I recently received correspondence from a young woman who is going through a divorce. She has young children aged three and five. The five-year old in particular is having issues with the divorce but burying her feelings deep inside. This article is adapted from my reply to her on how to help preschool aged children adapt to and deal with the divorce of their parents.
Divorce is a traumatic event, and in so many of the cases, the parents get so caught up in their own struggles and circumstances that they don’t pay attention to (or even realize) what their kids are going through. Just noticing that your child is having trouble or keeping emotions buried deep inside is a significant step. The preschool years (defined roughly as aged 3 to 5) are a time of rapid development in kids. The principal focus of this article is the higher end of that range, though hopefully the advice will help with all children in this age group.
Every child is unique and every divorce is unique. How any individual child reacts will vary depending on their personality, their parents and the details of the divorce. Factors such as the length of time since the separation/divorce, the involvement of each parent in the lives of the children after the divorce, the nature of the relationship with each parent prior to the divorce, the conflict level during and after the divorce, and the addition of other major changes (like moving or changes schools) will all impact how the child reacts and copes.
Even though every child is different, and every child will experience divorce a little bit differently, there are some common reactions that many preschool aged children will experience. Even if a particular child isn’t exhibiting those reactions at a given time, there is a good chance that they will at some point.
Guilt – A Prevalent Reaction
Preschool aged children are at an exceptionally tough age when it comes to divorce. They are old enough to realize that something is drastically different, but they are not quite old enough, and don’t have the cognitive skills, to really understand what divorce is or what the ramifications of divorce are to them. Oftentimes, this will lead them to misperceive the events of the divorce. All they really understand is that Mommy or Daddy doesn’t live with them anymore. Also at this age, children are naturally egocentric. They think that the world revolves around them because they are accustomed to people meeting their every need. That is not a bad thing at this age – they are just at a stage of development where they believe that the things they do and say make the world run the way it does.
These two factors (a lack of understanding combined with a very egocentric view) oftentimes lead children to conclude that they must have done something to cause their parents’ divorce. This can lead to intense feelings of guilt that they don’t really have the capacity to deal with. Many kids will assume that the divorce is the result of something they did or didn’t do on the day they were told about the separation/divorce. The most common advice given to divorcing parents when it comes to helping children is, “Tell them that it is not their fault.” This is absolutely essential, and something they will need to be reminded of over and over again. I would not suggest using the language “your fault” because some kids will assume that when you say it isn’t their fault – it actually is. Instead find age appropriate ways to tell kids what the reason really was behind the divorce. Remind them that divorce is an adult decision and that nothing they did caused the divorce or contributed to the divorce. Repetition and consistency is important in this regard. No matter how many times you tell a child that the divorce isn’t their fault, they may still be convinced that it is. I recall one young lady who parents’ divorced years ago who explained to me that she and her sister “knew” it was their fault even though their parents said over and over that it was not. If there is another trusted adult who can help to reinforce this message both now, and as the child gets older, that might help them to accept it and not continue to blame herself.
The divorce of parents brings with it a litany of emotions for all children. These emotions often represent brand new emotions to a child at this age. They likely haven’t experienced grief or loss or loneliness the way they might following a divorce. Even the emotions they are familiar with (like sadness or longing) they will experience in a deeper and more profound way following a divorce. Obviously, divorce brings with it a bevy of emotions for adults too, and though they may seem hard to deal with then, imagine what it must be like for a child who doesn’t even have the vocabulary to talk about their emotions let alone understand them.
In addition to guilt (which we’ve already talked about), there are some other very common emotions and reactions that kids this age may feel. Many kids get angry following the divorce of their parents. Some kids act out in their anger and present behavioral problems. However, many kids will turn that anger inside and not let it out. It’s important to let them know that it’s ok to be angry and provide outlets for that anger (kicking a soccer a ball or some other physical activity are great ideas).
We’ve already touched on some of the confusion that kids experience when it comes to divorce. They are confused about what is happening to their family and what is going to happen next. The best thing you can do is be available to answer any questions and provide information as needed. Things like schedules and routines also help to alleviate some of the confusion.
