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Developmental Stages of Childhood and
How A Divorce May Impact Development

The stages listed here are based on Erikson’s theories, however, Fred Rogers findings and views are relevant here as well.  Some of these relate to Attention Span versus time to perceive and understand, to process information, slow learning versus fast learning, and rote leaning versus emotional development.

The Parent Education and Family Stabilization class touches on these stages because it is the children and the effect of your divorce on them, who are many times treated as though they are not affected.  The age and stage the child is in is a large determining factor in their perception of their part in the divorce and their fears of what will happen to them.


In a, now-famous, Mr. Fred Rogers dictum, delivered in speeches and in his books, he advises adults: “Please, think of the children first. If you ever have anything to do with their entertainment, their food, their toys, their custody, their day care, their health, their education — please listen to the children, learn about them, learn from them. . .” (King, 2018).


In his biography of Fred Rogers, Maxwell King states, “Academics who’ve studied Rogers’s work often marvel at how young children calm down, pay attention, and learn so much from this television production — and at how they remain calm and centered for some time after watching the Neighborhood.  Rogers himself put great care into the pacing of the program to help children slow down and steady themselves.”  The point being that despite a perceived short attention span, children can learn and pay attention longer when things are presented to them at the speed they can process the information.  Fred “…deliberately lengthened scenes as the theme week progressed, so that the children would get used to an environment that extended their attention spans as they became more and more familiar with the story line.”  He did this when covering a variety of themes including, but not limited to, divorce, absent parents, custody, food, toys, day care, health, discipline, mistakes, anger, competition, and education.

Taking into consideration the slow processing of very young children makes it easier to keep one’s patience when a child does something other than what s/he has been instructed to do. 


By understanding that they are not deliberately disobeying, but are acting only on what they can process, it becomes easier to repeat the instructions and exercise patience as we show them, again, how we need them to do something. 


Another thing that Fred Rogers emphasized was the importance of helping children develop what we now call soft-skills involving social and emotional development rather than “just cram facts into their heads. . .”  A funny thing, currently one of the most desired skills by employers is soft skills, the ability to work with others, collaboration and cooperation, next is the cognitive skills for the job because what use is it to have a genius working for you if they can’t collaborate with co-workers to put a project together and implement it.


“LOOK for the Helpers, there are always helpers.”  Mr. Rogers

Stage 1 - Oral-Sensory  Birth to 12 to 18 months

Basic Conflict: Trust vs.Mistrust

Important events:  Feeding

The infant must form a first loving, trusting relationship (bond) with the caregiver, or develop a sense of mistrust.

Complete Sensory


The milestone accomplishment for the baby at this age is to understand what / who to trust or mistrust. In this pre-verbal stage, the baby is highly sensitive to its new surroundings outside the womb (increase stimulation), as now none of the baby’s needs are being met in an enclosed environment. The baby is looking to communicate his / her needs by making sounds and gestures-crying, cooing gurgling, movements and looking to see what and who comes in response to the noises the baby makes.   

Stimulus = Response


REACTIONS are Immediate, possibly pre-conscious thought. The baby is learning what works or doesn’t work in interacting with their environment.


In time, this baby develops predictive routines for feeding, bathrooming, playing, getting attention etc. with a caregiver(s), or they must accept uncertainty and mistrust that nothing is predictable with any special person(s).


These infants are complete sensory experiencers, always watching, making thought connections to sounds, actions and new stimuli, always learning to make distinctions in their environment. They have a limited understanding of their new environment. The infant’s home environment is their world. When anyone eaves the infant’s environment they are gone forever. The infant’s vocalizations, cooing, crying, babbling, tantrums are efforts to build connections with the outside environment. Separation Anxiety, bedwetting and sleep disturbances.  Over stimulation = too many stimuli = babies sleep   They have a slower processing of information, brain is developing responses to stimuli, old and new.


