Specialist Divorce & Family Lawyer

The Impact of Divorce on Children at Different Ages

Most divorces in Singapore involve children. From 2008 to 2018, 52-56% of all divorces under the Women’s Charter (Cap 353) involved at least one child below the age of 21.

Divorce is thus a life-changing event not just for spouses, but also for their children. Indeed, even if the divorce is uncontested and relations between both spouses do not seem acrimonious, the exposure of children to inter-parental conflict and separation through divorce can have profound, long-term psychological effects on children.

Children of divorce tend to experience the following:

  • Anger and/or resentment towards either parent, or both parents;
  • Sadness, grief and loss usually due to diminishing contact with the non-custodial parent and his/her extended family, and loss of the former family unit;
  • Denial of the divorce;
  • Being caught in the middle between both parents;
  • Withdrawal (ie, preferring to keep to himself/herself, engaging in anti-social behaviour); and
  • Low self-esteem.

More worryingly, mental health experts have observed increasing numbers of children in Singapore suffering from depression and other mental health issues, with parental divorce often cropping up as a major factor.

How children deal with divorce at different ages

That being said, all children are different. Among other things, the child’s age is a key factor affecting how he/she responds to and makes sense of divorce.

Overall, if the child is young (up to around 9 years old), divorce tends to accentuate his/her dependence. The young child may regress to an earlier state, becoming more reliant on the custodial parent. Whereas, if the child is older (10-12 years old and above), divorce tends to hasten his/her independence. An older child may respond to divorce by behaving more aggressively towards his/her parents and other authority figures.

Babies (up to 1½ years old)

Although babies cannot understand the conflict between their parents, they can perceive tension and changes in their parents’ behaviour, eg if the parents engage in loud quarrels or physical violence. In the long term, the child can exhibit anxiety, neediness and irritability. At the most extreme, he/she may even suffer developmental delay.

Toddlers (1½-3 years old) and nursery/kindergarten-going children (4-6 years old)

Compared with babies, toddlers have a heightened perception of tension and behavioural changes in their parents. The toddler may still be unable to articulate their thoughts or feelings. However, with greater self-awareness at this age, he/she may regress and become more reliant on the custodial parent. He/she may cry more and seek more attention. He/she may even revert to behaviours that he/she has outgrown, eg thumb-sucking and bedwetting. The toddler may resist being left alone and going to sleep at night, and suffer from nightmares.

Nursery/kindergarten-going children will be able understand that their parents are in conflict and are living separately. However, this is difficult for the child to accept. He/she may feel responsible for his/her parents’ divorce, and blame himself/herself for it. Therefore, like a toddler, he/she may exhibit regressive behaviour in order to gain more parental concern and draw both parents back together to care for him/her.

Support for divorcing spouses and their children from the Family Justice Courts (“FJC”)

Together with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (“MSF”) and the Divorce Support Specialist Agencies (“DSSAs”), the Courts have implemented various programmes to help divorcing spouses and their children cope with the social and psychological impact of divorce. This is in line with the Courts’ shift towards a child-centric approach in divorce matters.

The following is a summary of the key programmes aimed at supporting divorcing parents and their children through the divorce process:


Mandatory Parenting Programme (“MPP”)- Even before commencing divorce, spouses with children below the age of 21 must undergo the MPP. This is a 2-hour counselling session by DSSA counsellors which seeks to help parents understand and work out post-divorce living arrangements, issues of child custody and access, as well as co-parenting.

After commencing divorce and post-divorce

Compulsory mediation and counselling under the Family Dispute Resolution (“FDR”) Division of the FJC- Divorcing spouses with at least 1 child below the age of 21 are now required by law to undergo mediation and counselling, as part of the divorce proceedings. As divorcing spouses invariably disagree about future living, caregiving and financial matters, children often experience uncertainty and anxiety. FDR mediation and counselling is thus aimed at keeping spouses focused on the welfare of the child in resolving their disagreements. The steps in the FDR mediation and counselling process are as follows:

  1. 1st FDR Conference. Divorcing spouses and their lawyers (if any) attend a conference before a Judge-Mediator and a Court Family Specialist (“CFS”), a trained counsellor specialising in family matters from the Counselling and Psychological Services under the FJC.
  2. Intake and Assessment Session. Divorcing spouses meet with the CFS to work out key issues such as parenting and financial plans, and how best to meet the welfare of the children. The CFS may meet with the spouses jointly or individually. The CFS may conduct one or more further counselling sessions.
  3. Child Inclusive Dispute Resolution sessions (where applicable). If the child is above the age of 7, the CFS may conduct a therapeutic interview with the child to better understand his/her experience of the divorce. The CFS will then communicate the child’s views to the divorcing spouses to assist them in arriving at decisions in the best interests of the child.
  4. Subsequent mediation/co-mediation sessions. If spouses can reach agreement at the counselling sessions, they can enter a draft agreement before the Judge-Mediator at mediation. If there are unresolved issues, these can be resolved at the mediation session(s), or if the presence of the CFS is required, at co-mediation.

Longer-term support. Through FDR mediation and counselling, the CFS can, with the divorcing spouses’ consent, refer them and/or their children to the DSSAs or Family Service Centres (“FSCs”). Programmes provided by the DSSAs are as follows:

  1. Parenting PACT. A one-off, 2-hour consultation session for divorced parents of children below the age of 21, which, among other things, equips parents with an understanding of the impact of divorce on their children and co-parenting strategies.
  2. Supervised Exchange and Visitation Programme (interim measure strictly by Order of Court). If the child has strong reservations, discomfort or even fear of the non-custodial parent, the Court may order that a DSSA counsellor assist the parents and the child in resolving their distrust and strengthening their relationship.
  3. Children in Between. Free workshops organised by DSSAs for divorced parents and children aged 6-15 to help them cope with the divorce.
  4. Longer-term counselling. The DSSAs organise and maintain mutual support groups and counselling services for divorced parents and their children. A list of the current groups and services may be found at https://www.msf.gov.sg/Divorce-Support-Old/Divorce-Support/Divorce-Support-Specialist-Agencies/Pages/DSSA-Programmes.aspx.
  5. Parenting Coordination programme. If relations between divorcing parents are highly acrimonious, the Court may appoint a Parenting Coordinator to assist parents with co-parenting. The Parenting Coordinator does so by acting as a neutral facilitator who helps parents communicate with each other, provides education on co-parenting, and mediates disagreements regarding the child. For instance, Parenting Coordinators may help monitor minor changes to child access arrangements on an ad hoc basis. Parenting Coordinators may be appointed for a duration of 6 months to 2 years. Fees will be payable to Parenting Coordinators.

For advice on these issues speak to one of the fully qualified family lawyers at Yeo & Associates LLC at 62203400

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