Divorce represents a major disruption for everyone in a family. But for toddlers, whose parents are their entire world, it’s a profound change that affects every aspect of their lives. There are new schedules. There are new locations. There are new dynamics. And there is a lot of stress. The strain of separation is a lot for parents to handle and it’s a lot for kids — especially toddlers, who thrive on routine — to handle as well. Divorce with a toddler can be uniquely challenging, as emotions run high, but clear, age-appropriate explanations can be difficult to craft and to agree upon.
How parents manage all of these adjustments in the immediate aftermath of a divorce has a significant impact on the long-term effects of divorce on children. But if you and your spouse decide to get a divorce and your child is toddler-aged, there are several things you can keep in mind and do to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. The effects of divorce on children, of course, need to be understood and mitigated. So, what do divorced parents of toddlers need to know? Here’s what the research says.
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Divorce and Kids
What to Know About Toddlers and Divorce
If there can be such a thing as “good news” connected to divorce and young children, this is where it lives. Research has shown that by the time they are adults, most people who experienced divorce as young children are no more likely to have relationship issues than those who grew up in typical non-divorced families.
One of the biggest sources of data comes from a study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Researchers there surveyed more than 7,000 individuals regarding how they are attached to their parents, wether or not their parents were divorced, and the state of respondents’ romantic relationships. Of the respondents, a third had divorced parents. Very few reported relationship problems with partners.
That’s consistent with longitudinal studies that suggest most young children regain their footing and are consistent with peers from “intact” homes by around three years after a divorce. The huge caveat being that every kid is different and that three-year gap after divorce is crucial to your kid’s future health and well-being.
Parental Relationships Could Suffer
Toddlers, in particular, are really hitting a phase where their parents are pretty much the entirety of their world. When this world breaks down it hits them right at their foundation, the place where they are most anxious.
That’s likely the reason that the same University of Illinois study found that adult children of divorce will sometimes report a strained or aloof relationship with at least one parent. Usually, that was the parent they spent the least amount of time with, which was most often the father. This strain was more pronounced the younger the kid was at the time of divorce.
Researchers did point out, though, that the relationship effect may not be caused by divorce. That’s because custody is sometimes determined by the quality of the parent/child relationship at the time of the divorce.
Health Could Suffer
A 2010 study suggested that children of divorce had double the risk of stroke as adults when compared to their peers from “intact” families. But there are big grains of salt to be taken with the study (which might not be the best thing if you have a risk of stroke). For instance, stroke is also higher among kids who grew up in poverty, and this is often the case for children of divorce too. Also, the study was looking at adults whose parents divorced in the 1950s and ’60s when it was far more taboo and stress-inducing.
How Divorce Affects a Toddler
Toddlers will react to divorce in a very unique way. That’s due in part to the unique time in their development. They are conscious enough about the world to know that it’s being broken somehow, but they aren’t sophisticated enough with language or time to understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, or the timeline over which it will occur.
In some ways that’s helpful because it does save them from the feelings of guilt or responsibility they might feel as a more self-centered preschooler or kindergartner. That is a cold comfort, to say the least.
You’ll expect to see some behavioral issues as you and your ex part ways. Particularly when that separation becomes physical. Some things you might see:
- Increased separation anxiety and crying when one parent leaves
- Some regression that could include thumb-sucking or refusal to potty train
- Aggressive behavior and tantrums
- Sleep trouble
In extreme cases, there could be a delay in reaching milestones. So it’s important to be more vigilant about how your toddler is progressing so you can catch delays sooner.
How to Talk to a Toddler About Divorce
You need to understand your kid’s limitations when talking to them about divorce. Keep remember that they don’t have a concept of time yet. And their understanding of the world is very basic. So:
Let them know that you love them and you’ll always love them no matter what happens. That’s true no matter where you are.
Keep It Simple
Use short sentences that speak directly to the point. Let them know that you will be in one house and their mom will be in another house. Also, assure them that both of you will still play with them and eat with them and do everything that you used to.
Time It Right
Don’t talk about it until it’s absolutely going to happen. Give it a couple of days before any bags or boxes are packed. A toddler’s anxiety will only grow if you tell them too soon.
What to Do After the Divorce
You’ll need to give a huge amount of focus to your kid to make sure they have the support they need to keep them on track. Do everything you can to work with your ex to make sure that daily schedules are coordinated and maintained as strictly as possible.
Continue to reassure your kid that they are loved. You can do this by being present and playing with them. This means more to a toddler than any gift you could bring when you pick them up.
Finally, let them develop their own rituals with you. This allows your kid to feel a little more in control over their life, where control is pretty much lost. Let them lead when you can.
And remember that your kid looks to you for guidance. It’s highly likely that they’ll react to the divorce the same way you do. If you’re constantly angry and saying bad things about your ex, expect your professional mimic to take that on. So if you’re having a hard time coping, it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to get some therapy.
You didn’t have a soothsayer to tell you this would go down after you had kids. But now that it’s happening, it’s important to consider your kid’s future and do everything you can to make sure they have a solid footing as they live and grow in their new family dynamic.