Unfortunately, because divorce is often a time when adults simply do not understand how to meet their child’s special needs, many children have a far more difficult time making the adjustments than necessary. Since children on average take between two to three years to adjust to the changes resulting from divorce, failure to understand and to know what to expect often results in turmoil for everyone that can take many years — if ever — to fully resolve.
This column looks at the special adjustment needs of the preschooler should her parents divorce during this phase of the child’s life. Next week I will look at the special needs of grade school children and then the following week, the needs of adolescents.
Preschoolers are not yet able to understand what separation or divorce means. What they can understand is that their parents are angry, upset, and unhappy. Typical reactions include: (1) intense feelings of loss and sadness; (2) increased fantasies, both pleasant (My mommy still loves my daddy best.) and frightening (Monsters are trying to get me.); (3) insecurity rooted in a fear of being abandoned by the non-custodial parent; (4) frequent self-blame believing, for example, that if she had behaved better or kept her room cleaner her parents would have stayed together; (5) wondering if she is somehow responsible as she may have memories of being very angry and wishing one parent would leave; (6) increased expressions of frustration and anger, which (depending on the personality of the child) may be turned inward (your child will appear depressed) or outward (your child will find endless opportunities to make trouble for herself and everyone around her).
Although all of these reactions can seem overwhelming at a time when parents are already burdened with the emotional adjustments of a failing marriage, parents can help make the adjustments so much easier for their preschoolers.
First and foremost, encourage your child to ask questions and share concerns about your separation and divorce. As hard as it may be, don’t blame or attack your spouse. Remember, this is your child’s parent and she should never be asked to choose or take sides.
Second, encourage your child to express feelings, even feelings of anger and resentment. Accept these feelings as feelings and resist the temptation to label them as either good or bad. Freely sharing feelings encourages healing and resolution.
Third, find time every single day to reassure your child that you love her and will continue to take care of her.
Remember, all healing (whether physical or emotional) takes time. By providing a safe and caring environment of unconditional love and understanding, rest assured your child can heal.