Talking with Toddlers About DivorceLaura Betts, LICSW, MSW
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As painful a decision divorce is for grown-ups, it’s equally (and perhaps even more) confusing for young toddlers. Adults often make the mistake of thinking divorce does not have an affect on very young children—that kids before preschool age can’t understand the complexities of relationships, so the dissolution of theirs isn’t really worth discussing.
Not so much: While it’s true that kids this young are not able to comprehend the dynamics of why Mommy and Daddy aren’t going to live together anymore, they absolutely will feel the effects of the resulting changes. Two year olds are normally dependent on routines and have a strong desire for things to be the same as usual. During divorce, a significant attachment figure that your child relies on will no longer be available to him regularly—this will be a big adjustment for your child, but one he can make with extra support.
What They Understand
Your child’s greatest awareness will be when either mommy or daddy is no longer living in the same house. He or she will wonder where the other parent is and may ask, “Where’s Mommy?”—even if he just received an answer a short while ago (and a half-hour before that, and an hour prior to that …). And even with repeated answers, toddlers may find the idea that their world has changed bewildering. In fact, only once they reach school age will children fully understand the concept of the term “divorce.”
Around 24 months, toddlers are sensitive to and pick up on strong feelings the adults around them have—in fact, even young babies can pick up on a caregiver’s stress. That said, egocentric young children will not be able to understand or react to why mom or dad is upset.
When deciding to break the news to your child, remember that young toddlers live in the moment: While they are be able to grasp the changes that occur in their immediate routines, they are not able to understand the idea that something will be happening in the future. They certainly can’t comprehend that mommy and daddy will be eventually getting a divorce—so it is important to tell them only when plans are definite and moving forward. At that point, your toddler will need a clear and short explanation about how the change will affect him.
What to Say
The arrangements of visitations and specifics of your particular divorce situation will alter the script of this conversation, but here is a general guideline. (Remember, young toddlers need language to be short and simple, and what you say will need to be appropriately repeated for your child to begin to understand.)
Mommy loves you and Daddy loves you very much. But beginning today, Daddy and Mommy are going to live in different homes, Mommy in one home (or house or apartment, depending on familiar language of child) and Daddy in another home.
You will live with Mommy at home and see Daddy. Mommy will take care of you feed you, hug you, give you kisses and put you to bed. Daddy will take care of you feed you, hug you, give you kisses and put you to bed.
(Toddlers don’t grasp the idea of time yet, so telling your child that she’ll see Daddy on Tuesdays and Thursdays isn’t especially meaningful. You can let your toddler know about a confirmed visit on the same day it’s happening.)
Keep in mind: New experiences increase anxiety in young toddlers, so repetition and consistency of the visit routine will increase your child’s familiarity (and decrease his stress) over time. Once he is familiar with going to the other house, you can reference “Daddy’s home,” and as your toddler develops he will begin to understand where that is.
Toddlers will however, need to actually see the house to begin to understand where they’re being taken to. It can be helpful to give details about the house once they have been there: “Daddy’s house is next to the store and playground,” but this understanding will emerge more fully as your child gets older.
What To Do
Repeatedly reassure your toddler. Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development at this age, and it may increase during the early days of swapping homes. Run through your script as many times as it takes for your child to begin to internalize that she will, indeed, be taken care of and see both parents.
Keep routines as regular as possible. When possible, have conversations with your ex about maintaining routines, as toddlers thrive on them. If conflict between the two of you is too high to nail down consistencies, focus on what you can do at your house to keep routines consistent.
Spend extra time with your toddler and give extra affection, expressions of love, and reassurance. Toddlers regulate anxiety through their relationships with their parents. Leave extra time to complete routines.
Keep adult conversations between the adults. While it can be challenging (very!) to stay neutral about a parent when you are separating from them, it is essential for the emotional health of your child. Avoid negative statements about the other parent while the child is within ear shot—watch out for phone conversations. Kids are also notorious for overhearing conversations when you think they are in bed! This doesn’t mean you can’t give your girlfriend an earful over coffee when your child is home with grandma.
Allow your child to express feelings openly within the continued structure of consistent limits and discipline. As she develops further into the toddler years, she will increasingly use words such as mad, sad, and happy to express their feelings and it will be important for her to know that she can have a range of feelings about the divorce. In general use simple feelings words, yourself, to model for your child—remember, she’s listening!
Send your toddler with a cozy, soft stuffy, blankie etc. when he goes on visits to help him manage the transition. Let him keep those comfort items around home and in his day care settings.
Get support. Research points to two important factors in a child’s ability to manage divorce in their families: Protection from high conflict between parents and parents’ ability to cope with their own reactions to the divorce.
So, connecting with other parents in similar situations can be really helpful as you parent through this difficult time—the more you are supported, the better able you will be to support your toddler! Reach out to friends, family, your community (church, social groups, etc.), and other parents online. Some parents find going to talk with a therapist useful during this time.
Be confident in your approach with your toddler. Remember, you are creating a tone for a conversation about family that will continue in different ways throughout their development. Don’t feel like you need to say it all now! At this point, keeping things simple will be the most useful for your child.
For more info on speaking to kids about divorce and ways to connect with other parents going through this process, check out:
Great reading for separating parents of toddlers:
- Emotional Life of the Toddler
- Why Did you Have to Get a Divorce and When Can I get a Hamster? A Guide to Parenting through Divorce (An especially good book as your child gets older)
This information is intended to be a conversation starting point and not to replace consultation with a mental health professional. Knowing your child the way you do, adjust or edit this script and these recommendations to meet his or her needs and comprehension. If you have concerns about your toddler, contact your pediatrician and request a referral for a mental health professional who specializes in work with young children. Click here to find help for working with your child through this and other touchy topics.