Did I make Daddy leave?
Divorce is not something a preschooler can easily deal with.
(Getty Images)
oung children are often the most hurt by divorce, simply because they don't understand what is happening, or why.  From about the age of 5, children begin to understand that divorce means their parents will no longer be married and living together.  This concept is difficult to grasp because in their minds, moms and dads are supposed to always love each other.

Children at this age need constant reassurance that they are still loved and that it isn't their fault that you are getting divorced.  This is the critical age for self-blame. Unfortunately young children often think that their parents are getting divorced because they were naughty or because they did badly in school. 
Common feelings
  • Children will usually blame themselves for the divorce.
  • They worry about ‘small things’ like who is going to fetch them from school, who will tuck them in at night, who will cook for dad, etc.
  • They usually have more nightmares.
  • They may go through a bargaining phase. "If I am good, maybe Daddy will come back."
  • There may be signs of sadness and grieving over the parent who is no longer living at home.
  • Children at this age tend to take sides rather easily and may be aggressive and angry toward the parent they blame for the divorce.
  • Many preschoolers have fantasies that their parents are going to get back together and often speak about this to you, their teachers and friends.

How to help

  • Repeatedly tell children that they are not responsible for the divorce.
  • Encourage and reassure your child that their needs come first and that there will always be someone to take care of them.  Also reassure them about their fears.
  • If at all possible, arrange regular time for your child to see their other parent.  Be supportive of this relationship and make it a positive experience.  This is essential: Never, ever fight with your ex when you are dropping off or collecting your child from them.  This makes the child feel like they are the cause of the conflict and will resist future visits for this reason.  Be civil with your ex when you are in your child's company. 
  • Don't show jealousy of your spouse and don't ever force your child to choose between the two of you.  Also don't send messages to your ex through your child, or use them as a "spy".
  • Don't say harsh things about your ex in front of your child. This makes him/her feel they need to take your side.
  • You can't change your child's feelings, but it is important to let your child know that you understand them.
  • Try and establish a regular routine where possible.  For instance, if bedtime is the same in both households it will give your child a sense of stability.
  • Gently remind your child that divorce is final and that you and your ex will not be getting back together again.  Children at this age often look for any sign that you still love each other, and the inevitable disappointment when you don't, is more devastating than hearing the truth from the start.
  • Read books together about children and divorce.  This will help your child realise that they are not the only ones going through this.
Suggested reading:

It's not your fault, KoKo Bear by Vicky Lansky.  This book is designed for parents and children (ages 3 to 5) to read together. KoKo Bear faces situations that help him learn what divorce means.

How did your preschooler deal with your divorce?

Read more about dealing with divorce:
Mommy, don't leave!
Teen in the middle

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