Prev Next
divorce

Helping a Toddler Cope With Divorce

By Amalah

Hi Amy.

I’m probably one of the many men who reads your advice blog, but never comments (sorry).  I always enjoy seeing the woman’s point of view of the situations you address and now it seems I have my own question I am hoping you can help with.

It pains me to even be in this situation, so forgive me for venting a little, but I was hoping you and your readers might have some advice on how to cope with divorce for both myself and my daughter.  Seven years ago, I met a wonderful person who was artistic, motivated, attractive and someone who I enjoyed spending all of my time with.  Two years later we married.  At the time, certain issues were starting to surface related to hair pulling and significant weight gain.  Signs of depression also began as my wife seemed to lose her motivation to do her art projects, exercise or even go out and be social.  I tried to be supportive of her during this time and she began some therapy sessions and promised she wanted to get back to being the person she was before.  A year later, we were pregnant and had a daughter.

But our daughter was a strain on our situation as she had colic for the first 3 months and my wife started suffering from depression again.  We started couples therapy and I took a more predominate role in caring for the baby while she started depression medication.  Things seemed to be going better, but then the hair pulling continued, she was still missing motivation to do anything which required planning, more substantial weight gain followed and our love life was non-existent as a result of the depression medications.  The few times she did go out, it was more as an escape as she would drive after drinking with friends and even ended up with a  DUI at one point.

Now after 3 years of couples therapy, we have reached an inevitable conclusion.  I want back the woman I originally met, meanwhile she wants someone to accept her as she is now.  Because neither of us is happy with the current situation, we are going through the steps to get a divorce.  If it was just me, I would be disappointed, but accepting of this result.  However I am crushed by the impact this will have on our 3 year old.  My ideal of a happy home for her to grow up in feels destroyed.

My wife has not moved out yet, but we have tried to prepare her by telling her that mommy and daddy will be living in separate houses.  We tell her she will be sharing, but she doesn’t like this and wants to know if we can all come to the same house.  She is also becoming very clingy at daycare drop off and doesn’t want me to leave her there.  I have also purchased some toddler books about divorce which we are starting to read to her.  My wife and I will be splitting custody 50-50, so we will each have her half the time once we separate, but I know it will be rough on her to adapt to this new situation.  Do you and your readers have any advice on how to smooth the transition, how long it will take to adapt and anything else I can do to make this situation easier for both of us?

Thank you,
S

Advice Smackdown ArchivesSo, not surprisingly, given all the recent hoopla in the news, the cable networks have been showing a LOT of Sandra Bullock movies lately. And it turns out that Miss Congeniality is one of those movies I am powerless to resist whenever it comes on. I simply MUST watch it, all the way through, even though I scoff at how ridiculous it is but WILLIAM SHATNER, DUDE.

Anyway, there’s this one scene where Gracie comes backstage at the pageant in a panic, because the FBI shut down the investigation and Michael Caine is no longer there to help her and she’s getting blush and lipstick mixed up, and Miss Rhode Island turns to all the other contestants and shouts LADIEEEEES! And they all drop their cutthroat competitiveness and swarm to help poor Gracie get ready for the show.

I am bringing this up because: LADIEEEEEEEES!

I don’t have any answers for you, Scott, as I haven’t been through a divorce or separation and would probably feel just like you do if it happened: crushed, unprepared and kind of flailing when it came to helping my children through it. I’d probably buy some books and do a lot of Googling and finger-chewing before turning to the Good People of the Internet for first-hand advice and support. Which you’ve just done, and I have a hunch you’ve come to the right place.

It sounds like you’ve taken some good first steps, as far as I can tell: the books, the pre-separation talks, the honesty. You probably already know the big divorce no-no’s: Negative talk about her mother, placing blame, failing/forgetting to co-parent, overcompensating for your guilt with toys! and trips! and changes in routine! and MORE TOYS! And you probably already know that no matter what you do, this IS going to be hard on your daughter. And you.

I think it’s really okay to embrace and accept that reality, and let your daughter know that it’s okay to be sad and it’s normal to be a little scared. Daddy’s sad and a little scared too, but he loves you so much and you make him feel happy and safe. What can Daddy do to make you feel happy and safe? Putting on a brave face 24-7 can be really draining, and while obviously we don’t want to freak our kids out with uncontrollable bursts of sobbing or wall-punching, you CAN have honest, controlled talks about how you feel with a three-year-old. She’s probably becoming very aware of her emotions and other people’s emotions, even if she struggles to really understand them or even correctly identify them.

