How to help babies and young children grieving through divorce

When facing a divorce many couples naturally worry about how this process will affect their children, in addition to managing the legal, domestic and emotional aspects of a separation. Below, we offer some information about the symptoms and behaviors that might occur when families are going through divorce. We also provide specific tips on how parents can support their children during this time.

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Children are sensitive and aware of the emotional background in which they are living, even though many people may imagine that babies and toddlers don’t understand what happens around them. When there is a change in their environment, such as separation between caregivers, it is expected for children to feel to some degree nostalgic for the absent parent and the loss of family routine. Depending on their age, children may show sad, angry, and/or anxious behaviors during and after the process of divorce. The pain a young child is experiencing can be expressed in different ways, depending on her temperament and the degree to which negative emotions are accepted in the family. Often, they go through developmental regressions: for example, children who are potty trained may start wetting their bed; children who once slept through the night may have nightmares or be reluctant to sleep alone in their beds. They may also have more tantrums or become aggressive toward caregivers, teachers, and/or siblings. In more extreme cases where children are exposed to emotional or physical violence between caregivers, or when caregivers are depressed or neglectful, they may exhibit more serious physical symptoms, difficulties regulating their behavior, or even signs associated with post-traumatic stress disorder [1].

Depending on the circumstances, divorce can be a hurtful or even a traumatic experience. There’s compelling evidence linking adverse childhood experiences such as divorce, to poor health and emotional adjustment in adulthood.,

Although worrying about the effects of divorce on children is natural and some remorse is expected, parents should remember that the separation may be better for children in the long term if it reduces conflict and distress in the household. At the same time, it is natural for children to experience grief over the change and loss of a caregiver in the home. So how can parents support their children through this experience?

There are two fundamental processes that help children cope with the grief of a separation and internalize emotional resources for their future life:

  • Sustaining a warm, caring and sensitive relationship with their parents[2].
  • Having parents who successfully co-parent keeping in mind the best interest of their children[3].

Even when families are going through challenging times, children can become resilient if their parents are warm, attentive and appropriately responsive to their children’s stress. When parents are attuned to the child’s emotional expressions and needs, even when children are expressing negative emotions, children feel heard and connected with their caregivers. However, for any adult, to be loving and caring in the midst of such a personal crisis can be a true challenge. It is important for parents who are separating to seek domestic and emotional support in order to get a break and find healthy ways to manage their and their children’s strong feelings.

Divorced couples do not necessarily have to be friends or drop legitimate legal issues in order to be collaborative co-parents. Rather, co-parenting entails avoiding conflict or showing contempt for the other parent, especially in front of the child. Studies show that for children, the most disturbing elements of divorce are conflict, violence, and the devaluation of one or both partners. Co-parenting also means engaging in cooperative behaviors such as accommodating to make visiting hours possible, respecting the child’s routine between each parent’s households, or agreeing in ways to provide emotional support. When children perceive that their divorced parents remain cordial and respectful of one another in the realm of co-parenting, they are more likely to have good mental health, high self-esteem and academic performance.

Thus, although divorce can be challenging, emotional, and exhausting, parents can support their children not only to overcome the pain of the separation, but also to gain resilience and resources that help them deal with loss in the future.

Notes

[1] Bernet, W., Wamboldt, M.Z. & Narrow, W. E. (2016). Child affected by parental relationship distress. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol 55(7), 571-579. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2016.04.018.

[2] National Reaserch Council and Institute of Medicine. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Comitee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development (J. P. Schonkoff and D. A. Phillips, Eds.). Washington, DC: National Academy Press

[3] Lamela, D., & Figueiredo, B. (2016). Coparenting after marital dissolution and children’s mental health: A systematic review. Jornal de Pediatria, 92(4), 331-342. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021755716300353

[4] Monnat, S. M., & Chandler, R. F. (2015). Long- term physical health consequences of adverse childhood experiences. The Sociological Quarterly, 56(4), 723-752. doi: 10.1111/tsq.12107

One thought on “How to help babies and young children grieving through divorce

  1. My daughter (5 now) had this problem a lot in the Fall and summer. Her mother and I separated when she was 4 and for the most part she deals with it like a champ. Whenever she brings up us being back together “the way things used to be” I just remind her of how shes forgetting about the bad parts of us always arguing and life being stressful. It helped a bit, I just remind her that me and her mom do not get a long. We tried to do a few things together after the split, amusement park, water park and those were less fun than when my daughter and I went on our own, and I remind her that. Honestly the same thing happens to me though, I was going through some of my daughter’s art projects and the one had a heart and said mom and dad on it and I broke down crying for an hour. Just be supportive and understanding instead of trying to make it go away. I tell my daughter that every kid wants this but it doesn’t always work out like that.

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