Children's Behaviours at Different Ages


Age Typical Characteristics
& Developmental Tasks
Separation Issues How they might show
their stress
Suggestions to parents
0-2 years Infants are totally dependent on of contact with a parent. This is the stage when infants develop a sense of trust or one of insecurity in the world and life. Slowing down in learning new skills Infants will feel the loss of contact with a familiar environment.
  1. Difficulty toileting or sleeping.
  2. Clinging, afraid to be absent from parent for long periods.
  3. More than normal crankiness, tantrums and execessive crying.
  4. Slowing down in learning new skills
  1. Allow both parents to bond with the child.
  2. Meet infant's needs promptly and consistently.
  3. Try not to separate child from primary caregiverfor long periods.
  4. 18-24 month olds can adapt to longer separation periods.
  5. Prepare your child by explaining what will happen.
2-4 years Growth of personal independence. Growing ability to keep the absent parent in mind and thus to comfort themselves for extended periods of separation. Verbal skills are developing and they can better express their feelings and needs. May have a sense of responsibility for the separation. Children are anxious about their basic needs being met such as food, shelter and visitation. May fantasize about parents reuniting.
  1. Regression... returning to security blankets and old toys...a safer past.
  2. May make up fantasy stories to self-soothe.
  3. May be anxious about bedtime, may sleep fitfully and wake frequently.
  4. May be emotionally needy, seeking more cuddling and contact than usual.
  5. May be more irritable and aggressive than normal.
  1. Provide reassurance. Cuddle and tell them you love them.
  2. Keep routines consistent.
  3. Explain what is going to happen and role play future events.
  4. Through frequent visits and over-nights, your child will adapt to longer periods of separation.
9-12 years At this stage of development children are working on: 1. Developing an increased self-awareness... being separate and different from others. 2. Pre-adolescents are working on learning how to ‘fit in’ with their peers. They may see the problem of the separation as belonging to their parents but they may become angry that their parents don’t have the ability to ‘work it out’. They are likely to take sides against the parent who they believe wanted or caused the separation.
  1. Intense anger at the one they blame for the separation.
  2. Frequent headaches and stomach aches.
  3. They may become over active to avoid having to think about the separation.
  4. They may feel shame about what is happening.
  1. Parents must remain involved and honest.
  2. Parents must not blame.
  3. Pre-adolescents can spend vacations with either parent.
  4. Children should be allowed to contact the other parent.
  5. Maintain a constant routine.
  6. Inform the child of what is happening at all times. Keep them in the communication loop.
  7. Keep teachers informed of any stress the child is feeling and get help for school problems.
5 -8 years The appropriate developmental challenges for children of this age group include: 1. Developing peer and community relationships. 2. Moral development. Moving from simply obeying authority to realizing there are many centers of authority. Children at this stage often see the separation as their fault. They cling to fantasies that parents will reunite. Fear of abandonment. May long for the absent parent, regardless of the quality of the relationship.
  1. Generalized sadness.
  2. Feelings of being abandoned and rejected.
  3. Crying and sobbing. Fantasizing about parent’s reconciling.
  4. Conflicts of loyalty...feeling torn between mom and dad.
  5. May show impulsive behaviour.
  1. Each parent should spend as much time as possible with the child.
  2.  Allow the child to express his/her feelings.
  3. Help the child understand that the decision to separate had nothing to do with them.
  4. Encourage the child to draw pictures and her feelings, then ask her to tell you the story of what it means.
13-18 years Key developmental tasks of this age group: Teens are solidifying their identity and establishing a sense of self in relationship to the rules and regulations of society.* *See Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development Embarrassment about the family. Possible de-idealization of one or both parents. Will place peer needs ahead of family. May not want to visit with the other parent.
  1. They may: Withdraw from family life and spend more time with peers.
  2. Feel rushed to become independent.
  3. Engage in sexual acting out, drinking and drugs.
  4. Worry about their own future loves and marriage.
  5. Experience chronic fatigue and difficulty concentrating.


  1. Be consistent about discipline and limits while allowing for normal adolescent behaviour.
  2. Allow more freedom and choices.
  3. Find time to be with the teen. Be flexible with schedules.
  4.  Give teens input about the visitation schedule, but don’t burden them with the responsibility of deciding on the schedule i.e. they have input, parents decide.