Needs of Children of Different Ages

Children are very different and have different needs, depending on their relationship with their parents, their maturity level, and their extended family, friends, community, cultural background, and other factors. So, there is no "one size fits all" parenting plan for children of different ages.

But there has been a lot of research on this subject and there are a lot of resources on the Internet for help developing parenting plans. You can also talk to counselors, your mediator at Family Court Services, community agencies, and lawyers.

These websites can give you some guidelines that you may find helpful, but an individualized plan for your children is best:

What Do Young Children (5 Years Old or Younger) Need?

This section includes research from studies of children who were 5 years old or younger when their parents divorced or separated. This information may be helpful to you and your children.

Separation and divorce can be difficult and may present emotional challenges for adults and children. Your children may need extra love, time, attention, and stability to deal with these changes. Get support from family, friends, support groups, and professionals so that you have the energy to help your children.

Children usually need some consistency in both parents' homes to help them get used to the changes. You need to find a way to talk to the other parent about your children on a regular basis. This will help you avoid misunderstandings and keep small problems from getting big.

Try to remember that most families make it through a separation or divorce and are happy, well-adjusted children and parents. But if you or your children have problems that just do not seem to go away, ask your doctor, a parenting educator, counselor, or mediator to help.

What young children need from their parents

Children going through divorce or separation have certain needs. Although there are no foolproof ways to raise young children before, during, and after a separation, you and the other parent can help your children cope better with the divorce or separation.

Most families are more calm and stable 2 years after the parents separate. However, your children need your help now to get used to the changes in their lives.

All types of families can give young children what they need. Parents do not have to be perfect. Even so, when parents live apart, young children need them to:

  • Give them warmth, affection, and love.
  • Understand their needs and feelings, but set limits to help them grow up.
  • Know the children well and spend time playing with, teaching, and caring for them.
  • Make sure that caregivers (babysitters, daycare centers, family members, etc.) are stable, reliable, sensitive to the children, and accepted by both parents.
  • Control any negative feelings, especially in front of the children.
  • Share information with the other parent regularly and with respect.
  • Decide which parenting decisions need to be made together and which can be made by 1 parent.
  • Solve problems and disagreements that affect the children.
  • Give them enough food, clothes, toys, and equipment.
  • Give them good medical care and education.

It helps children if their parents feel good about themselves. Grandparents, other family members, and close friends need to support both parents and be dependable, sensitive, and helpful "advisors."

No matter where your children are, they need to be with adults who:

  • Are warm and comforting,
  • Listen carefully,
  • Help them make sense of the world, and
  • Give them interesting things to do and think about.

Your children will do best if you and the other parent respect each other and support each other as parents. Do not show your anger in front of your children. Try to find ways to work out your disagreements with the other parent.

Finding common ground as parents

All couples disagree about what they think is important for their children. When parents live together, they have more chances to work out their differences and agree on a way of parenting (a "common ground"). It is much harder for parents to find a common ground when they live apart. It is easier to think that the other parent is not listening or is making a mistake.

If you and the other parent talk about your differences, you can learn from each other and your children can get the best of both parents.

Some suggestions:

  • Have regular, positive conversations with the other parent. Try to solve problems; talk about your worries and your children's activities, successes, and problems.
  • Figure out what you can do to let the other parent know you are listening to his or her concerns.
  • Decide what you need from the other parent to believe that he or she is taking your concerns seriously.

For example:

  • A father is really worried about safety. He buys the newest car seat and installs gates at the top of the stairs and safety latches on the cabinets. The mother wants her child to be independent. At the playground, she stands by the slide while the child climbs to the top, instead of lifting the child up.
  • The problem: The father thinks the mother is being "unsafe" because she lets the child be independent. The mother thinks the father is "overprotective" for worrying so much about safety.
  • The solution: If the father sees the child in a car seat every time the child comes over, he sees that the mother thinks safety is important. If the father and child tell the mother how much fun the slide is, she sees that the father will support the child's independence. This way, both parents feel that they are important to their child. And both feel respected.

Working together as parents

There are different ways for parents to work together after separating:

  • Some work together as a team. They respect and support each other.
  • Some have a more distant, businesslike relationship. They are not friends, but they talk about important issues, plan their households, and find ways to work out disagreements.
  • Others do not fight, but they do not talk much either. They avoid fights by keeping each household separate.
  • Some parents also have to deal with abuse or violence. These parents need to think about how to protect themselves and their children, and how to stop being violent.

