despite not seeing their Dad every evening, they don’t actively ask to see or speak to him. Based on the radio silence I receive when the kids are with Rainbow, I’m guessing the same is true when the situation is reversed.
The overall impact divorce on our kids appears to be minimal at this point. Both children’s reaction to divorce, in spite of my fears to the contrary, has been smooth. They have proven their resiliency after a large life change.
I pray their mellow reactions to divorce continue many years into the future.