Noah’s teachers noticed that he was having trouble “reading” the emotions and facial cues of other people, and thus unable to predict how his behavior would make them feel, so we made felt faces that allowed you to change eyes and mouths to convey different feelings (happy, sad, angry, scared, etc.). We used the face while reading books or talking about things that happened during the day — your daughter might really benefit from something like this. At bedtime, when you read her the divorce stories or talk about the separation or even about fun, happy things that you did that day, have her think about her feelings and use the felt face (or just different faces drawn on cards, or whatever) to pick which emotion she experienced. This will give her a tool to tell you guys how she’s feeling so you’re not always guessing or worrying that she’s internalizing a lot of fear, anger, sadness, etc.

And now? LADIEEEEEESSSS. It’s your turn. Any words of advice or comfort you can offer Scott and his daughter?

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

icon icon
chat bubble icon

Comments

newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Daisy
Guest

While my parents are happily married, I can’t say the same for my friends. One “memory” they had that I recall them telling me about was having a small child-sized duffle bag with their name/monogram put on it. While they had lots of “doubles” (a blankie at Mom’s/a blankie at Dad’s) they could put their most valued possessions in THEIR bag and take it back and forth, even if it was just a favorite box of crayons or book. I’d also suggest some sort of “show-and-tell” routine, i.e. every time you pick her up, let her “show” you something out… Read more »

TK
Guest
TK

My parents divorced when I was 4. I can tell you that one of THE most important things you and your wife can do for your child is to be kind to each other, speak well of each other, hide from her any anger you have at each other, and try to focus on the good things that you loved and still like about each other. (And if you get a new woman in your life down the road, do NOT EVER make your daughter feel like she somehow has to choose between her mom and your new lady.) I… Read more »

Austin
Guest

My step-sister just finalized her divorce and they have a two-year-old. Her ex is very angry and we suspect that he’s not hiding his anger in front of my niece very well, as she comes home pretty upset and clingy (we’re sure there is no abuse, he just has anger mgmt issues and is probably more volatile than usual and of course niece is picking up on it) after her visits with him. My step-sister is an amazing mom, very patient and loving and calm, and I think that it really helps to ground my niece that mom is always… Read more »

Floyd
Guest
Floyd

I hope I can help a little. Not only did my parents divorce when I was 8, I have been a practicing divorce attorney for 14 years. By far, I think the best thing you can do for your daughter is to try and work out a good relationship with her mother. The most successful divorced couples communicate regarding the child and are flexible with each other. In the long run, your daughter will get the benefit of your “team parenting”. It sounds like you and your wife are already working like that and I just urge you to keep… Read more »

DCEmily
Guest
DCEmily

I too have never been divorced, and my parents were divorced after I went away to college, so this may well qualify as assvice, as Amalah so accurately describes it… but here goes. My brother-in-law and his wife were divorced when their little boy was under two – so most of my thoughts are reflections on that situation. For him, the most important thing that was lost -and the thing that’s had the greatest negative impact in his life – has been the lack of routine. When parents have joint custody – and especially when they don’t get along or… Read more »

VAgirl
Guest
VAgirl

I’ve never been divorced, but my parents divorced when I was 4 (and then my mom divorced again when I was 11.) I just want to echo the idea that your relationship with your soon to be ex wife should be as civil as possible. Of all the mistakes my parents made, they never said a bad thing about each other in front of me or my brother and never made us choose one or the other. They also worked together to try and get us in a routine (every other weekend and specific holiday routines with each parent) to… Read more »

Me
Guest
Me

I will try to add something that others have not because I am in agreement with the other comments. My parents divorced when I was 12, and my sister was 5. In my opinion, we grew up with two different sets of parents. My sister’s set of parents were better parents. Let me describe her set: They partnered on driving, taking her to friend’s homes and school activities. They were civil to each other and sat next to each other at school functions. One year when my father didn’t have anywhere to go, he came over for Thanksgiving dinner. We… Read more »

M
Guest
M

My parents divorced when I was a toddler. Growing up I HATED shuttling between their houses. It’s a pain in the ass, and when I was very little it got to the point where I was scared and depressed to go to my dad’s because it was so unfamiliar. You guys should seriously consider being the ones to swap houses instead of making your daughter do it. I knew a couple that did that once and I thought it was a brilliant way to help a child feel comfortable through such a scary process.

