Easing the Pain of Divorce

Kids of all ages find it painful and confusing when Mom and Dad break up.

Divorce and Your Children

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost half of all marriages end in divorce, and one-third of all breakups occur within the first five years of marriage, the time when most couples start families. Despite its prevalence, divorce is still extremely painful, even for babies and toddlers. They may not see one parent as much as they used to. They may lose their usual routine. And there may be new people in their lives to whom they must adjust, such as a new caregiver or love interest for Mom or Dad. Find out how divorce affects little ones and what you can do to minimize your child's anxiety.

The Effect of Divorce on Children

Of course, the emotional upheaval of divorce is notoriously hard on adults. And even though young children don't have a sophisticated grasp of what went wrong, they suffer plenty in their own way. Infants and toddlers thrive best in a serene and predictable environment, points out Judith Wallerstein, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Belvedere, California, and coauthor of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study. By its very nature, divorce is hardly serene. How you and your spouse handle yourselves will have a direct effect on how your child perceives the world. If arguing and bad-mouthing become a regular part of your child's life, she will inevitably feel frightened, frustrated, confused, and insecure. If a child begins his life with a sense that the environment he lives in isn't safe, it can affect his psychological and intellectual development, says Wallerstein. And in the midst of splitting households, moving, and trying to soothe their wounded psyches, parents in crisis become so focused on their own problems that they may fail to meet their baby's emotional needs.

When babies are upset, it's harder for them to eat and sleep, Wallerstein explains. They can become tense, difficult, and colicky. Other symptoms include excessive crying, an inability to be soothed, clinginess, and a lack of interest in the world around them.

Toddlers also feel unsafe as their world changes. As a result, they may become afraid of the dark or of being alone. Regression, tantrums, and aggressive behavior are also common. Young kids whose parents are separated may also develop a fear of abandonment and will cling to their primary caregiver. The reason? They may assume that since one parent left, the other can leave too. Separation anxiety is very common in children of divorce, says Donna Pellegrino, a marriage and family therapist based in Cherry Hill, NJ. How severe it becomes will depend on how secure the parents can make the child feel during and after the long and difficult transition.

4 Coping Tips

Can you really help a child so young make such a difficult transition? Absolutely, say experts. In fact, some of the most helpful strategies are extremely simple.

1. Stick to daily routines. Keeping feedings, bathing, and playtime at their regular times is crucial for making your child feel safe, secure, and loved, regardless of which parent does the caregiving. So continue to sing to your baby during his feedings or continue to play "This Little Piggy" during bath time. Just make sure that each experience is a nurturing one, not simply an exercise in going through the motions.

2. Answer questions honestly. The older a child is, the more in tune and inquisitive he's going to be about the changes happening around him. Older toddlers and preschoolers are likely to ask why the other parent no longer lives with you and may have a hard time understanding that that person hasn't gone away forever. Explain the situation simply and reassuringly. Try saying something like, "Mommy and Daddy live in different places now, but we both love you very much. Both of us still want to play with you and spend time with you."

3. Forge a relationship between your ex and your child. Experts believe that encouraging a strong relationship between your child and his other parent is one of the most healing things you can do. Children of divorce struggle with loyalty issues, so regardless of how you feel about your ex, avoid bad-mouthing that person. Also, telling a young child that she'll see her daddy "soon" isn't particularly reassuring. Young kids have very little patience and a poor grasp of time. Instead, mark days on a calendar and show your child when her other parent is coming.

4. Avoid arguing in front of your child. Children ages 3 and younger don't understand the complexities of relationships, so if they witness arguments, they can feel anxious or even responsible for the problem, points out Lisa Kollmorgen, a clinical psychologist in Northfield, Illinois. Make an agreement with your ex that you'll speak in normal tones during a disagreement. When you do discuss hot-button issues, do it when your child is asleep or out of the house.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but the more secure attachments your child has, the better she will feel. Call on grandparents, relatives, and close friends to provide comfort. This is especially important if you're grieving or dealing with reordering your own life.

Common Parenting Challenges

Being divorced brings up lots of new parenting challenges, and, like so many things in life, keeping all the details organized and the lines of communication open makes everything easier on everyone. Here are some strategies for making tough situations easier to navigate:

  • Decide on a mutual discipline strategy with your ex. Just because a child has two homes doesn't mean he should have two sets of rules -- or no rules at all. And if each parent sets different rules and establishes a different routine regarding meals, bedtime, TV privileges, and other matters of daily living, a child may become confused or upset. Try to come to an agreement with your spouse on these issues. And if you can't agree? Give in, say the experts. The last thing you and your ex need is another source of conflict.
  • Simplify visitation. We're not just talking about choosing the days and hours. Make sure each of you has the other's home, work, and cell phone numbers, the child's pediatrician's number, babysitters' contact info, daycare schedule, and any other pertinent information needed to stick to a regular routine. Find a designated transfer place and time, and have a backup plan in place in case someone is late or has a last-minute problem. If your ex is coming to your home, decide beforehand if he's going to come in or wait in the car. If he's picking her up in the afternoon, are you giving her lunch or is he? You'll also want a plan in place for clothes, toys, and other belongings. You don't need two identical sets of everything, but you might want to keep some toys and some clothes in each home.
  • Introduce new caregivers gradually. Many women return to work after a divorce, and for a child who's used to having her mother's constant attention, the absence of her primary caregiver can be unsettling. If the divorce involves a move, a beloved babysitter or daycare may have to be left behind, too. Introduce a new babysitter or daycare situation gradually so that your child doesn't feel overwhelmed. If you're hiring someone new, have her play with your child for an hour while you're in the other room. As they get more comfortable together, you can try leaving the house to go to the store and, eventually, to work. If you decide to enroll your child in daycare, let him visit the center and spend time in the group before leaving him there for a full day.
  • Tread lightly with new love interests. Don't introduce your child to someone you're dating casually. Your child may become attached to this person and if your relationship ends, she will suffer another loss. But if this new relationship becomes serious, then it's okay to introduce your child to this person and do things together, like go to the zoo or out for pizza. Early on, it's best to spend just short periods of time together to help your child adjust to the idea.

Taking care of all these issues will seem overwhelming at first, particularly when you're nursing emotional wounds and adjusting to so many changes at once. But doing so ensures smoother interactions with your ex and an easier transition for your child. Soon enough, all the little pieces will fall into place and you and your child will have a new life together. Different, maybe, but happy.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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