In a divorce situation, a child at this age will potentially have an experience of loss and unpredictability, possibly creating anxiety, sadness, stress and anger. The baby feels tension between the care givers, senses stress and conflict, and can become clingy, irritable, fearful of separation, afraid of new people and situations, have emotional outbursts, and request more tactile security and reassurance. The baby may experience developmental delays, increased fussiness, crying, changes in eating and sleeping and bathrooming, and become more withdrawn or clinging.




Stage 2 - Muscular / Anal 18 Months to 3 years

Basic Conflict: Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt

Important events:  Toilet Training

The child's energies are directed toward the development of physical skills, including walking, grasping, and rectal sphincter control. The child learns control but may develop shame and doubt if not handled well.

The milestone accomplishment for children is toilet training and learning coordinating activities, feeding, walking, talking, grasping and holding objects, at this stage, the children become self-centered “control freaks” taking possession of the world around them (MINE, MY, NO). They still are looking for predictable routines, hates disruptions and changes in routine. In divorce situations, they prefer taking control in all situations, “my fault parents are breaking up.” 


At this age, children are prone to regression in stressful situations, crying, sucking thumbs, bowel and bladder issues, trouble eating or going to sleep, afraid to sleep alone. At this age, children want to have more autonomy in predictable ways and uncertainty and stress can create more shame and doubt in their abilities as they are prone to regression to respond to unwanted change they cannot control.


Stage 3 - Locomotion  3 years to 6 years

Basic Conflict: Initiative vs. Guilt

Important events:   Independence

The child continues to become more assertive and to take more initiative, but may be too forceful, leading to guilt feelings.

Milestones Locomotion, self-initiating behavior, Independence, talking, figuring things out, mimicking behaviors including sounds. The child doesn’t like change, wants predictability and control, my parents, my room, my siblings, my toys, they need to believe they can control what they cannot control.   It is my fault they are divorcing. GUILT SHAME BLAME REGRETS.


WITH DIVORCE: Children this age can move towards regression in behavior, toileting, bedwetting clinging, separation anxiety These children have limited coping strategies, they fear abandonment, testing emotions tantrums anger testing physicality looking at what role the caregivers play in their lives. Dependency independency, codependency, moodiness, tantrums, anger, fantasy, invisible friends, pain over possible loss, wishful thinking, anxiety and grief.


Expression of verbal feelings, fearfulness of unknown / future. Going to school, leaving home / world / protected environment, strangers / new caregivers. Other children / other experiences / sounds smell and new child and caregiver behaviors. Causing separation anxiety, stress, tantrums, pleading, bargaining, crying or withdrawn behavior.


Stage 4 - Latency 6 years to 12 years

Basic Conflict: Industry vs. Inferiority

Important events:  School

The child must deal with demands to learn new skills or risk a sense of inferiority, failure, and incompetence.

For children raised within a family system / environment, the milestone at this stage is adapting to the outside world, personified generally, as school.


The concept of school encompasses other new adults, new children, new social behaviors in response to varying and novel stimuli, demands for conformity in the school environment, demanding prompt competency in learning new skills and behaviors. For example, during this time period, children are expected to master learning the importance of time and schedules, personal bathrooming issues, and the ability to keep still and quiet for extended periods of time.


The child often can experience confusion when they find that their behaviors, which normally work in the home, no longer work outside the home. The child will have to adjust to being “out-of-their control” when they have to deal with separation issues, developing coping strategies for being inside the home and then, outside of the home environment.  At this age, the child has limited and underdeveloped coping strategies. The child can start looking to other peers for their adaptive, coping strategies in these new environments and situations.


Also, having to adapt and cope with parental divorce increases the stress on the child’s environmental concerns. This stress can encourage the child to go back to a less complicated time, a younger state, and invoke regressive and maladaptive behaviors to better control their situation.  The child can develop physical complaints, begin to isolate themselves, create emotional and disciplinary problems to try to keep the family together.


Or, the child can begin, voluntarily, or by the parental request, taking on the role of the missing parent to keep the family together, taking care of the “weaker” parent. The child loses his childhood by taking on adult responsibilities and taking responsible for even younger children in the  household,  Potentially, the child grows in anger and resentment for what was lost.


