Infants and Toddlers and Divorce – Oh My! How Much Do They Know?

The impact of divorce is mostly discussed in terms of school-age children and teens. It is often the assumption that children under 3, having fewer verbal skills and perhaps understanding, will be affected less (or at all!) by a domestic split than their older counterparts. But, is this really true?

Don’t count on it.

A very young child’s world is a dependent one. His family is his main focus. Infants can pick up on subtle changes in their parents’ feelings and behaviors. They will often mirror those feelings, becoming fussy, difficult to comfort, or may even disengage. While we don’t usually think about stress and depression in infants, it is certainly possible… presenting itself as reduced responsiveness and lowered energy.

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Once reaching toddlerhood, children are becoming much more aware of others’ feelings. They can pick up on sadness or anger, which may cause their own emotional shifts.

Toddlers can now express their thoughts with words to a limited extent, but we have to remember that their receptive vocabulary can be twice as large as their expressive vocabulary. They understand a lot more than they can say. They do, however, have some difficulty with abstract concepts, like divorce. They will ask the same question again and again, but may still not understand. For example, toddlers have a poor sense of time. If you say, “Mommy is picking you up on Saturday,” they will ask again in five minutes about when Mommy is coming. They don’t know how long it will be until Saturday.

Toddlers are very egocentric and will typically only think about things in relation to themselves. They are only concerned about how their own needs will be met. They worry about who will be making their supper and who will be reading their bedtime storybooks. Oftentimes, a divorce situation can rock their predictable schedule (AKA sense of security), which will lead to changes in mood. They can be happy one minute and upset the next. It’s difficult for them to process strong emotions and upsetting the applecart can be a big trigger.

Toddlers are more independent than infants and will exert this by saying, “No!” to adult requests. If the parents are distracted and detached with their own issues, the toddler will take that as an opportunity to become difficult. This can happen for any one (or all) of these reasons:

  1. It is attention-getting. “Mommy and Daddy aren’t acting the same and aren’t engaging with me, so I’ll do something they don’t like. THEN, they’ll pay attention!”
  2. It is opportunistic. There are lots of things toddlers are anxious to do, touch, and try out. Usually, Mommy and Daddy are right there, making sure that doesn’t happen. But now, they are preoccupied and “Now’s my chance!”
  3. They are experiencing stress. This can cause toddlers to alter their behavior in a variety of ways. There may be more…
  • Crying or tantrums
  • Refusal to follow directions
  • Difficulty staying in bed or getting to sleep
  • Regression back to more immature behaviors (bowel or bladder accidents, refusal to feed themselves, or difficulty separating from the parents)

Stress can also be expressed in other ways, including loss of appetite, stomach aches, vomiting, or nightmares. Although some of these things could certainly just be typical toddler behavior, if any are not typical for that particular child, a call to the pediatrician would be in order.

Adults assume that just because children are little, they don’t know what’s going on and they will not be affected. We have to give even our youngest more credit than that. They are part of the social universe and are tuned in to the social climate.

There are some steps adults can take that will help:

If things have gotten off track, try to establish a sense of order. Very young children gain security and reassurance from routines and rituals.

Continue to parent as usual. Trying to “make up for” the changes actually creates a change, and is counterproductive. A child’s security depends on consistency from adults.

Parents and care providers need to communicate with each other. Everybody should be working together to help make an uncomfortable time the best it can be for the little child in the middle.

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