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Feature Article


Toddlers and Divorce (ages 18 months - 3 years)

Kim Leon, Ph.D., Former Human Development and Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia

A major difference between infants and toddlers is that toddlers can use language to express thoughts and feelings. Even though toddlers are learning to use language, there are many things they don't understand. Toddlers understand that one parent is not living in the home, but they do not understand why. They also do not understand time. For example a toddler may ask, "When is Daddy coming?" and the parent may reply "You will see Daddy on Thursday." The child may ask the same question two hours later, because he doesn't understand how long it is until Thursday. This can be very frustrating for parents because toddlers will often ask the same questions over and over again. It is still important to answer your toddler's questions, but to know that your toddler doesn't really understand even after you explain it. Try to see the world through your child's eyes. Imagine what it is like to be in a confusing place where you often don't understand what is going on and have limited ability to express your thoughts and feelings. For toddlers, the support of an adult who knows them well, understands their thoughts and feelings, and helps them express those thoughts and feelings makes a world of difference.

It is hard for toddlers to see things from another person's perspective. They think about things in relation to themselves. When parents divorce, toddlers are most concerned about how their own needs will be met. Toddlers commonly worry about who will fix their dinner or tuck them in bed, if the parent they live with is also going to leave, and if their parents still love them.

In the toddler period, children become more aware of others' feelings and learn to express their own feelings with words and through play. They may become more aggressive or fearful when their parents divorce. Frequent shifts in emotional state are common for toddlers. One minute they are happily playing, and a few minutes later they are upset. It is hard for toddlers to manage strong feelings like sadness or anger. They may miss the parent who is gone or be angry about not being able to be with a parent. Toddlers need to know it is all right to have these feelings.

Toddlers can do many more things on their own than infants can. Toddlers exert their independence by frequently saying "No" to adult requests or testing limits (for example, intentionally throwing food on the floor). Toddlers' negative behavior and acting out may increase during the divorce process. Toddlers need clear, consistent rules that are enforced in a loving way. Even though they may seem very independent, toddlers need constant supervision to keep them safe.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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