Divorce is tough on parents and kids, even when it’s the best choice in the long run. Your 5-year-old, however, isn’t looking at the long run. What she sees is one person she loves going away or that she now is bounced back and forth between parents like a shuttlecock. Even the best-intentioned parents who are trying to keep the divorce as civil as possible are likely to be stressed, and her needs may temporarily take second place. It’s no wonder that she’s acting out – her world is suddenly very different.
Keep it Private
Do your best to keep your child out of the divorce process. Don’t involve her in arguments – ideally, don’t ever let her hear a cross word between the two of you. The trouble is that’s not the real world. You are going to lose your temper or your spouse will lose his. One will criticize the other where your child can overhear. Explain to your child that angry people sometimes say hurtful things, just as she sometimes says “I hate you” to her best friend when she’s mad at him.
Do start talking about your decision to divorce as soon as possible. Be honest and use language that she understands. “Daddy and I just can’t seem to get along and we fight a lot.” It’s hard not to waver back and forth during the initial separation process, but if you vacillate, you could make your child’s anxiety worse. Keep repeating that she hasn’t done anything wrong, that she can’t fix the problems and that you will not stay together no matter how many times she asks.
Your Child's Concerns
Let your 5-year-old talk about her feelings, positive and negative. She may be angry with one or both of you – which could certainly affect her behavior. Expect even more “why” questions than usual, as there are many details your child may be fretting about that you haven’t even considered, such as whether her snuggle-bunny blanket will stay here, go to Daddy’s new house or travel back and forth. Consistent routines at both homes will also help her feel more secure.
Children Need Both Parents
Your child loves Daddy. Even if Daddy is an unfit parent, odds are she still loves him – she just wants him to be a better parent. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of their relationship. Resist the urge to roll your eyes if he does something you don’t approve of. Don’t make your child feel guilty because she wants to see Daddy. Keep reassuring her that both of you still love her.
When to Get Help
Most kids gradually become accustomed to the new norm, especially if parents can put their own differences aside in favor of their child's needs. If your child continues to act out, withdraw or otherwise behave in a way that causes concern, get counseling. Ideally, the whole family should go, with the aim of making things easier on your child, but even if your soon-to-be-ex refuses, take your child and go yourself.