Jamie
Guest
Jamie

My parents got divorced when I was 7 yo so hopefully I can give you some insight.  I agree with DCEmily on the routines and schedules.  It is MUCH easier if the rules are consistent between households and that your custody arrangement is a schedule not some arbitrary 50-50 who knows where I will be today situation.  My father had us every Wednesday night and every other weekend.  We knew where we were going to be, we knew what time we were being picked up, we knew who would drop us off, period.  Was there a little wiggle room?  Of course, but consistency… Read more »

Jaymee
Guest
Jaymee

Although I am not divorced, my parents are and they just so happened to have gotten divorced when I was 3. I hope if you or anyone else reads my sotry it can help. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really remember a whole lot from when they were married because I was so young. I remember they would shout at eachother alot and I remember the day my Mom packed all three of us up in the car and told my Dad that he needed to pack his things and be out of the house by the time we… Read more »

Lise
Guest
Lise

My marriage ended when my youngest child was five. My kids adjusted really well, probably because my ex and I had an amicable relationship. I had to work hard to avoid saying negative things about him – I sometimes felt that I was going to bite my tongue in two and I’m sure he felt the same way. But it’s been worth it in the long run. I also think it’s important to recognize that your daughter is going to miss whichever parent she is not with. Maybe she could call the other parent at the same time every day… Read more »

J
Guest
J

Wow, all I kept seeing was how her weight gain keeps getting referenced. I’d stay depressed too if I spent years fighting through depression only to find my husband couldn’t accept me as I now was. Sounds like she’ll be better off with another support system (one that doesn’t have to have a therapist tell him to help out).

Christen
Guest
Christen

I am likely the dissenting voice here on the “be consistent with the house rules!” idea, but please hear me out. I know this may not be as big of an issue since you are splitting 50-50, but since your ex sounds like she trends toward the, uh, unbalanced, YOU may need to be The Strict One. And that’s OK. My parents split when I was 5 and while there were basic rules that applied at both homes, my mom’s place was ALWAYS more consistent, slightly more strict (but certainly not abusive or unreasonable) and to this day I am… Read more »

BH
Guest
BH

Haven’t you heard of “for better or worse”? YOU decided to have a child with your wife. You married her. Be a man and suck it up and work it out. So she has issues now with depression and weight gain — heck it took me about 5 years after having kids to feel halfway normal again! If my husband would have bailed back when I needed him the most — to help me through a tough time after having kids — he would have missed out on the many years later when I finally got back to my “normal”… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

I’m also in agreement with the don’t say anything negative about your ex comments, no matter how hard it is. My parents divorced when I was 7 and I’m still grateful to them for recognizing how important that was. Everything else helped, the consistent visit times, similar discipline, carting a HUGE garbage bag of stuffed animals back and forth so my bed would feel like home, but the part I remember the most is the fact that neither one had a bad thing to say about the other. Though now that I’m a grown-up (31), my mom’s definitely not censoring… Read more »

sarah
Guest
sarah

I haven’t been divorced, but my parents got divorced when I was under 3 and shared custody. And while of course I don’t remember the early years of the arrangement very well, I think it was mostly fine with me. My folks were careful to be neutral to positive about each other, and keep my routine as stable as possible. I don’t remember being particularly upset about moving back and forth, and I really liked double birthdays and holidays. My advice would be to hang in there, take care of yourself, and wait the worst of it out. Your daughter… Read more »

A divorced adult kid
Guest

Sweet Jaysus don’t bad mouth one another. My parents ALWAYS do that and you’ve got no idea the emotional problems is causes. I hate my fiance’s exwife but as far as my stepkids know why we’re best buddies! Don’t try to compensate for the divorce with trips, toys, or anything else you wouldn’t normally give her like staying up late. If your exwife tries to argue with you in front of your child, it is imperative that you remove her from the childs hearing and sight. His ex tried to scream at him for something in front of the kids,… Read more »

