Helping Your Young Child Adjust to Divorce
Divorce is difficult for children of all ages, but it can be especially confusing for very young children. Even infants can be significantly affected by the stress, emotional upheaval, and changes that inevitably occur during this difficult time.
As a parent going through a divorce, you may feel uncertain as to what you can do to help minimize the impact on your little one. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to decrease his stress and strengthen his sense of security. Some things will be more difficult than others, and they will all require that you make your child’s needs a top priority. The payoff, however, will be worth it in terms of his emotional adjustment and overall development.
- Keep your own emotions in check when you’re around your child. Children (including infants) are very sensitive to the feelings of adults – the more you display your negative emotions (fighting, yelling, crying, throwing things, etc.), the more stressed, scared, and upset your child will feel. Find an outlet for your feelings and spare your child the drama.
- Regardless of what caused the divorce, don’t talk negatively about the other parent to your child, or when your child is within earshot. Also, remember that children are notorious for listening in on adult conversations (including phone conversations), even when it appears they aren’t paying attention.
- Reassure your child, as often as needed, that the divorce is not her fault. Preschoolers often feel that the other parent left because they did something bad.
- When talking about the divorce, use simple language and keep it brief. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t need (and won’t understand) lengthy explanations. However, they often need to hear things repeatedly. Be patient if they ask the same “why” questions over and over.
- Keep consistent routines and schedules as much as possible – particularly sleep routines, meal / feeding schedules, and visitations. This will help decrease your child’s anxiety and uncertainty. Work with the other parent as much as possible to ensure similar routines in both households.
- Allow and encourage your child to express her feelings openly (and appropriately). Be sensitive to the fact that this can be a scary, confusing time for her. Make sure she knows that feeling sad is okay.
- Set aside some time each day to spend with your child, even if it’s just for a few minutes on some occasions. Read a book, play a fun game, cuddle, or just talk. Make this time a top priority.
- Give your child lots of hugs and kisses, and very frequently tell him that you love him. Often reassure him that, even though Mommy and Daddy are no longer together, you both love him very much, and always will.
- Be consistent in your parenting. Strive for a healthy balance between being overly strict and overly permissive. When your stress levels are high, it’s very easy to be less consistent or lean towards one extreme or the other.
- Pay attention to signs of anxiety, depression, regression, or acting out. If needed, seek professional help for your child during this stressful time.
In addition to the list above, be sure to take good care of yourself. Find healthy ways to deal with your own stress, and get plenty of support during this challenging time in your life. By attending to your own physical and emotional needs, you’ll be better equipped to meet the needs of your child.