IN DIVORCE: The child must quickly learn how to develop short term strategies in problem solving, maintaining family secrets,


The child begins to worry, “WHO IS GOING TO TAKE CARE OF ME?” What is going to happen next? Will I lose my parents and go into foster care, will I ever be loved again?  Will I be living with relatives, or with new people brought into the household, with or without new children, each demanding respect. love and attention


Stage 5 - Adolescence 12 years to 18 years

Basic Conflict: Identity vs Role confusion

Important events:  Peer Relationships

The teenager must achieve a sense of identity in occupation, sex roles, politics, and religion.

During this time frame, the important events in the child’s life is the establishment of Identity (personal, sexual, value based etc.)  apart from their place in the family. (Who am I in the World?).  There is a potential for role confusion, experimentation, rebellious behaviors against authority figures, peers and family members, risk-taking (Am I indestructible?)  There is a strong desire to develop new social networks, relationships, testing adult like behaviors.  They are closely watching adults to test What do I believe in?  Who is in power in my parental relationship?  What works / doesn’t work as an “adult”?  How do my parents work or don’t work together?  How do they relate to each other? 


The child can become more verbal. using words / opinions to discuss / argue / make choices within and without the family. Or, the child can become more isolating developing more SOCIAL MEDIA friends, more time on the phone, video games / driving in a car creating their own home / personal space)

More verbal, but with less understanding of the meaning behind the words and their impact on others i.e. consequences. Lack of support limits problem solving skill development 


There may be an excessive use of television / computers / cell phones / internet as role models / Music / Sports / Class Warfare, US versus Them, Extra-Curricular Activities / popularity / likeability / loveable by other than parents


As their experience is limited, the child’s choices are more black or white / permanent direction / can’t go back / doors are closed or open.  GOOD versus BAD, RICH vs POOR, there is a belief in a SOCIAL STRATUS, Geek versus Jock,. Smart or Stupid. Class Identification, Country versus City Mouse / Gender issues, popular unpopular


At this time the child begins trying new things to develop emotional support and attachments, joining clubs creating new relationships with the potential for loss (They don’t work out anyway, Am I loveable or unlovable (Why would someone like me?)  There is a heightened sensitivity to the physical and emotional connections and believed slights


This is an important time for them to observe Adult Role modeling, they are learning adult skills and responsibilities, competency, paying bills, cooking, healthy eating, going to work, finding a job.


With divorce, the child feels adrift in a new world and wonders, WILL I STAY IN THE SAME SCHOOL, WITH MY FRIENDS?  WILL I HVE A GRADUATION PARTY?  …NEW CAR? …SWEET 16?  WHAT IS REAL, PERMANENT / DEPENDABLE?


There may be pseudo parental responsibilities to make up for missing parent and / or they may be emotional support for the adult left behind.


There is a potential for depression, sadness, weight gain or loss, they may be willing to do anything to be liked and popular, pressured to grow up fast. There may be changes in school values performance, attendance behavior, anger, resentment, grief, depression, homelessness, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, pregnancy, early marriage, and other poor coping strategies.


Children, during this time may appear “grown-up” and independent, however they still need the love, reassurance and guidance of significant adults in their life, especially their parents.

Slow Processing
Stage 3
Stage 2
Stage 1
Stage 4
Stage 5

Erickson Espouses 8 stages of growth - the remaining stages are as follows and there is evidence that regardless the age, there are emotional effects of parents divorcing, even to individuals who are "adults".  To maintain relationships with adult children and with grandchildren it is recommended that non-blaming discussions are had with parties that are important to you.

6. Young Adulthood

19 to 40 years

Intimacy vs.

Love relationships

The young adult must develop intimate relationships or suffer feelings of isolation.

7. Middle Adulthood

40 to 65 years

Generativity vs. Stagnation


Each adult must find some way to satisfy and support the next generation.

8. Maturity

65 to death

Ego Integrity vs. Despair

Reflection on and acceptance of one's life

The culmination is a sense of oneself as one is, and of feeling fulfilled.

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