In Kramer vs. Kramer, a classic film about divorce and custody, a 4 year old, whose mom left his dad and him, vacillates between being "too good" and defying his father's limit setting. In one poignant scene, the boy ignores his dad's ruling that there will be no ice cream unless he eats his dinner. The episode ends with the overwhelmed father "losing it" and immediately feeling remorseful. Later, the child asks the question for many young children of divorce: "Is that why Mommy left? Because I was bad?" Young children relate everything that happens around them to themselves. If something bad happens, it must be because of their bad behavior or even their unkind thoughts.
A sense of loss and anger at having no say in the matter troubles many preschoolers whose parents split. More than a few will regress, at least for a while — abandoning toilet training, losing sleep, becoming whiny or aggressive, or resisting change in every aspect of their lives. So they have trouble adjusting to a new school (or even small changes in their classroom), to a new home or babysitter and sometimes to other, less dramatic disruptions in their routines.
All change reminds these children of their powerlessness to prevent the worst change in their young lives. So show respect for your child's opinions whenever you can, and encourage her teachers to do the same. Of course, you still need to respect limits that involve health and safety. But there are dozens of incidental matters that you can turn over to your child to demonstrate respect for her needs and wishes. Giving her some choice about what to wear, eat, and play with can help allay feelings of helplessness.
It is always a challenge to console your children when you yourself are feeling lost. So make sure you have reliable emotional support from family, friends, and, if possible, from expert counselors. Above all, give up lingering anger toward your ex-spouse.
That is much easier said than done. But studies on the effects of divorce suggest the importance of parents getting along. Your child will do best if the divorce ends the battle between his parents. If anger persists, he will feel trapped in the middle, in danger of losing both parents, and always having to choose sides.
When you cooperate and support rather than undermine your child's attachment to her other parent, she has an opportunity to get past the hurt and worry. And worry she naturally will — about whether her remaining parent will also leave, about whether anything or anyone she has taken for granted will still be there when she wakes up in the morning. She may be afraid to go to sleep at night for fear that her mother or father may vanish. Even if she once loved school, she may no longer enjoy it because she feels too preoccupied all day about who will pick her up or be there when she gets home.
It is especially unfortunate when custody and visitation create continuing conflict, giving children more reason to feel at fault. If you are having a custody battle, involve a neutral party to serve as your child's advocate. In my (admittedly biased) view, that person should be a mental health professional specializing in children. This expert can help you and your ex unite on the one thing you still have in common — sincere love and regard for your child. Put aside concern about who wins or loses, and cooperate to protect him from undue conflict and disruption.
There is no consensus about the consequences of divorce for young children. Some researchers think that negative results are inevitable. Others point out that (particularly when it comes to abusive marriages) divorce can save the kids from chaos. And years later, the children themselves report the same range of results. Some say that the divorce saved them from a far worse fate. If they have always had easy access to both parents, who remained active participants in their lives, and if the parents' open warfare ended with the marriage, most children do just fine.