Q: I'm recently separated after a seven-year marriage. We have two kids, ages six and three. My six-year-old seems to be mostly affected with our split. With her dad not around, She's become aggressive and angry, and complains of aches and pains on her body and constant headaches. She's also cut her hair twice. First she snipped a little then she chopped off a handful of hair. I have also noticed she bites herself on her arms at times. Could this be her way of craving/wanting attention and how can I stop it?
A: Marital separation is hard on everyone, especially kids. Your daughter’s behavior may be a sign that she is feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the changes in your family. Here are some steps your can take that might help.
- Acknowledge her feelings. Just saying to your child, “It’s hard for you not to have Daddy around” or “I bet you wish things could go back to the way they were” can help her feel heard and understood. Reassure her that the separation is not her fault.
- Protect her from parental conflict. Try very hard not to argue or criticize your ex in front of your child. Don’t compete to be the “nicer” parent. A loving relationship with both parents is good for children. Also, accept that her father won’t do things exactly they way you do. Trying to “make up for” what her father does by being extra indulgent or extra strict is impossible and a recipe for misbehavior.
- Maintain routines. Daily or weekly routines allow children to know what’s going to happen when and how, and this predictability can be reassuring. As much as possible try to stick with familiar routines such as morning prep and bedtime rituals. Creating new routines, such as packing a special bag when it’s a “Daddy night” or making a special dinner when she returns to your home, can help your child cope with new regular events.
- Offer limited choices. Letting your child make some decisions can help her have some sense of control when so much of what is happening around her is out of her control. But be careful not to overwhelm her with too many choices. “This or that?” decisions (e.g., Pony tails or headband? Oatmeal or scrambled eggs?) are easier than open-ended “What do you want?” choices.
- Make time for cuddling and fun. Giving a back rub at bedtime, putting a love note in her lunch box, building Legos or having a tea party together, or just going for a short walk together after dinner are simple ways to let your child know, “I love you, and we’re going to be okay.”
Adjusting to your new family situation will take time, for you as well as for your daughter. Make sure you get enough emotional support, sleep, and time off to recharge, so you can be there for her during this difficult transition. If your daughter continues to show a lot of distress with no improvement, you may want to arrange for her to attend a support group for children (many schools offer these) or to see a psychologist or other therapist.