If you find yourself in a situation where your marriage is in tatters and divorce is unavoidable, but at the same time you have a toddler to take care of, the process of separation can be particularly overwhelming.
Although debilitating emotions such as panic, guilt, denial, grief, anger, or sadness are likely to set in during a relationship breakdown, one simply can’t forego parental commitments. These commitments require patience, connection, guidance, and compassion on your part, which may seem unrealistic in your current mental state, but might indeed be doable.
Your child is also affected by divorce. With all the distress surrounding the process, he or she may experience sadness, worry, anger or frustration. Despite the fact that all the family members are in the same boat, as an adult, you are better equipped to handle unpleasant emotions than your toddler is.
After all, you understand the reason for the separation and might even hope for a happier life once the dust has settled. A little one, on the other hand, just happens to be an innocent bystander who is unwillingly involved in the painful process of two loving people drifting apart. The young child has no concept of divorce in his head, and the fact that daddy/mommy will be moving away may feel like the end of the world.
In this article, we will look into how to help your toddler through a divorce and make the whole experience less traumatic.
What are Toddlers’ Emotional and Social Needs?
For starters, you need to understand the processes that take place in a toddler’s brain. In his book Emotional Development: The Organization of Emotional Life in the Early Years>, L. Alan Sroufe states that the first three years of life is the period when the foundations of neural development and emotional competence are laid. That being said, the environment in which a child is brought up colors their ability to form relationships, make independent decisions and control emotions in the future.
The toddler period (roughly from years one to three) is characterized by exploratory behavior, a wish for independent functioning as well as the emergence of self-recognition and new emotions including rage, terror, shame, jealousy, and affection. The immersion of language allows children to socialize with their caregivers verbally. Despite the fact that toddlers seek autonomy, they rely heavily on access to their caregiver. Adult guidance and support are needed, because a toddler’s capacities for self-regulation are limited. Vocalization, visual and physical contact make them feel reassured.
A toddler learns about the world around them and forms a self-image through their relationship with a parent/caregiver. Depending on the environment and the presence or absence of a nurturing adult, a little one might perceive the world as a secure or a dangerous place.
Toddlers are also extremely vulnerable to adults’ approval and disapproval. Parental love, acceptance, and understanding of the child’s emotions allow the toddler to trust their child-parent relationship. This, in turn, leads to self-confidence and self-reliance. On the other hand, harsh expressions of care, or emotional distance and coldness, can lead to shame, low self-esteem and isolation.
Thus, in order to develop normally, the child needs a secure attachment with an adult. Acceptance by a grown-up and emotional availability enhances their ability to explore the world and lays the cornerstone for emotional competence, independence, resilience, and cognitive development.
Does Divorce Damage Toddlers?
The answer to this question depends on how responsive the parent-child interaction is. In many cases, while adults are dealing with a loss of a marriage, the child’s emotional and social needs are (often involuntarily) pushed into the background.
John Chirban, author and lecturer at Harvard Medical School and director of Cambridge Counseling Associates, says that a toddler’s emotional growth and development can be hampered when the flow of nurturing support is disrupted. Instability and stress associated with the divorce undermine the toddler’s self-esteem. This, in turn, affects their social skills, academic competence and can trigger behavioral problems.
Family breakdown can also have short- and long-term effects on the physical well-being of a child. According to the National Health Interview Survey in 2012, children in single-mother families were 2.5 times as likely to have had two or more visits to an emergency room (10%) than children in two-parent families (4%). The long-term health effects include increased susceptibility to substance abuse, STD’s, mental illnesses, and an increased risk of ischemic heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
In their paper An Overview of the Risks and Protectors for Children of Separation and Divorce, Silvia C. Bernardini and Jennifer M. Jenkins state that the events preceding a divorce that a child is exposed to (conflict, unhappiness, dissatisfaction or abuse) have an equal, if not greater, impact on development.
