Divorce is difficult. Period. Between the messy emotions, new living arrangements, and disruptions in your routine, divorce can turn your whole world upside down. While divorce can be personally painful, when young children are involved the process can feel even more complicated. Toddlers aren’t old enough to understand the complex nature of a divorce, but they can pick up on the stressful emotions and tense discourse happening around the house.
It’s important to understand what divorce looks like through a toddler’s eyes, so you can provide clarity, support, and comfort through this challenging time. We’ll get to that in detail, but first let’s take a look at some good news from research.
A Positive Note from Divorce Research
No two divorces are the same, so remember that every parent and child will handle divorce differently. Still, many parents and caregivers worry about the long-term effects of divorce on young children. Fortunately, there’s plenty of divorce research out there and the results shine a light on how resilient children really are. For instance, researchers measured the average effects of divorce on young children three years after a separation and found no developmental differences in comparison to children whose parents were still together. This means that when both parents take the appropriate steps to help toddlers adjust to a divorce, everyone has an opportunity to learn, grow, and recover.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
Here are a few key things to remember when guiding a toddler through a divorce.
Marriage and family therapists remind divorcing couples to consistently reassure toddlers that they are loved and will be cared for. Divorce disrupts your toddler’s daily routine, so it’s important to help her feel secure by continuously reassuring her that everything will be okay.
Be Direct and Keep it Simple
When discussing divorce with your toddler, stick to the facts and keep the conversations as simple as possible. Give her the details she needs to know about her new routine and living arrangements. “Your dad will live that house and you and I will live here. Sometimes, you will live in the other house with your dad, while I stay here.” Toddlers don’t fully grasp the concept of time yet, so remind her of her new routine each day. Reinforce the idea that someone will always be there for critical moments such as meals, bath time, and bedtime.
Encourage Expressing Thoughts and Feelings
It’s difficult for toddlers to see things from a different perspective, so yours will mainly be concerned about how the divorce affects her. She might feel sad, angry, or confused when she hears that one parent won’t be there for dinner or playtime. Let her know that it’s okay to have those feelings, and she can express her anger or sadness with either parent whenever she needs to.
Be Careful with Your Words
Remember that it’s never appropriate to talk negatively about your co-parent in front of your toddler. She may not understand the elements of a divorce, but she can detect when there’s animosity between her caregivers. A healthy relationship with both parents is central to her development, so it’s important that all parties involved are careful with their words.
Be Prepared for Behavioral Issues
Because toddlers are still learning how to manage big feelings, there is a strong chance they will react to a divorce through behavior. Your little one might throw a few more tantrums, test boundaries, and maybe even show signs of regression (sucking her thumb or refusing to sleep in her own bed). Remember that these behaviors are common, and with sensitive support from you they will likely diminish over time.
Have Rituals and Stick to Routines
It can be helpful for both you and your co-parent to have a special ritual with your child when it’s time to transition from one home to the other. Make a list of her favorite toys and pick a special one each week to bring to her other home. Discuss what she’s excited to do at her dad’s house while you share a snack. Read a book together, preferably one that touches on this theme, such as Two Homes or My Family’s Changing. Both are positive and comforting stories for little ones adapting to a divorce.
Creating and sticking to new routines and rituals is one of the most important steps to take during and after a divorce, because it builds a sense of stability during a time of big change.