Even under the best of circumstances, a toddler will have a tough time adjusting to her parents’ divorce, and getting used to a new way of life without Mommy and Daddy together. Add lots of fighting and that “tug-of-war” feeling to the mix, and a tot’s reactions will be even more pronounced. And when it’s your toddler caught up in all this, your maternal heartstrings are pulled every-which-way, as you ponder how to help her. As Isolina Ricci, Ph.D. and family therapist notes, “When children are free to love both of their parents without conflict of loyalty, to have access to them both without fear of losing either, they can get on with the totally absorbing business of growing up.” Here are some common behaviors parents might see in children reacting to the stressors that come with a negative divorce, and what Moms and Dads can do to ease them.
Crying and Tantrums
The shuffle back and forth between two houses can make even the most mild-mannered tots more teary and tantrum-y than usual. You can offer her lots of reassurance before the transition from one place to the other, as well as time to say goodbye and warm up to Dad. You can also consider sending fave toys or a familiar blankie along, and allow their toddler to have a photo of the other parent or call them on the phone — this will remind her that the other parent is still there, and still loves her to pieces.
Appetite and Sleep Disturbances
Toddlers are small creatures of routine and habit. Two houses and prolonged periods of tension or fighting can disrupt their ordered little world, leading them to refuse meals or wake frequently at night. Despite the stress they’re experiencing, parents should strive to keep things as normal and consistent as they possibly can. Mealtimes, naptimes, bathtime and bedtime should be kept the same each day, helping toddlers to feel secure. As much as possible, parents should keep old family rituals alive — for example, going to the park on Saturday afternoon, just like always. And creating new rituals within each new family unit will help too, especially if a new adult comes into the picture.
A toddler whose parents are divorcing might feel angry and sad. He wants his parents to be together, just like always — and doesn’t understand why this gigantic change has happened. These hurricane-force emotions may come out in the form of aggressive behaviors like kicking, hitting, biting or trouble following directions. During this rough patch, parents can provide things to play with that will help tots express their feelings: clay, art supplies, puppets, dolls and dollhouse furniture, stuffed animals and dress-up clothes. By making “angry shapes” or pretending that a doll is sad, a child is able to work through and process her big, scary feelings in a safer realm.
“Me tummy hurt,” a toddler might say when her parents are divorcing. The next minute, it might be her head. Stress may be the cause of these physical symptoms — or it might be a way for her to gain her parents’ attention, too. Either way, fear and anxiety are usually behind these tummy aches, headaches and boo boos she says she has, but which you can’t see — a sign that she’s experiencing her pain emotionally and attributing it to physical pain in her body — in the only way she knows how. A good way to soothe a worried child is to read her short, simple books that deal with the fears she’s facing right now. “Owl Babies” by Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson is comforting for kiddos having problems with separation anxiety, and “I Love You All the Time” by Jessica Hirschman, Jennifer Cole and Bonnie Bright is a reminder for little ones that their parents love them like crazy cakes, even when they’re apart.