Problems between parents can make children:

  • Feel bad about themselves,
  • Disobey and not cooperate,
  • Have problems in school, and
  • Have trouble getting along with friends.

Children should not feel that they are "in the middle" of their parents' disagreements. Children should NOT:

  • Take messages from 1 parent to the other,
  • Feel that you expect them to take sides,
  • Feel that they caused their parents' disagreements, or
  • See violence.

If you do not agree on anything

Here is an example of a couple, Chris and Jack, who started off not having any common ground and were able to reach an agreement that was best for their son, Sean:


  • Thinks that babies need to be with 1 parent during the day and not with a babysitter.
  • Had to work to make ends meet after separating from Jack
  • Is angry to have to be away from their son, Sean. And feels guilty for leaving him with a babysitter.
  • Is worried that Sean will be mad at Chris for leaving him and that he will love the babysitter more than his parents.
  • Does not like that Sean's time with Jack takes away from the few hours Chris has to spend with him.
  • Cannot stand the thought that Sean might get to like Jack's new partner.
  • Is impatient and irritable when Sean gets cranky.
  • Cannot think of good ways to help the baby get used to the changes in their lives, so Chris ends up feeling even worse.
  • Misses the quiet times with Sean before the separation.


  • Is scared that Chris does not see him as important. He thinks Chris would be happier if he would get out of Sean's life altogether.
  • Feels stretched to the limit, working overtime, starting a new relationship, and finding time for Sean.
  • Wants to be helpful and reasonable. But when Chris suggests that he change his work schedule to give Sean more time with both of them, he fights with Chris about how important his job is.
  • Does not know what type of relationship his new partner should have with Sean. But he needs his partner's help to take care of Sean.
  • Thinks Chris is being unreasonable and jealous over Sean being left with Jack's new partner.

Working together:

  • Things got really tough when Sean had to go to the hospital because he was dehydrated.
  • Jack and Chris were embarrassed that they yelled at each other in front of the doctor. They were both worried sick about Sean.
  • After the hospital experience, they went to a mediator that knows about small children and made some agreements:
  • They agreed to take a parenting class at the YMCA.
  • Chris found a support group for divorced people.
  • Jack called the Stepfamily Association of America for information about how to bring his partner into the household.
  • Jack also agreed to limit the time Sean spends with his new partner until Chris is comfortable enough to meet his new partner in person.
  • They both changed their schedules so Sean can have more time with each of them.

Helping each other coparent your children well

Here is an example of another couple, Dolores and Carlos, who want to work together to help their daughter Rosa adjust to the separation as best as possible.


  • Knows what her 18-month-old daughter Rosa wants, what makes her cry, and what makes her happy.
  • Knows that Rosa needs to have a close relationship with her father, Carlos.
  • Wants Rosa to live with her. But she also wants to make sure that Rosa is happy in different places.
  • Has tried to stay up-to-date about what happens when Rosa is with Carlos. She gives Carlos useful information, without telling him what to do.
  • Remembers what helped Rosa get used to the babysitter and has told Carlos what seemed to work.
  • Has noticed that since the separation, Rosa gets tired and cranky more easily, especially when she travels from Carlos's home to Dolores's home.
  • Now puts aside quiet time to spend with Rosa after the child returns from being with Carlos. And Rosa seems to handle the changes better.


  • Felt terrible when Rosa cried for her mother the first overnight at his apartment.
  • Remembered what Dolores told him: that Rosa cried with the babysitter at first, but stopped when she started playing.
  • Tried some of Dolores's ideas and a few of his own.
    • For example: Carlos made up stories to tell Rosa. He tried different nighttime routines until bedtime went smoothly.
  • Knew Dolores would worry. So he made sure to tell her how he makes bedtime work.
  • Also told Dolores what he thinks should be the same in the 2 houses and what differences he thinks Rosa can handle.

Working together:

  • Rosa got more comfortable going back and forth between her 2 homes.
  • The doctor told Carlos that Rosa was doing "everything an almost-2-year-old ought to be doing." She told Carlos and Dolores that they were parenting well together.
  • Even though problems or arguments come up from time to time, Dolores and Carlos talk with each other until the problem is solved. They remind themselves that the most important thing is Rosa's best interest.

