Most parents who are facing divorce worry about how to approach the topic with their toddler and how it will affect their toddler’s development. Because toddlers are just starting to understand the world and social relationships, divorce can have a significant developmental effect, according to Kim Leon, State Extension Specialist at the University of Missouri. Divorce itself doesn’t necessarily cause developmental delays; however, it is the way that parents deal with the life changes that affects the toddler, according to the American Psychological Association.
The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) reports that toddlers are incapable of understanding the meaning of divorce. They can’t see situations from the perspective of their parents. They want to know how it will affect them. Toddlers seek comfort through consistency, so when one parent no longer lives in the home, they want to know what else will change.
When speaking to toddlers about divorce, it’s necessary to focus on how their life will change. The ABCT identifies questions that most toddlers ask:
- Where will I live?
- Where will my stuff go?
- Do you still love me?
- Will you go too?
- When will I see mom or dad?
Answering these questions concisely can relieve many of your toddler’s fears. For example, when the toddler asks, “Where will I live?” Answers such as, “With mommy” or “Sometimes in mommy’s home and sometimes in daddy’s home” are sufficient. Lengthy explanations may not make sense to a toddler and can lead to insecurities.
Besides telling a toddler how life will change and answering questions in a simple way, it’s also important to provide emotional support. Parents should consistently provide nurturance and reassurance. They should establish routines and set clear limits and consequences for behavior. Limiting stress and allowing the toddler to take extra time with tasks performed independently is helpful. It’s also good for each parent to set time aside to spend with their child alone.
As parents, you have the power to help your toddler adjust to family changes in a positive way. By establishing a new routine quickly, being emotionally available, and answering questions as clearly as possible, a toddler is more likely to adjust to the news of divorce in a healthy way.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, January 2019
- It’s not the divorce that affects toddlers; it’s how parents manage the life changes that affects the toddler.
- Focus on how the divorce will change the toddler’s life when addressing the situation.
- Answer questions with brief, clear responses.
- Provide extra emotional support through the adjustment period.