Though vows are meant to be forever, sometimes life has a funny way of proving us wrong.

There is still some stigma surrounding divorce, but the truth is, it’s a normal part of any relationship between two people who don’t see a future together anymore. One of the most difficult aspects of divorce is explaining the situation to your children. After all, people believe that divorce can be very damaging for a child, especially if they’re really young.

However, what some don’t realize is that an unhappy marriage can be just as damaging. So what exactly are the effects upon infants and toddlers of divorce?

How Divorce Affects Infants

Infants may be too small to understand what is actually happening, but that doesn’t mean they can’t feel the tension in a house. At this stage, infants experience the world through sensory emotions. That’s how they express their needs, too. If your baby feels tension, they’re likely to have emotional outbursts and become clingier. That means there may be more crying and your child will likely want to be physically close to you. In some cases, infants can even show signs of developmental delay.

In this stage, children form bonds through touch. That’s also how they build trust. You should be as attentive to your baby as possible during a difficult period like divorce, so as to maintain those bonds. Not doing so can have long-term effects on your child’s mental health. It’s also a good idea to have a fixed routine. Set a feeding schedule and communicate with your baby actively whenever you can. Giving your baby enough love and affection helps ensure your child will grow into a happy and confident person.

How Divorce Affects Children up to Three

Toddlers are older and therefore understand more. Children up to three years old already know some things, but their curiosity is also at its all-time high. This is the period where you’ll be asked the most questions about the world. This period is difficult in the context of divorce because children this age are prone to perceive themselves as the cause of a marital problem that may exist. They often can’t fully understand what divorce is, but they may also blame themselves for your divorce and promise to “be good” if you stay together. This happens because they’re developmentally inwardly-focused.

There are many ways through which your toddler may express their distress. You might notice crying, attention-seeking, thumb sucking, and poor bladder control. You may also notice some behaviors your child hasn’t manifested before. To make your child hurt less, a fixed schedule will help. A routine will help settle their nerves and give them the stability they need to deal with fear and uncertainty. In this schedule, include time the child can spend with both you and your partner individually. Since nightmares can also be common in this period, it’s perfectly OK to invite your child to sleep with you. Spending quality time with your child and giving them plenty of physical contact will go a long way toward making your child feel safe and loved.

What Are Critical Development Tasks?

One of the biggest fears parents have when they’re divorcing is what kind of emotional scars the experience will leave on their child, if any. Will they lose self-esteem, blame themselves, or lose motivation for school? These concerns are understandable. However, while those issues are common, they don’t have to be permanent if you know how to address your child’s needs. There are some critical periods where your child will be dealing with development tasks and when you’ll need to be extra supportive.

For instance, during early childhood, a child is still too young to understand the concept of divorce, but not too young to feel its effects. Here, you should make sure your child is still able to form stable attachments. That’s easily achievable through physical contact from both parents. Remember: your child should come first. This is a time of need for them, so be available when they need you.

In later childhood, your child will be more focused on socialization. School is a major factor here, so you make sure your child doesn’t lose the motivation to study and doesn’t cease making friends. Since they can already communicate their feelings at this age, you should talk to your child openly and often. Make sure they understand you will be there for them, that you still love them, and that they are not alone.

When Can You Expect to See Changes?

The changes your child goes through after your divorce may not be noticeable right away. Typically, changes are visible in the first three years after the divorce. Some children bury their emotions, some need a while to get over the shock, and some are not even aware of how much the divorce impacted them. But don’t worry — your child is capable of getting over any obstacle, and they can still grow into a self-confident and healthy individual with your support.

Divorce doesn’t permanently damage most children but can leave lasting scars in some cases. As a parent, you no doubt want to prevent crises in your child’s life. However, sometimes this is inevitable — like in the case of divorce. In these circumstances, your most important job is to make sure your child is able to deal with the transition as painlessly as possible. The permanent damage comes mostly from parents not being attentive enough to their children’s needs during these rocky periods.

As you can see, divorce is usually a difficult period in a child’s life, but you can make it hurt less by handling the issue with love and tenderness. It’s up to every responsible and attentive parent to make sure their child is content and healthy throughout the ordeal.

About the Author: Chloe Smith is a business consultant for Justice Family Lawyers and a part-time writer always willing to share tidbits of advice. She believes that passion, courage and, above all, knowledge breed success. When she’s not working, she’s probably somewhere cuddled up with a good book, and a cup of lemongrass tea (or more honestly binge-watching the newest Netflix hit show).