Molly is 16-months-old when her parents separate. She is bright, verbal and social. Yet, overnight she seems to become a much younger child. She wants to be held, she regresses in her talking and both parents notice she has significant difficulties going between their homes. What is happening?
Mark is a 4-year-old boy who has started to act aggressively at school since his parents announced they were going to be living in separate homes. He is angry all the time, pushes other kids, and cries easily. His teachers are concerned and his parents do not know what to do. Now what?
Molly and Mark’s behavior may represent typical reactions for young children who experience this major life transition. Some children will experience temporary behavioral difficulties and will seem to bounce back once in a regular routine. Other kids seem to have more difficulty. The reactions of young children who experience divorce vary. Some children will exhibit profound resilience in the face of this adversity while other children will appear to be quite distressed. As parents who want the best for their children, how can you tell when your child is suffering from this difficult transition and how can you build his resilience?
From the literature on young children and coping, we know that young a young child’s experience of distress and how he copes is closely tied to how his parents cope with stress. How can you help?
- Make sure you are coping with the stress and loss of the relationship yourself. Hire an attorney or mediator and a therapist or coach to help cope with the divorce. Spend time with loved ones and make sure you have a good support system to help you.
- Your perception of the other parent’s parenting skill is powerful. Having a negative perception is more likely to cause distress in your child’s behavior. Stay attuned to your thoughts as you progress through this transition. Talk to your therapist or coach about these perceptions.
- Openly talk to your child about the changes that are happening and what will happen next in an age appropriate manner. Even young children need to be told about divorce.
- Communication about behavioral symptoms between all caregivers and teachers is key. Flexibility in visitation schedules is always in the child’s best interest, if possible.
- Consult with relevant professionals to help you and your ex-spouse think about how to meet the needs of your young child. Sometime this just serves as validation that you are making the right decisions. Sometimes these professionals will be able to recommend changes that will significantly decrease your child’s distress.
Divorce is difficult for all parties involved. There should be time to grieve the end of the relationship, time to sit and realize you are not sure what will happen next and time to relish the new beginnings. Give yourself permission to focus on your own needs so that you can be better emotionally attuned to the needs of your own child. Your family will likely navigate these changes in a healthier manner and your child will learn valuable lessons in coping with life’s unexpected challenges.
If you think you may be in need of a consultation regarding how you or your child is coping with divorce contact Dr. Rhodes.
Please note that this post is for informational purposes only and does not replace the need for a consultation or intervention with a professional regarding your individual circumstances.