At the same time, they name four major factors that account for the maladjustment of children after a divorce has taken place:
- 1) absence of the non-resident parent
- 2) troubled parent-child relationships
- 3) economic disadvantage
- 4) parental conflict
Other possible risks that aggravate the situation include harsh parenting, mental illness in a parent(s) (i.e. depression), substance addiction in a parent(s), poverty, being raised in an unsafe environment, and more. Exposure to multiple risks means a higher risk of maladjustment and other developmental problems.
Despite all the potential risks and problems associated with divorce, you can ensure that your toddler goes through the process relatively unharmed. Research shows that children can adapt to living in a single-parent family without any major long-lasting negative effects, as long as they have a supportive childhood. If your toddler feels that he or she is loved and accepted, if they can explore the world around and are able to exercise a certain level of autonomy without a shadow of a doubt that there is someone who will always have their back, they can develop just like kids in a nuclear family. As an adult, you need to be mindful and carefully attuned to your toddler’s needs in order to provide them with the support they need.
10 Ways to Help Your Toddler Get Through a Divorce
A useful rule of thumb is that you should try to meet your toddler’s emotional and social needs as well as reduce the negative effects of divorce on the child. Here are 10 steps that you might find useful.
1. Explain the situation in simple words
Because young children do not have a concept of divorce in their heads and lack a deep understanding of cause and effect, try to explain the situation to your child using simple terms. If possible, it’s better to bring up the news about the divorce together with your partner.
You need to tell your toddler how their life is going to change rather than dwell on what a divorce is. Try to be specific and mention that the little one will live with one parent, while the other parent will move to another house. Tell your child whether or not they will be meeting your ex-spouse.
Help them overcome the fear of being abandoned. Reassure your toddler that you will be there for them, take them to the nursery school, put them to sleep, play games, help them take care of their pet, etc. Do not give them false hope that the situation is temporary, as this could lead to bitter disappointment in the future.
2. Tell them it’s not their fault
Jean Piaget’s theory on the stages of cognitive development suggests that until around the age of 7 or 8, children are strongly egocentric. This means it is difficult for them to see the perspective of others and tend to think that whatever is going on around them is because of them. For this reason, your toddler is likely to perceive that the divorce is their fault.
Let your child know that divorce is “adult stuff” and they have nothing to do with it. Explain in simple terms the reasons for your separation with your spouse. If the dad has left the family, your child needs to realize that “Daddy has left mommy” rather than feel that “Daddy has left me”.
Be prepared that you might need to repeat these words several times to ensure that your young child does not feel guilt over the divorce.
3. Help them process emotions
The risk of your child showing signs of distress is rather high. Anger, fear, aggression, rejection, tantrums and/or emotional instability – these are some of the possible manifestations of the emotional pain that your toddler is experiencing.
Whenever your kid acts out, help them understand their feelings and comfort them. For example, you can describe their emotions: “I know you are afraid because daddy has moved away. But don’t worry, I will not leave you. I will stay with you and will always love you.”
Observe your toddler as they play. Ask them to draw a picture of how they are feeling or make shapes out of play-dough. You can also use puppets, dolls or stuffed animals to create a story about the situation you and your little one are in. Let your kid develop the script and see how they play out their negative emotions.
Do not diminish or dismiss your child’s feelings. When you tell your kid “Sh”, “Don’t cry” or “Stop shouting” you are teaching them to suppress negative emotions. Stamping down feelings repeatedly can lead to imbalances in brain chemistry, affects the immune system and hampers social interaction.
Show your toddler that you are ready to accept their emotions and teach them to recognize their own feelings. After all, learning how to fully experience negative emotions is not just a healthy coping strategy – it will also help your kid gain emotional intelligence and self-regulation later in life.
We know this might sound like a challenging task. As mentioned earlier, toddlers test the limits, including the limits of your patience. Now that you are aware of the fact, try not to overreact to their temper tantrums. Be there to support your child, no matter what emotional state they are in.
