When my ex-husband and I finally decided to separate and proceed with a divorce, I ran to the Internet hoping for information on how my 3-year-old would handle the divorce. Other than a few general articles, there wasn't much out there on what I should expect and how to handle her. Sure, we found a book on divorce to read to her and we spoke with her teachers, but otherwise it felt like we were becoming new parents all over again. How would this impact our girl? Would she handle it well? What about in the future with her relationships? I felt like we were jumping off a bridge and hoping to land safely.
The first month of life as a divorcing family was fine. My daughter thought going to Daddy's house was fun — a little change of pace — until suddenly, it wasn't fun anymore. It's not that she didn't love being with him but that the back and forth between homes was difficult and she missed her family unit together as one. That's when she started to act out, and then a month or two later, we sent her to play therapy and finally started to get ourselves anchored into how to help our kid manage this huge change. How to help us survive this huge change. Coparenting can be really difficult, although for the most part we get along well. Working with a play therapist meant all of us were getting therapy, and we were sure to set aside time for the two of us as parents to speak with her on our daughter's progress and our own as parents.
While every child reacts differently, here are some ways your child may act out during the divorce process.
Our daughter easily toilet-trained and was in undies at 2 without a lot of headache. She was independent and eager to get her big-girl panties on. Despite being in underwear for a year, though, potty training was one of the first things to crumble after the excitement of staying with Dad at Grandma's wore off. She would walk around with poop or urine in her underwear or, during nap time, a pull-up without even telling her teachers or us. Eventually, she started to tell us, noting that she had had an accident, and now it is strictly just urine accidents, not number two ones. Friends said, "Oh, maybe she has a bladder issue," but all of us — teachers, Dad, therapist, etc. — know that this is an issue of control, and so more often than not, she has an accident on purpose.
I won't lie: it's extremely frustrating since it's happening still a year later (sometimes it gets better, and other times it is worse), but at this point, I have accepted that this is an ongoing issue until she adjusts to all the changes she has going on like moving, different custody schedules, etc.
When it all comes down to it, this is an issue of control. She can control when she goes to the bathroom but not if her parents stay together. Potty and bathroom issues are very common signs of regression, so look out for this!
My incredibly articulate and verbose daughter has an infuriating habit of pretending to not hear people if she's not interested in talking. She doesn't do it often, but when she does, it is most frequently with my ex and me. We realized that more often than not, she ignores us either because she is sad or angry or because she wants to hurt us intentionally. Yes, that may sound mean of her, but she has been angry that her family is not together, and especially before she entered play therapy, it was one of the only ways her little self could get her feelings out. We have been working hard to help her not only express and cope with how she feels in a positive way but also how we respond to her selective mutism.
Don't be surprised if your chatty kid clams up or your child snubs your questions. Again, it's one of the things he or she can control. You can't force someone to talk, can you?
Thankfully this is not something we have dealt with too often, but many kids will refuse to eat or lose their appetite while adjusting to divorce. The other day my daughter was upset so she refused to eat breakfast initially until eventually, her hunger won over her emotions. Don't be surprised if your child's voracious appetite wanes . . . or waxes. Some children and people eat to comfort themselves, but often little ones will push away their plates if they're distressed because it makes them feel as if they're in charge.
Accidents were the first sign that something was going on with our daughter, and the second sign was aggression. She started to verbally lash out at one of her favorite friends and from time to time push or hit. I never thought my kid would hit or get aggressive, and for the most part this is an issue we have largely avoided, but it happened. In fact, sometimes she would hit either me or her father, but more often I received the most emotion from my kid. I guess children feel safer acting out with moms? Not sure of that! If your formerly docile child starts to lash out, don't be surprised, but realize that he or she needs to get some help in order to process difficult emotions that come with the roller coaster of getting a divorce and losing the family as your kid once knew it.
The Fall Guy
As I mentioned before, kids may find it easier to lash out at one person. For my daughter, I have been the "fall guy." It's not that she never acts out with her dad but that more often than not, I get the brunt of her bad moods, as well as her emotional outpourings. This means that she'll talk to me about her sadness but also give me the worst of her lashings. She also took her stress out on her closest friend at school when we first separated because she felt safe and comfortable. Your child may pick an adult, friend, or both to unleash his or her emotions on because he or she views that person as safe.
Everything in Order
Especially for toddlers and preschoolers, control, structure, and order are very important. Your little one may become incredibly precise or slightly "OCD," and not in the true definition of the disorder. Routines, transitions, and schedules had to be precise for my kid because she was so overwhelmed with her new schedule and two homes that everything else had to be "micromanaged."
If your kid becomes an absolute (pardon the expression) "Nazi" about having her blanket just right or starts to struggle with transitioning from activity to activity when it wasn't an issue before, your kid is struggling with the divorce.
What Can You Do?
I highly recommend play therapy. It has helped our daughter and our family get through a difficult time. She loves her therapist and has learned better coping skills. Does she always use them? Not always. It has been a long and bumpy road for us. Some months, days, and weeks are great, and other days, weeks, and months have been difficult for my girl. I can't say I blame her as divorce has been an emotional roller coaster for me as well. Play therapy is perfect for young children and really helps them express how they're feeling in a safe environment with a language they know and love well — play! However, therapy can be costly, so if it's not an option for you, you need to round up the troops. By troops I mean teachers, family members, your ex, and his family members, as well as your child's pediatrician. Getting a family through a divorce takes a village, in my opinion. Everyone needs to be on board with the main goal of getting your child through the divorce as unscathed as possible — that's the priority.
I won't lie: there are days in which it feels as if my daughter will never reach a new normal, and then there are weeks in which it's as if divorce is no big deal. The other day she told me, "When Daddy leaves I get sad, but that's OK. Sometimes daddies have to leave."
And when I asked her what she could do to make herself feel better, she told me, "I can squeeze a ball, hold my dollies, sing a song, or read a book."
That's what play therapy and active coparenting have done for my child. Is it stressful sometimes still? Yes, but I also know that in the end she is an extremely loved little girl with two parents working hard and rooting for her. Our rainbow will come, and years down the road, divorce will just be some two-syllable word and the only life she will have truly known and remembers.