Parents play an essential role in their toddler’s adjustment to divorce and family separation. Divorce is especially stressful and confusing for toddlers. Try to see the world through your toddler’s eyes. For toddlers, the support of a parent who knows them well and provides the stability and comfort they need, makes a world of difference.
When toddlers spend time in both parent’s household, communication and coordination between parents is essential in establishing continuity. Major changes such as changing bedtime, or changing childcare arrangements should be discussed between the parents.
Avoiding conflict and expressing negative statements about the other parent while in your child’s presence is essential for their emotional health.. When parents cooperate and have less conflict, their child is more likely to develop secure attachment relationships with each parent. Toddlers are likely to feel scared and confused when their parents fight in front of them. Discuss issues with your child’s other parent when your child is not around.
Keep routines as consistent as possible. Toddlers thrive on consistent routines because it helps them feel secure. When parents divorce, toddlers are most concerned about how their needs will be met. Although both parents do not have to do things exactly the same, it is much easier for toddlers if most daily routines (morning and bedtime rituals, nap schedules, bath times and mealtimes) are similar at each home. In addition, discussing when and how to implement the same toilet training structure in each household will make it that much easier. If you can’t reach a consensus or if conflict between the two of you is too high, focus on parenting in your own home and allow the other parent to do the same in their home.
Set reasonable limits and enforce them in a clear, firm and predictable way. Toddlers’ negative behavior and acting out may increase during the divorce process. Toddlers need clear, consistent rules that are enforced in a loving way. To help avoid continuous struggles, allow your toddler to choose between two acceptable choices, such as, “Would you like grapes or an apple for snack today”. When parents respond to their child’s needs using a consistent, sensitive and affectionate approach, toddlers are more likely to flourish and adopt appropriate behaviors.
Provide reassurance at times of transitions. While separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development at this age, it may increase significantly during exchanges between homes. Parents can make exchanges easier by following predictable schedules, shielding their child from conflict at the exchange and allowing their child to bring with them a transition object, such as blankets, stuffed animals or other prized possessions. Allow your child to have a photograph of the other parent in his or her bedroom and to make or receive phone calls to or from the other parent. This reassures them that the other parent is still around and loves them.
Encourage toddlers to express their feelings. Toddlers learn to express their feelings with words and through play or artwork. When parents divorce, they may become more aggressive. Frequent shifts in emotional states are common. Toddlers need to know it is acceptable to have an assortment of feelings. Offer your toddler play materials such as playdoh, art supplies, dolls, dollhouse and furniture and stuffed animals.
Reading age appropriate books can be a valuable way to help your toddler express the emotions and concerns they are experiencing in their life. Children often identify with characters in a book. Talking about how the characters handle difficulties can offer your child awareness into their own divorce-related concerns. Some recommended books for toddlers include:
- Guess How Much I Love You! Sam McBratney and Anita Jeram (1994). Candlewick Press.
- Owl Babies. Martin Waddell and Patrick Benson (1996). Candlewick Press.
- I Love You All the Time. Jessica Hirschman, Jennifer Cole, and Bonnie Bright (2000). Cookie Bear Press, Inc.
The most important thing you can do is to continue to nurture your toddler, give extra affection and expressions of love and reassurance as well as provide structure for him or her. Toddlers need to know that their parents continue to love them, that their needs will be taken care of, and that their familiar routines will remain the same as possible.
Ann Marie Termini, Ed.S., M.S., LPC