Helping Babies Deal with Divorce
Simple tips help small children cope when parents split up
The Motherlode blog recently delved into the issue of how to help preschool-aged kids cope with their parents’ divorce. But what about children who are even younger? We asked some experts to weigh in on what divorcing parents can do to ease the transition for babies and young toddlers.
For starters, according to Bari Weinberger, managing partner of the New Jersey-based divorce law firm Weinberger Law Group, and herself a mom of a 2-year-old, “Don’t get your children involved in the divorce process. The more involved they become, the more this sets them up for resentment later on.”
This means no heated arguments with your spouse in front of your children (as a recent study shows, babies’ brains—even when they’re asleep—respond to parental squabbles) and resisting the urge to speak ill of your spouse in front of your baby or toddler. “Young children are pretty sharp and you may be surprised by how much they know what’s going on,” says Weinberger.
So what do you say to your little one about your divorce? “Parents often have to explain to their children about how to break things off with a mean playmate, or what they should do when someone treats them unkindly. It is similar when parents need to explain to their child that they are divorcing,” explains David Simonsen, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Lacey, Washington.
As hurt and angry as you and your spouse may feel right now, a unified front is necessary when having this initial conversation. “Both parents should sit with the child and talk very clearly and age appropriately about what is happening.”
The type of divorce you get can also be important, according to Weinberger. Whenever possible, parents should investigate the process of private divorce mediation. Considered a “friendlier” way to end a marriage, a mediated divorce involves both sides meeting with a neutral third party to work out a mutually agreed-upon settlement.
“As parents hammer out an agreement in mediation, it often happens that they finally face the fact that they will have an ongoing relationship as parents. It is a powerful opportunity for former spouses to realize that when it comes to the kids, they can be on the same side: putting their children first,” she finds.
For example, mediation may help breastfeeding moms work out a custody agreement that allows for shorter, frequent visits with the non-custodial parent as a way to help breastfeeding continue. If a clingy toddler seems better off with fewer transitions right now, parents can agree to a custody plan that lasts for a short time (until the separation anxiety phase has passed), and can then meet to mediate a new plan. Having a judge decide your custody plan doesn’t always offer the same flexibility.
And the biggest issue for little kids dealing with divorce? Insecurity. “They may think they caused the divorce, but never voice it,” says Simonsen. But there is an easy solution—as long as both parents are willing
According to Simonsen, “Consistency in schedules is a positive way to keep your child feeling better about a divorce. If they know that after dinner a bath take place and then a story before bed time happens this will provide security for them. The more mom and dads can coordinate things the better.”
“A team approach to co-parenting is invaluable,” agrees Weinberger.
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