D
Guest
D

My parents split when I was five and it was a long long drawn out divorce with a lot of rancor on both sides. 1. Make sure your child knows and is always reassured that it is not her fault, at all. 2. Let her know she is the best thing that came our of your marriage, and that you both love her even if you are not in love with one another any more. 3. Put her in therapy, it helps to have a safe place and people to speak with that are uninvolved. For little kids they do… Read more »

Ariella
Guest
Ariella

I think the advice given by the above posters is right on, the most important being “don’t badmouth her mother.” I see from the way you wrote this letter to Amy that you’re still feeling very emotional about your divorce, which is to be expected. I will say that I see some hostility toward your soon-to-be-ex in the writing. If you have not yet begun therapy, my second recommendation is for you to get into a therapist’s office and start dealing with your own issues. Hopefully no one sees the recommendation as harsh, but I feel it needs to be… Read more »

christina
Guest
christina

Don’t badmouth her mom.
Get into therapy pronto. Don’t overcompensate by spoiling yoru daughter. Don’t introduce her to ANYONE you’re dating for the first several years, and then only if it is very very serious. And my opinion is to NOT move in with anyone you’re not marreid to once you have kids. Every single situation I have seen where a divorced parent has done that (especially in the early years), has added so so so much stress to the chil(ren) involved.

z
Guest
z

Be ready for the fact that the pain and loss of divorced parents does not necessarily go away for the child.  Instead, in each stage of life, the divorce affects the child differently, usually in a negative way.  It’s very inconvenient and expensive to be an adult child of divorced parents, and disappointing because it cuts into the time spent with each parent.  There’s a lot more travel, horribly awkward family events, a lot of split-up vacations, your grandchildren won’t get as much time with you, etc.  In particular, it’s very difficult to care for two elderly parents in two… Read more »

France
Guest
France

I am also a child of divorced parents, and was 3 when my parents split, so fall into that category of those who don’t actually remember their parents ever being together. I would second many of the things said above, especially by D and TK, with maybe extra stress on the following points: (1) No bad-mouthing the other parent, even if you have reason to (unless we’re talking child abuse, obviously). My parents were NOT even civil to each other, and I really blame them for not making that effor in my presence. (2) I very much agree that, while… Read more »

D
Guest
D

Sorry, one last thing. Never ever mention your ex wife’s weight to your daughter. Even if she loses weight and you notice, don’t say anything. Don’t say anything if she gains more weight. I get that the weight gain can be an easy way to illustrate a number of on-going problems, but your daughter won’t be able to see that. Honestly, if you want to take one step towards avoiding eating disorders for your daughter, let it go. A message that men will leave you if you gain weight is not a good message for little girls.

Natalie
Guest
Natalie

I want to second D on her advice to never mention your wife’s weight to your daughter. Ever. My father left my mother when I was younger after several years of my mother dealing with depression and weight gain. I see now that the depression was a bigger reason and there were other underlying issues. However as a child I saw that daddy left mommy because she got fat and daddy married (my step mother) because she is thin and pretty. Even if that is a child’s WAY OVER SIMPLIFICATION of the truth I rarely speak to my father 20… Read more »

pb
Guest
pb

It is incredibly hard to recognize when you can’t be part of a relationship anymore, especially when it is something as amorphous as mental illness. People will often wonder why you couldn’t just “stick it out” or save the “sick person”, but there is a point where you must recognize that your own – and your daughter’s – mental health must come first. Emotional illness of one’s partner can be as detrimental as addiction or abuse (and sometimes swings in that direction), but is often harder to explain to others. A therapist can help you, both with your own issues… Read more »

lisa marie
Guest
lisa marie

I want to applaud Amy & the overwhelming majority of commenters for refusing to engage in demonizing Scott for his decision to divorce. I am bipolar, and while I enjoy the love, friendship, and comfort of my partner, I am also Very Medicated. I am high-functioning, but I do have times when I employ avoidance techniques such as sleeping, overeating, and spending. I want to point out that in my experience, the weight gain is a symptom of the overarching disease. Were I to lose weight, becoming anorexic or bulemic, a lover’s gaze would likely focus still on the symptom.… Read more »

Susan
Guest
Susan

I can’t help but worry about your daughter when she is with your wife and you are in your new home. You all are splitting custody, which means your daughter will be spending half her time with her mother. I’m sure her mother loves her, but can she care for her? You mention that there have been times when you’ve done the bulk of childcare. Is your wife going to be able to keep your daughter safe, well-fed, and happy while she’s in her care? Before I became a parent, I would have been quick to dismiss a “stay married… Read more »

