Parenting children through a divorce is difficult. Helping toddlers adjust to a new living situation, without daddy, can be even more difficult, but there are things that parents can do to help their children.
Toddlers and Divorce
One of the biggest differences between infants and toddlers is that toddlers can verbalize their concerns, albeit in a primitive manner. And, though toddlers can only see the world as it relates to them, and they can’t really understand divorce, they can still be affected by stressful events.
Toddlers notice that a parent is gone, but they can’t, yet, fully understand the reason behind a parent’s absence. Common behaviors seen in toddlers during divorce:
- Clinging to the parent who is no longer living at home.
- Difficulty separating from a parent.
- Anger toward a parent.
- Regression in toilet training.
- Thumb sucking.
- Sleep problems and nightmares.
Toddlerhood is a stage of development where children are just beginning to understand abstract thoughts. Little children will try to understand divorce, but parents should expect a lot of repeat questions. What toddler’s understand:
- One parent is no longer living at home.
- Mommy or Daddy is sad. (Toddlers may try to show empathy.)
- A vague understanding of abstractions.
With the abstract concept of time, a child may ask when he or she will see daddy again. Mommy will say, “You get to see Daddy the day after tomorrow.” Then the child will ask again in an hour. Parents need to remember that all toddlers go through something similar, asking questions over and over, not just kids in divorces.
On the other hand, divorcing parents must be extra loving and nurturing when answering questions. Children of divorce need a lot of reassurance and every time they ask a question about the other parent, the adult must try to guess what the child is really asking.
Parents need to answer questions on a level that a child can comprehend. For example:
“Mommy and Daddy didn’t get along so we are living in different houses.”
“Divorce is a grown-up problem and Daddy left for grown-up reasons. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Both parents can take steps to help a toddler with transitions:
- Arrive early when taking a child to preschool or daycare.
- Put extra time into preparing a child before dropping him or her off at the other parent’s house.
- Talk to the child to help prepare him or her for transitions.
- Keep a tote bag with the child’s toys near the door.
- Put a calendar, with pictures, on the refrigerator.
- Tell the child that he or she is loved by both parents.
- Talk to caregivers, such as relatives, babysitters, or daycare workers about the divorce and the child’s behaviors. This will help caregivers understand the toddler’s actions. Sometimes caregivers can give helpful advice, as they have dealt with other children of divorce.
Parents, family members, and caregivers can all help toddlers in this difficult time; however, the parents need to be doing the most work.
Parents should work out communication problems, so there can be consistency, at both houses, concerning sleep, meals, and discipline. Any changes or concerns should be discussed. However, while consistency is important, routines do not need to be identical.
- Each parent must put the needs of the child ahead of their own feelings toward the other parent.
- Unless there is some overriding issue, toddlers should have frequent contact with both parents.
- Parents should not fight near a toddler or where a toddler can hear.
- Even when depressed, parents should respond to a toddler’s needs.
- Singing and playing games is part of being a good parent. Parents shouldn’t park the kids in front of the TV.
- Relax. Children don’t go to college in diapers. (Don’t get stressed out when a child forgets their potty training.)
- Both mother and father should talk to the other parent.
- Keep some of a toddler’s favorite toys at each house, though it’s ok for special objects to go back and forth.
Talk to a pediatrician if a child’s behavior doesn’t “feel” right. It is so very easy to call up the pediatrician’s nurse and get a quick opinion. These professionals have dedicated their lives to helping you and your child.
If both parents can work together for the benefit of their toddler, then the child will make a great adjustment to a new situation. It is much easier if both parents put their own feelings aside, for the sake of their lovely child.