You and your spouse file for divorce. Your child was potty-trained, but he or she started wetting the bed again. Your son loved his “big-boy’s bed,” but he started asking to sleep by you. Your daughter used to be independent, but she suddenly refuses to leave your side.
Divorce is hard on parents, but it is also a significant change for children. Parents may notice that their young children, under the age of eight or nine, can seem to regress in their development. As the parent, you are left asking “Why” and “Is there anything I can do?”
Noticing changes in your child’s behavior is very normal during a divorce, said author and psychologist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. Divorce requires many adjustments and involves much change, and children will react.
Pickhardt noted that younger children tend to be more dependent. They crave familiarity, stability and security. Divorce can shake the ground they stand on and make them feel like life has become unpredictable. They no longer have one bed, at one house, with one schedule, one set of rules, and mom and dad there together — or essentially their version of a single routine.
When young children sense this unpredictability, it creates anxiety. They may relieve this anxiety by acting out in a way that elicits parental attention. When they cry, you comfort them. When they throw a tantrum, you focus on discipline. When they cling to you, even persuading them into letting go is attention.
The big question is, “What can you do about it?” Pickhardt says that some changes are likely to occur, but you can do a few things to make the transition as easy as possible. He suggests that parents rely on the three R’s. They are:
- Routines: Make a schedule and try to stick to it as much as possible – at both households.
- Rituals: Create new rituals, but give your child some control over the ones he or she wants to establish. They can be as simple as letting your child pick out a healthy snack to put in his or her lunch box.
- Reassurance: Always remember that your child needs to hear that things will be okay. Children may hope that mom and dad get together again, and they can become confused about what is really going on. Remain clear and honest about the changes, but make sure your child knows that he or she is loved – by both parents.
It is not easy to achieve these three R’s without cooperating with the other parent. Working together and remaining civil to one another in front of the children, whether you are using alternative dispute resolution or going through the traditional adversarial divorce process, can go a long way.
It can help you establish a united front for your child during a time of transition, and it can give you and the other parent a foundation for working together amicably in the future.