Another prominent emotion in children at this age whose parents divorce is fear or anxiety. They wonder if one parent left why the other one won’t leave as well. You might see some symptoms of separation anxiety when you try to leave your child at school or the baby sitter’s house. At this age, their biggest concern is what is going to happen with them. If they have experienced other changes, like a move or changing schools, this anxiety and fear can be compounded as they try to adjust to unfamiliar surroundings. They are left feeling powerless to affect the world around them. It is important that they are reassured that they will be taken care of and provided for. When they are dropped off somewhere, provide gentle reassurances that you will be back to pick them up, and provide plenty of physical affection. Kids dealing with fear and anxiety will be comforted by your physical presence.
Denial is another very common reaction in kids at this age. They have an active imagination life and may maintain fantasies about their parents getting back together. As an adult, you need to make sure that you don’t do anything to “feed” these fantasies. If a child is experiencing denial, you can’t force them to move past that, you can only help them to deal with the emotions and be there to help them cope.
Children whose parents divorce are also prone to feelings of loneliness. These can come from missing the parent who they don’t see as much or just by virtue of spending more time away from parents because of circumstances related to the divorce. Many single parents are forced back into the work force leaving them with less time to spend with their children. Lots of times this can be helped if the child just has someone they can talk to.
Divorce is something that children of any age need to grieve. For them it is a loss (likely the biggest loss of their young lives), and like any loss it needs to be grieved. The stages a child will go through in grieving the loss of the family they have known include denial, anger, bargaining (which is an effort to regain some control over their lives), depression and acceptance. Children will need to work through all of these stages, and when it comes to divorce they may need to work through all these stages multiple times as they enter each stage of development. I’ve already talked about denial and anger.
As an adult, it is hard to see kids sad or depressed, but it is important to remember that this sadness is a critical part of the grieving process. Sadness or depression are indicators that the child is coming to the realization that the divorce is final and things are not going back to the way they used to be. Acceptance is the goal of the grieving process. It is important to realize that acceptance is not the same thing as happiness. Rather, it is signaled by the child’s ability to move past the loss. As hard as it is to watch kids grieve anything, it is important to remember that grieving the loss of their family is an important step in the healing process.
Symptoms of Adjustment Issues
Sometimes, the emotions felt by children of divorce will be obvious. Other times, you may need to look for other indicators that children are having trouble adjusting to the divorce. There are some other symptoms you can look for that might help you to understand how a child is adjusting. Some children of divorce begin to act out in their anger. They may become more disobedient or defiant. This is a hard one to pick up on at this age because it is also a natural age for kids to start testing boundaries. They may act more aggressively towards parents or towards other siblings. You might pick up on efforts to seek attention or more demanding behavior. You might also notice that they have become less cooperative.
Another important thing to watch for is how kids this age play. You might notice that their play is less imaginative than it used to be or that they are less cooperative in playing with others. They may spend more time playing by themselves rather than with other kids. All of these can be signs that they are having trouble adjusting and coming to terms with the divorce.
Many children will regress in their development following a divorce. In other words, their behavior may go back to when they were younger. A preschooler may start sucking her thumb or walking around with a security blanket again. Other kids will tend towards becoming “little adults” as a means of coping with divorce. They will attempt to take on adult responsibilities, be uncharacteristically neat or good or lecture other children about how they should behave or what they should be doing. Unfortunately, we tend to label these kids as “well adjusted” and as a result they never get the real help they need. Many children of divorce become very protective of their parents. They take on the role of protector, and they will mask their own feelings and hurts so as not to add to what their parents are already going through. Make sure to find ways to allow kids to be kids and not carry the burden of adult worries and concerns.
Some children exhibit changes in sleep patterns. They might have trouble sleeping or experience nightmares. Some children will begin to wet the bed – maybe for the first time in their young lives.
Drawing Emotions Out Of a Child Who Won’t Talk
The biggest issue many kids have is talking about their emotions and expressing them in constructive ways. Unfortunately, talking about their emotions is a key part of the healing process, and there is reason for concern if a child is keeping all of their emotions inside. Part of the battle is helping them to understand, and learn how to express, what they are feeling. You may have to spend some time explaining different emotions to them. In Divorce Care 4 Kids, we use pictures of various faces representing different emotions and have the kids point to, or label, how they are feeling each time they come to the group. You can help them by describing how they look. For example, “I notice that when you are angry your fists are clenched like this (and demonstrate).” Kids don’t pick up on the cues in their own body language and by doing this regularly, you can help them to understand and name their emotions.
