DIVORCE AND THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILD
Elementary school children may visibly show the distress of divorce. They look and acknowledge the
sadness that they are feeling. Boys at this age often have a sharp feeling of loss of their father. Difficulties
that children experience are reflected sometimes in poor grades and lack of attention at school.
Older elementary school children might vent their unhappiness and frustration in oppositional and defiant
behavior. Their conduct may include arguing, losing their tempers, annoying others, refusing to follow
parental requests, blaming others for their mistakes, lying and stealing.
For those children who do not act outwardly, their symptoms may be turned inward. Complaints of
headaches, stomachaches and colds increase. They no longer want to attend school, scouts or baseball
practice. They may withdraw from their friends. Often I find children of this age worry that their friends will
reject them since their parents are divorced. Rather than risk rejection, they may withdraw.
Children at this age are afraid that other children will perceive divorce as some sort of a disease, like
cancer, and be scared away. Actually, divorce is scarier to most children than cancer—you lose your family.
They fear that other children will not want them around because they might be infected with the divorce
Elementary school children begin to accept there are reasons outside of themselves for people’s
behavior. For example, Daddy left because he was unhappy. At this age, children see events in black and
white. There are good guys and bad guys. If the marriage failed, someone is to blame. It is difficult for them to
understand that both parents might have played a role in the breakup.
Some 4th and 5th graders will benefit from divorce groups and many of my best groups have been with
5th and 6th graders. They are still relatively free of the social pressure of adolescence and can be honest
about their feelings.
Divorce Fears of Elementary Students
Jewel, a fifth grader with dark hair and eyes, had been perfectly named. When she spoke, she
sparkled like a jewel. After each group session, I ask the children to write one thing they have
learned. She wrote on the second session, “I learned that wherever you turn to, you’ll get some love. I
also think that it’s supposed to turn out this way.”
When asked to draw what divorce means to you, Jewel reflects many children’s fears with her
drawing of a volcano blowing up.
Jewel pictured a volcano exploding—blowing her world up. All the forces that she has grown up with
are fragmenting. The terra firma, the bedrock of her existence, is erupting beneath her feet. Her world
These fears are typical of an elementary school child. Children, who are 10, like Jewel, may look
more distressed than younger children and can acknowledge fears. Jewel’s major fear was that her
world was erupting. Her dad had left and her mother was starting to date. Nothing was the same. She
was worried—what would become of her and her younger brother and sister?
Before the divorce, she had felt that life was dependable. Her mother and father were always
there. As the marriage disintegrated, the conflict intensified between her parents. Her drawing of a
volcano exploding parallels the strife that erupted between her parents. As the friction between her
parents grew, each day became like living at the foot of a volcano. At any moment, hostilities might
In the corner of her drawing, Jewel placed a red broken heart. Hearts appear in the drawings of
many students at every age of development. Sometimes the heart will appear as part of the drawing,
like Jewel’s; in other drawings, the heart will be the entire drawing. An entire chapter (chapter 7 “The
Heart Section”) is devoted to heart drawings.
Jewel’s heart, like her family, is broken. What can we do for her?
We cannot put the marriage back together any more than Humpty Dumpty could be repaired.
We can acknowledge her feeling of what she is going through.
“Yes, Jewel, you do feel right now as if your world is splintering apart.”
That simple first step of validating how her reality seems to her is important acknowledgement. Her
feelings are real.
All too often, as parents who are divorcing, we feel guilty. Yes, we know that we are causing our
children pain. Parents don’t want to feel that they are the source of their children’s pain, but they are
hurting also. So, as parents, we are tempted to use one of our favorite ego defenses—denial.
“No, Jewel, your world is not blowing up!”
A far better reply is “Yes, I know it must seem like that.” And if it is true, you could add, “I feel like
that sometimes too.”
Once you have acknowledged your child’s feeling, then you are in a better position to do
something about it. A helpful follow-up might include, “Sometimes our world might be like a sand
castle; we have to tear it down only to build up another stronger castle. I hope soon we all can start
building a better world where although Mommy and Daddy are apart, we all can live in peace and go
on to do good things with our lives separately.”
You notice that I was careful to add “separately” and “are apart.” Most children carry a reunion
fantasy in which mother and father get back together again and live happily ever after. I know more
people who have won lotteries than have gotten back together and lived happily ever after.
In most cases, mother and father do not get back together. And, in those cases where they do, the
fighting is often worse than it was before. Certain fantasies, which I call dreams, can be useful. The
girl who dreams of becoming a figure skater and dreams of Olympic gold to sustain her through the
days of practice has a positive image.
The child who puts her life on hold until the day her parents get back together does not have a
healthy fantasy, but a mirage that may keep her from developing. Parents fan the reunion fantasy by
saying, “We might get back together someday,” undermining a child’s development.