Helping Toddlers Cope with Divorce

First in a series of blogs about the impact of divorce on children. The second is “Pets Help Children Cope with Divorce.” The third is “The Positive Side of Pre-Teen Smartphone Use.”

Toddlers and DivorceTwo-year-olds want to know what’s going on in their world. Although they may be short-sighted and egocentric, they certainly have the capacity to understand when their routines have been disrupted and when their parents are living separately. Beginning with the announcement of your impending divorce, reassurance of your love and commitment to support and protect them is critical. They can sense tension and if divorce is not discussed in at least the simplest terms, they may resort to assuming they’re the cause of the animosity.

How and When to tell toddlers:

Ideally parents should tell the child together so that both parents can give lots of hugs and reassure the child that they didn’t cause the breakup and that both parents intend to continue caring for him or her. The success of the transition for your toddler from a one household family to two is dependent on the repetition and consistency of your repeated reassurance.

Taking into account the toddler’s sense of time is not developed, you will want to tell your 2 or 3-year-old child only a day or two before one spouse plans to move out of the home. Telling them any sooner will only create confusion as they can’t track the passing days as well as older children. With that said, if there are older children in the family that need more processing time, you will have to compromise the time frame. Tell all the children together so it doesn’t create friction between siblings. You don’t want one having to keep a monumental secret from others. Choose a day when there will be plenty of time to talk and hug. Avoid impulsively blurting the announcement before arrangements are settled. Have concrete plans. Toddlers will want to know about their small world. They will be concerned with their room(s), their pets and their immediate family members. On that same note, little kids don’t care about the differences between a house, condo, apartment or mansion. All they want to know is that they will be with their favorite people and surrounded by their favorite items like stuffed animals and comforters, pets, books, movies and toys.

Reassure them in simple language that they will continue to see both mommy and daddy but that there will be two separate houses or apartments. Toddlers will not know about distances so when discussing housing locations, use landmarks. “Daddy’s house is close to the park with the pink swings that you like. Mommy’s going to live in a different house near your pre-school.”

Don’t get bogged down by talking about specifics of the visitation arrangements.

“Toddlers don’t grasp the idea of time yet, so telling your child that she’ll see Daddy on Tuesdays and Thursdays isn’t especially meaningful. You can let your toddler know about a confirmed visit on the same day it’s happening,” wrote Social Worker Laura Betts in the article “Talking with Toddlers About Divorce.”

Once you’ve told him or her…

Divorce or not, the key to successful parenting of toddlers is consistency and repetition. Whether it’s food, (“No, you can’t have a cookie before dinner,”) or personal responsibility, (“Please put the Playdoh back in the container when you’re done playing with it.”) Hygiene, (“Brush your teeth before bed,”) or divorce schedules, (“Daddy is picking you up from daycare tonight.”)

Your divorce attorney will provide you with a checklist of issues that co-parents need to discuss during the divorce proceedings. The list is detailed but addresses topics of religion, health and safety, education, travel and money. Although you won’t be able to anticipate every parenting situation before it arises, at least decide which parent will have the final say on each topic. This way, you can both present your toddler with the same answers.

Even if you do not agree with your ex-spouses’ decision on a topic, respect your agreement. Conflicting messages only erode your child’s sense of security. Undercutting your ex-spouse’s authority on an issue will do nothing to win you favor with any age child and attempting to brainwash him or her may actually backfire if the child perceives you as the “mean” one.

Toddlers need to hear the same messages about belonging, comfort, family and routines from all the family members. And they will probably need to hear those messages repeatedly. Don’t be surprised if you hear the same questions over-and-over. Just answer them over-and-over.

“Two year olds are normally dependent on routines and have a strong desire for things to be the same as usual,” according to Betts.

If at all possible, maintain the same routines in both households. Strive for common bedtimes and mealtimes. When life happens, reassure the child that the variance is just temporary.

Attachment

With toddlers, they have a less-developed long-term memory – meaning simply, “what’s out of sight is out of mind.” Parents can be comforted to know that a traumatic, emotional parenting exchange won’t last long. Don’t be offended. Take comfort that you want the best for your child and it’s best for them to be at ease with both parents.

Early on in the separate living situation, toddlers may have a difficult time understanding why they can’t hug or talk to Mommy when they’re a Daddy’s house and vice-versa. “During divorce, a significant attachment figure that your child relies on will no longer be available to him regularly—this will be a big adjustment for your child, but one he can make with extra support,” wrote Betts

When to seek help:

For all children, if you can afford it or have medical coverage for it, it’s a great idea to have a child therapist work with children before and after divorce.

For help finding a professional, check out https://psychiatrists.psychologytoday.com/rms/

You can enter factors such as distance, specialties, insurance accepted, etc. Make sure that whomever you select will take both your current health insurance and whatever you’ve selected for post-divorce.

For toddlers, Play Therapy may be a good option. According to the Association for Play Therapy, “The curative powers inherent in play are used in many ways. Therapists strategically utilize play therapy to help children express what is troubling them when they do not have the verbal language to express their thoughts and feelings (Gil, 1991).”

Ideally, you should introduce your toddler to a therapist once or twice before a parent moves out so the professional can get a baseline assessment of your child’s emotional state. Then, if more help is needed down the road, the child is already familiar with the therapist and vice-versa.

Therapy is especially crucial if your child is exhibiting signs of not being able to cope like: frequent nightmares; sleep problems; lack of interest in regular play; angry or violent outbursts; or withdrawal from loved ones.

In the article “Children and Divorce,” HelpGuide.org suggests, “If things get worse rather than better after several months, it may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety, or anger and could use some additional support.” http://www.helpguide.org/articles/family-divorce/children-and-divorce.htm

Sources:

babble.com, “Talking with Toddlers About Divorce,” Laura Betts, LICSW, MSW, 2012. http://www.babble.com/toddler/divorce-talk-toddlers/

Association for Play Therapy, “Play Therapy Makes a Difference.” http://www.a4pt.org/?page=PTMakesADifference

HelpGuide.org, “Children and Divorce.” http://www.helpguide.org/articles/family-divorce/children-and-divorce.htm