When you are talking to your child about their emotions, stay calm and try not to take what they say personally. Remember that they are processing some very raw emotions.
When children at this age won’t talk about their emotions, there are a couple of other things you can do to “get inside their head” and see what’s going on. One way is through their artwork. Ask them to draw pictures of their family, of their home, of their mom and dad and other things. Then, take a critical look at what they’ve drawn. Oftentimes, some very obvious emotions will show up in their pictures. Sometimes you may notice some more subtle things. If you ask them to draw a picture of their family and they leave Daddy out (or draw him with a big “X” over him), that may give you an opportunity to ask them about how they’re feeling about Daddy not being there as much.
Playing is another great outlet. Give them some dolls to play with and have them play “family.” Listen to what they have the dolls saying to one another and how they’re acting. Stuffed animals also can work well kids at this age. DC4K has a mascot (Herby). Some kids will tell things to a stuffed animal that they won’t tell to a human being. Try talking to them “through” the stuffed animal.
General Advice for Parents
In terms of general advice for parents of children of preschool age, there are some things that they should remember and consider:
- Be open, honest and frank with your kids. They don’t need to know everything about the divorce, but be honest with them in an age appropriate way with the information they do need. Don’t try to hide things from them. They are very perceptive.
- Take care of yourself. If your kids see you adjusting well to your new life, they are more likely to adjust well too.
- When your kids do have questions, offer short and concise answers. Children at this age don’t need long explanations.
- Your actions and facial expressions when talking about the divorce and your ex will speak way louder than any words that you use.
- Children at this age need plenty of physical and verbal affection and reassurance.
- Your children will thrive on routine. It helps to minimize the change and chaos that they may be feeling and reassures them that you will be there for them. Be very intentionally about developing routines with your kids. Maybe there is something special (even if it’s just a walk or a bike ride) that you can do every Saturday morning. Develop a secret handshake or hug that only you and your kids know.
- Find specific activities (like reading together) that you can regularly engage in and set up a specific time each day to do that activity.
- Provide as much undivided attention as you can to your children. I know that things are likely hectic now, and there is probably a lot on your plate, but make time to just spend one-on-one with each child.
- Find other adults who can pour into the lives of your kids. Grandparents are really important to many children of divorce because they represent stability. Aunts or Uncles, family friends, anyone who truly cares about your daughter.
There are some very good books that are available. I know that you are on a tight income, but many of these books are available from your local library. Get them and read through them with your daughter discussing the content with her as you read. There are some well-meaning but misguided books out there which basically leave kids with the impression that everything will be ok just because lots of kids go through divorce. Avoid those books. They ignore that every child is unique and experience divorce as a personal loss.
- The best books I have seen for kids are:
- It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear by Vicki Lansky
- Dinosaurs Divorce by Marc Brown
- Was It the Chocolate Pudding? by Sandra Levins
- Don’t try to “happy up” your kids all the time. Being sad or depressed is part of the healing process.
- Try to minimize other changes in your child’s life as much as possible.
Make sure that you set and keep clear limits and boundaries with your kids. Make sure that you are consistent with the limits for your kids as well. Children feel safer when their parents are in charge, and they thrive under consistent discipline. Come up with simple age appropriate rules and give your kids age appropriate jobs and responsibilities. Kids feel like they belong when they are able to contribute to the families, and one thing that many children of divorce are seeking is a sense of belonging.
- Don’t jump into dating. It is hard for kids to adjust to divorce. It sounds like (if he is still involved) that they already have a new relationship on their Dad’s side to adjust to. You need to give them, and yourself, enough time to adjust and be healthy before even thinking about adding anyone new to the mix. Keep in mind that new relationships (and maybe eventually step families) can be just as traumatic for kids as the initial divorce.
- I don’t know where you are spiritually, but I would suggest that you find a good bible teaching church with a dynamic children’s ministry to attend. Many children of divorce feel a loss of their family of origin, and church is a great place for them to find a caring congregation of adults and other children to belong to. This can help immensely with the healing process.
- Finally, pray with and for your child. I firmly believe that ultimate healing for children of divorce, and for all things, is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Again, I don’t know where you are spiritually, but I would be glad to talk to you about this further.