“Children at very young ages learn to be sensitive to their parents’ moods. In some of our heartbreaking videos of families going through a divorce, a toddler can be seen climbing onto her mother’s lap and stroking her cheek to comfort her.”
– Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee (2000, p. 168)
Toddlerhood is a very difficult age to experience parental divorce, and one- and two-year-olds will likely take the situation much harder than infants. They have the capacity for the same emotional reaction as older kids, but since they are developmentally limited, one could make the argument that toddlers face the biggest challenge in adapting to their parents’ divorce.
The effects of divorce on toddlers
Toddlers are old enough to have become familiar with their surroundings and to have solidified bonds with both parents. They know what’s normal for their family, and they’ve fallen into certain routines with their caregivers. Yet toddlers are still so young that they’re extremely vulnerable and sensitive towards breaks in attachment, changes in the quality or amount of care and affection they receive, or other disruptions in their environment. They aren’t yet secure enough to handle these changes well.
Toddlers will notice the changes in their family, but will not understand why they are happening. Unfortunately, they are too young for your explanations to do much good, though you should still attempt to give them. (Parents should always respond to children by trying to explain, even if their children don’t fully understand.) The concepts of divorce are just too far over the heads of kids this age, yet this doesn’t stop their mind from searching for explanations or trying to exert control over their environment. So if your toddler is old enough to put simple sentences together, expect to get the same questions or statements over and over again.
Toddlers are too young to be able to express their emotions verbally, yet old enough to experience some very powerful feelings in regards to the divorce. Put these two conditions together, and you get a pretty bleak mental state: Feeling extremely bad and fearful about what is happening, yet feeling helpless and trapped inside your own limitations. They feel upset yet are powerless, and can’t even put their feelings into words to seek solace in the way that older children might.
As a developmental stage, toddlers are just beginning to learn how to exert themselves and are in the midst of a massive expansion in physical and social abilities. The stress and shock of divorce can throw a monkey wrench into this development. Some kids may experience a regression from this independence; others may double down and try to exert their newfound independence and power in inappropriate ways.
How toddlers react to divorce
Toddlers may react to their parents’ divorce in a variety of ways:
- They can become clingy and fearful of separation. For instance, they may start crying when being dropped off at daycare even though they had no such issues before, or they may become fearful even when a parent is out of sight or in a different part of the house. Other types of phobias may also emerge.
- They may become angry and upset out of the blue for apparently no reason at all. Since they can’t verbalize their feelings or even completely comprehend themselves why they feel a certain way, this can make their moods seem erratic.
- They may cry more than they usually do.
- They may express anger by throwing temper tantrums or by sulking. They may also hit, bite, become irritable or withdraw from others.
- They may become more demanding in their behavior, more forceful with their needs.
- Toddlers are very likely to regress in their behaviors, such as reversing progress in potty training or demanding a pacifier that they had given up.
- You may witness some disruption in their eating or sleeping habits.
- They may continually ask “where’s mommy?” or make statements like “this Daddy’s house” over and over again after you’ve already told them Daddy moved out.
Helping toddlers cope with divorce
- Its okay to allow some regression, particularly when it comes to comfort and security items such as blankets or binkies. In other situations, try to set clear limits and continue to push for age-appropriate behavior that you know the child is capable of, just be understanding of the fact that such regressive behaviors during stressful times are perfectly normal.
- Keep schedules, environments, and settings as normal as possible. Even things such as having your child’s room set up the same basic way at each house with the same types of items can help them feel more stable in their environment.
- Allow for extra time to complete daily tasks, such as dressing or changing, which will help keep other stressors to a minimum. It’s especially important to allow plenty of extra time between transitions and hand-offs, because they may not go as smoothly as they did before.
- Provide plenty of nurturing and reassurance. Whatever affection you normally show your child, try to double it. Schedule more special one on one time. Give regular reassuring statements that are easy for the child to understand (Mommy loves you, and Daddy loves you; you’re Daddy’s special little girl), both from yourself and on behalf of the other parent when they aren’t around. This can help provide reassurance against abandonment; you’re reminding a child who’s confused about why her Daddy suddenly disappears for days at a time that he hasn’t forgotten about her and is still thinking of her.
- Especially towards the older end of this age spectrum, toddlers will tend to engage in a lot of magical thinking, which means entertaining a lot of false beliefs. They won’t understand what is going on or why this is happening, but this won’t stop them from forming their own conclusions about cause and effect. So parents must remember to continue to talk about the divorce as they develop, so that their understanding of the situation continues to evolve as their thinking becomes more sophisticated.