4. Be consistent
Consistency is the key to raising a happy toddler. In order for your child to develop normally, they need a sense of stability. This is particularly important when the two of you are going through the turbulent times of divorce.
Once you have set the limits within which your kid can explore the world and exercise curiosity, do not change the rules in the middle of the game. If one day you are a harsh parent and the next day you spoil your kid, said kid will be confused about what’s acceptable and what is not. For example, if you didn’t use to buy chocolates and sweets whenever your tot demanded them in a supermarket, do not succumb to this now only because you feel guilty about the divorce.
Set clear, consistent rules, but enforce them in a loving way. Make sure that your child knows what will happen if they disobey the rules. Don’t confuse behavior with emotions, though. You can discipline a child for misbehaving, but never punish them for their emotions.
Having a regular routine is equally important. Meals, walks outside, naps, play, bathtime, and sleep at a consistent time slot will give your child the feeling of security. While you can introduce new rituals, old ones should continue to be practiced after your partner has left.
5. Observe your child’s behavior
Mood swings, aggression, loss of appetite and insomnia are some of your kid’s possible reactions to the divorce. They might also suck their thumb (behavior typical of infants), neglect toilet training, become withdrawn and feel aches. Be there for your tot if they have a nightmare and come to you in the middle of the night. Allow them to sleep with you if they are afraid of staying alone. Don’t shame them if they pee their pants. These could be common reactions to stress. However, watch out for behavior patterns that are not typical of your child. Consult a pediatrician if you notice some worrying symptoms.
6. Get engaged in activities with your little one
No matter what a toddler does, he or she feels safe if he/she is observed by a nurturing adult. Don’t underestimate the power of play. Your toddler can develop many skills while playing. Allow your kid some level of autonomy when they play, but be ready to step in if they can’t handle something. For example, you could help them put the last block on top of a toy tower if they cannot reach it and this is frustrating them.
Reading books is not only a perfect time for bonding with your toddler – it is also a great opportunity to talk to your child about their feelings. You can show your tot pictures of children or animals and comment “Look at that girl. She looks sad. What happened to her? Why is she so sad?” Then, as your kid answers, carefully ask them “And how do you feel today? Are you also sad or are you happy?”
7. Cease hostility. Don’t let your toddler be torn between you and your partner
Researchers say that conflict between parents is one of the main reasons why children have problems with adjustment later in life. Moreover, children who grew up in a nuclear family with a high conflict rate scored lower in conduct, psychological adjustment, and self-concept than their peers whose parents had divorced. This means that divorce can have a lesser impact on a toddler’s development than living in a toxic environment with constant parental quarrels.
If there was a lot of pre-divorce conflict in your family, try to put it behind you and stop fighting with your ex. Don’t use your child as a pawn, either. Here, we are talking more about children in general than toddlers specifically, but it still could apply to toddlers.
While you might be boiling with rage at your ex who has cheated on, abused or lied to you, your toddler does not need to know how immoral you think the other parent is. For them, both mother and father’s love and acceptance are equally important. If you cannot be an advocate for the absent parent, at least try not to put the weight of your bitter experience on your child’s shoulders. Don’t try to turn your little one against the other parent.
Some other DON’Ts worth mentioning include:
- Don’t use your young child as a messenger. This can be damaging to your child.
- Don’t involve your kid in a fight and ask them to take sides.
- Don’t put your needs (especially if they are all about seeking revenge) above your child’s needs.
- Don’t use your tot as a tool to manipulate your ex.
8. Make sure that your toddler spends quality time with your ex
As we stated earlier, the absence of the non-resident parent is a major factor that leads to a child’s maladjustment. Because in the majority of cases a mother gets child custody, the father-child relationship can deteriorate after divorce. A large-scale study organized in the United States in 1985 found that 23% of fathers had not seen their children in the previous 5 years, while another 20% had not been in touch with their offspring for a year.