Managing parenting and work

It is generally good for children to spend time with their parents.

  • But it is NOT bad for children to spend some time away from their parents.
  • Children who are away from both parents for most of the day can do well if their daycare is good and if their time with their parents is not too stressful.
  • Children should be with consistent caregivers (that is, babysitters, daycare workers, grandparents, or other family members).
  • The fewer changes in caregivers, the better.
  • Children need to be taken care of by people that are sensitive to them, understand their needs, and give them affection and a sense of security.
  • A caregiver that has a close relationship with the child (called an "attachment") can help during this stressful time.

Most children need time with both parents on a regular basis. Work together to spend as much time as possible with your children. Create a routine that your children can count on and stick to it.

Try to work out your schedules so that the children are with 1 parent when the other parent is at work or in school. This way, you will both have more time with the children.

Not all parents can work out this type of work schedule. Watch your children to see if they are stressed or having trouble dealing with changes.

Suggestions for parents

Suggestions for positive conversations

  • Agree on a time and place to talk (in person or by phone) that works for both of you. Talk on a regular basis to avoid misunderstandings. This will make it easier for the children to live in 2 homes.
  • Try to solve problems when the children are not around.
  • Meet in public places like restaurants, libraries, or coffee shops. This will help you talk calmly and will give you a chance to leave if you need to.
  • Start by sharing information. Then, try to solve problems. Keep talking as long as the conversation stays positive.
  • Agree that either parent can end the talk if it is too uncomfortable or not positive.
  • When you end the conversation, agree to keep talking about the problem the next time you talk. Even 5 minutes of positive conversation every week can lead to good decisions.
  • Keep parenting talks separate from talks about other subjects. Try to talk about other things at a different time.
Important! All parents have disagreements. What affects children is HOW parents fight and how they work out their problems. Children know when their parents are fighting. Even if you avoid each other most of the time, children can sense angry, repeated fights. This can be bad for them emotionally.

Some suggestions for less-experienced parents

Spend a little bit of time alone with your children at first.

  • Slowly spend more time alone with your children.
  • Learn from the people around you (family, other parents, parenting classes).
  • Listen to information from the other parent.
  • Commit to a regular schedule. You may have to talk to your boss about your schedule and sick time for your children's doctor's appointments.

Some suggestions for more-experienced parents

Give the other parent a chance to take care of your children. Not just playing, but feeding, dressing, bathing, having them take naps, putting them to bed, and taking care of them when they are sick.

  • Think about what you need to know to feel better about how your children are being taken care of. Tell the other parent.
  • It is usually all right if 1 parent does some things a little differently than the other.
  • Tell the other parent about what your children need, what they are used to doing, and what they like. For example:
    • What are their favorite foods?
    • What calms them down when they are upset?
    • What helps them go to bed?
  • The other parent may discover new things about your children. Listen to this new information about your children.
  • Talk to the other parent about how your children act when they are doing well with a change. And how they react when they are stressed or upset.

Taking care of yourself

Children do best when both parents take care of them regularly. They need you both to be sensitive, caring, and prepared to take care of them.

  • Parents do best when they help, support, and respect each other.
  • When you first separate, it is a lot harder to work well together.
  • If you are under a lot of stress, you may feel depressed, anxious, moody, and worried. This can make it hard to be sensitive and calm with a fussy child.
  • Try to figure out what would help you feel better and take the time to do it. For example:
    • Plan regular activities for when you have the children and for when you are alone.
    • Look for good examples of successful divorced families. Their experience can give you support and good ideas.
    • Talk to close friends who will listen when you are upset and angry but will not take sides.
    • Get help from support groups and professionals if you need to.

More information on parenting your young children

Most areas have groups like the YMCA or YWCA, youth agencies, community agencies, and religious groups that offer:

  • Handouts on normal development for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
  • Articles with checklists for picking a quality daycare.
  • Parenting classes with tips for handling typical situations.

Mental health professionals also can help to point out important issues for the family and help you to plan.

There are also a lot of websites with helpful information on parenting children of different ages. Here are some that may be helpful:

What Do Children 6 Years Old and Older Need?

There is a lot of information on the Internet about the needs of children of school age and teenagers.

Here are some resources: