Preschool children are probably at the most sensitive stage and are especially vulnerable to their parents’ divorce. They are old enough to be cognizant of what is happening and will have also had time to develop strong attachments with both parents, assuming both parents are nurturing caregivers. Yet they are still young enough to be especially vulnerable to breaks in attachment, and their fear of abandonment is especially pronounced at this age. It’s a time when family means everything to them, and a number of studies have found that children this age may have the strongest adverse reactions to parental divorce.
Divorce & its effects on preschool children
Preschool children understand a lot more, and are much more mentally sophisticated than toddlers, yet they still lack the cognitive sophistication necessary to fully comprehend the meaning of divorce. So they tend to react to these developments with a great deal of confusion. In turn, confusion and a lack of understanding tend to lead to fear. They may think to themselves, “one parent just up and disappeared…what’s to stop the other one from doing the same?” Preschoolers are old enough to understand cause and effect yet young enough that they still have a tendency towards magical thinking as well as egocentricism – meaning they tend to overestimate their own power and influence on the outside world. Thus, most often their first reaction to divorce is to look within themselves to search for what went wrong. Perhaps if they had behaved better, maybe their parents would have stayed together. Maybe there was a time when they were being punished and secretly wished that a parent would go away. Now the parent is gone, and the child fears their secret wish is what made it so. Maybe they just didn’t love daddy enough, or didn’t give enough hugs and kisses to convey just how important he was to her. Since preschoolers are still in the process of developing what child development specialists refer to as “theories of mind,” understanding the different thoughts and motivations of others can still be challenging, especially when it comes to adult issues. So they search for explanations within what they know best, which is their own thoughts and experiences.
Preschool children are likely to feel a sense of profound loss and sorrow. They won’t understand precisely what the divorce entails, only that their parents are angry and upset with each other (or merely acting strange) and now live apart. They are hit hard by the disruption to their family and sudden instability in caretakers, and their fear of abandonment will be strong. This is especially true for those who enjoyed a stay-at-home parent prior to the divorce. As one divorce researcher observes, “Little children who lose both parents because daddy moves out and mommy goes to work full-time suffer terribly. These children pathetically search for their lost parents everywhere.” (Wallerstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 308)
How preschool children react to divorce
- Expect preschoolers to be clingy or to start suffering separation anxiety. Many become like a pathological lover who constantly needs attention and reassurance in order to function.
- Preschoolers still have poor emotional impulse control, and also tend to group negative emotional states together without distinguishing them from one another. In other words, sadness and anger may feel essentially the same, and since they often occur simultaneously, children don’t distinguish them as different. Therefore sadness may express itself through misbehaving or showing aggression towards their parents or other kids at school.
- Attention-seeking behaviors are likely to emerge, and parents and teachers must be careful not to let negative ones become a pattern.
- Regression is commonplace for kids this age, and children may lose developmental skills that they had previously mastered.
- Expect preschoolers to ask many of the same questions over and over again, even after you’ve answered them several times before. It’s not that they aren’t listening; they’re just struggling to understand and seeking regular reassurance.
Helping preschoolers cope with divorce
- Talk a lot to preschool children. They’ll want to know what’s happening, but will struggle to ask the right questions or voice their concerns. Explanations are crucial to keeping their anxiety levels down, even if they don’t quite understand. Open dialogue will calm their fears. The worst thing you can do is be distant and mysterious, which leaves them suspecting that all sorts of malevolent plots are being hatched against them.
- If the other parent left, remind kids constantly that you love them and will not/cannot abandon them. Don’t assume that they know this. They probably thought the same was true of the missing parent. You need to explain why you love them and care for them more than the parent who walked out. Talk about how horrible you would feel if you were without them, or talk about how you think about them throughout the day at work. Explain your responsibility to them as a parent, and how you take these responsibilities seriously. Without badmouthing the other parent or insinuating that the other parent doesn’t love them, you need to create a distinction between your feelings towards them and those of the parent who walked away, so that they don’t fear you’ll suddenly abandon them too.
- Preschoolers engage in a lot of fantasy play, and parents can utilize this in helping their child cope. Engage in a lot of play sessions where you play “family” using dolls or puppets or other props. Then play out different family scenarios with them based on an imaginary family. It’s a great way to encourage dialogue and get them to open up about their thoughts.
- Preschool children are very attuned to their parents’ emotions, so try to watch your moods around them. It’s okay to be open about your sadness over what is happening, but it’s not okay to act like a mess in front of your kids or convey the message that you aren’t able to cope.