While these are harrowing statistics, research suggests that the frequency of parental visitation is not as important for a child’s development as the quality of the time spent together. In order for a child to thrive, they need authoritative parenting, the feeling of closeness and support from their fathers. While you cannot leverage the level of closeness between your child and your ex-husband/wife, you should not discourage your little one from spending time with the other parent.
When you send your toddler to your ex-spouse, remember that for children of this age group, transitioning between homes can be a stressful experience. Make sure that before the tot leaves your home they have gotten used to the other parent/nanny and they are not stressed out. Let your child take their favorite toys with them. Check that the house they are going to is child-friendly and that your ex-partner will be spending time with your little one.
If agreeing with your former spouse on the issue of visitation is not very pleasant, remind yourself that you are doing it for your child and not for yourself. If nothing else, try to go out of your way and cooperate with your ex for the sake of your toddler’s well-being.
On the other hand, frequent transitions between quarreling parents might cause even greater distress in children. In order not to undermine your kid’s emotional stability, try to deal with issues like child custody, access, and financial support in a way that does not disturb them.
9. Communicate with the other parent and caregivers
The ideal scenario both for your toddler’s development and your peace of mind is one in which you and your ex-partner are actively involved in the parenting process. Respect towards each other and close cooperation both decrease the risk of maladjustment for your youngster.
Coordination between parents should not disrupt a toddler’s routines whenever he/she has to deal with the transition between two homes. You and your ex-spouse need to discuss your child’s daily rituals and try to develop a unified parenting approach.
Issues such as feeding, food preferences, toilet training, napping, and bedtime should be discussed with your ex. The toddler will show fewer symptoms of distress if the parents see eye to eye on how to raise him.
If you find it hard to communicate with the other parent without getting angry, avoid talking to them in front of your little one. Do your best to maintain a positive attitude and focus on co-parenting only. Don’t allow your anger to get in the way of raising your child.
If you have a nanny or a caregiver, let them know about your family situation and your toddler’s possible adverse reactions. While it might be useful to get advice from your extended family or a caregiver, avoid putting them in the middle of your argument with the former spouse.
10. Take care of yourself
Your ability to be there for your child and provide them with the support they need depends heavily on your own recovery process. If you are emotionally overloaded, the stress you are experiencing will inevitably trickle down to your toddler. No matter whether you are irritable and snap at your youngster or try to suppress your negative emotions in front of your child, your little one will internalize those negative feelings. Children are highly intuitive and, while their logic is still developing, their sixth sense tends not to let them down. That means you have to take care of your emotional state and overall well-being in order to be a supportive parent for your little one.
In order to cope with all the responsibilities and manage stress, remember to take care of the following:
- Don’t overload yourself. As a single parent, you can do only so much. It’s better to give up on an activity/chore than exhaust yourself.
- Get enough sleep.
- Find time to exercise and maintain a healthy diet.
- Try to spend some time alone and admit to yourself how you really feel. Accept your emotions and eventually try to let go of them.
- Practice relaxation techniques. You can try doing mindfulness meditation, yoga, writing a journal or spending time in the great outdoors.
- Build up your support network. You can seek help from friends and family. There is no shame in talking about your emotions. Communication and cooperation with other parents can also be beneficial.
- If you feel overwhelmed, seek help from a professional.
Divorce can be a heartbreaking experience for adults and a confusing period for toddlers, as they absorb negative emotions from their parents. Because the first three years of life are crucial to a child’s neural and emotional development, both parents should maintain healthy contact with the little one and provide nurturing care for them.
Despite all the hardships, try to keep your family a place where your toddler feels safe and loved. Strive for efficient co-parenting and don’t forget about your own needs.
Although life after divorce might require you to learn new skills, receive additional education and give extra attention to your toddler, there are ways to make it work. Provided that you manage to create a trust-filled relationship with your child, they won’t have to suffer the adverse effects of divorce.