Suzy Q
Guest
Suzy Q

Hi, there. My parents divorced when I was 3. I agree with TK above. I have no real “trauma” from having had divorced parents. It was only in my late teens that I began to wish that I had come from an intact family, in a wishful-thinking kind of way. I also knew my sister and I were better off that they didn’t stay together “for the kids,” when I was able to view them as individuals. I don’t agree with everyone who says to put your child in therapy right away. She really may not need it, and why… Read more »

Bethany
Guest
Bethany

My parents divorced when I was 23. They had been unhappy for most of my childhood but stayed married because of us kids. I wish they would have divorced much earlier than they did. Yeah, it would have been hard, but in the long run, we all could have been happier sooner. Now, 4 years later, my parents have both remarried. My sisters and I are emotionally scarred and are all terrified of being in bad marriages that end in divorce. That said, your daughter will likely not remember the family dynamic pre-divorce. If you know it’s inevitable, better to… Read more »

Denise
Guest
Denise

It seems like today everyone is getting divorced, so I’m not surprised that most of the comments are all hoo-rah divorce is fine. I liked the above comment about the parents needing to be the ones that go back and forth and the kid can stay in the house. Going by the description, I don’t understand how you think you can live with yourself to leave your daughter alone with the wife. The way the divorce seems to work out is that 50% of the time the kid has to deal with mom’s issues but you get to run away.… Read more »

Ann
Guest
Ann

I am going to disagree with those folks who say not to get divorced, based on my experience as a 40-something woman whose parents stayed together until the kids were grown up. I was in my late 20’s when they finally divorced. All through my teens I wished they would divorce. They never fought, though. Everything was quiet and behind closed doors. Things I never learned as a child: how to disagree, how married people who loved each other behaved, how parents worked together (every birthday and Christmas I got gifts from him and gifts from her and didn’t realize… Read more »

Sarah
Guest
Sarah

My first husband and I split up when my children were 1 and 3. I have always had primary custody, so my experience is a little different from what you are going through. When we first split up, we made every effort to be civil in front of the kids, even though there was a lot of anger on both sides. We didn’t bad mouth each other and we put a stop to it when our families did. I know consistency is important for small children, but you can have consistent routines at both homes without those routines being the… Read more »

Heidi
Guest

For the comments that demonized you for divorcing…I *wish* vehemently that my parents would’ve divorced. They have both told me they wanted to when my sister and I were 5 but “stuck it out.” More like “fought it out”. They were HORRIBLY passive aggressive to each other in our presence, and there’s nothing like waking up at midnight because SURPRISE! Mommy & Daddy are screaming AGAIN. Also: her own space and tradition is vital here. For example, my stepkids have their own rooms and every Sunday morning we all make breakfast together. They have their *own* space that they can… Read more »

Ashley
Guest
Ashley

I agree with all the commenters here (except for the ones badmouthing and advocating staying together. So not the issue at hand!)  There is one thing I don’t agree with though: don’t have the “it’s not your fault, you didn’t cause this” conversation unless she exhibits signs of feeling to blame. I was a child with divorced parents. I never once wondered if I was to blame, and had they brought it up I probably would have started obsessing over why they said that and if I really WAS to blame. I know she’s unlikely to obsess over anything right… Read more »

Harriet
Guest

This has been so helpful to me, everyone. My husband and I separated about a year ago. We have a beautiful three year old son. Sometimes, we are just not sure what the best arrangement should be with regard to custody. It’s often so hard to know how it’s all going to turn out for our son. Consequently, I worry a lot about it all.  Currently, we have a one week on, one week off arrangement. It seems to be working all right. One issue: our son cries whenever dad picks him up from daycare and asks to go to… Read more »

Charles
Guest
Charles

I’m going to share my experiences as a step-dad. My two step kids are 6 and 2, respectively. The son, 6, is old enough to know that his parents are divorced. The daughter is two and will be 3 this year, so half the time, she calls me daddy. Most people have told me I am crazy for taking this family on, but I find that it actually brings me a lot of joy. The kids (seem) to adore me, and the son and I get along especially well. The daughter is in that phase where she generally wants only… Read more »