A typical question about regression sounds something like this: “My daughter is four and we just told her last week that Daddy will be moving out. He has been gone for two days now. Since then, she has started to say she is the baby and use a baby voice. She even had her first potty accident in over a year. What is going on and how can I help her?”
When children are under stress or feel anxious, their behavior often regresses. You might have heard or experienced this happening when a new baby sibling arrives. During a divorce, small children become anxious about all the unexpected change in their families, and are not sure who will take care of them. Children unconsciously think that if they act like babies, they will be more likely to get cared for. Additionally, babies are not expected to make any choices or act in ways that are too difficult for them, like choosing one parent’s side over the other’s. Any potty accidents or disrupted sleep could be related to a child’s desire to be a cherished baby again, or it could be related to her increased level of anxiety immediately following the news of the divorce.
It’s important to reassure your child that your love is as strong as ever, and hopefully your child’s other parent will do the same. The news of your divorce undoubtedly came as a huge shock to your small child; there is no toddler or preschooler who can conceive of divorce as the result of even tremendous amounts of conflict. Therefore, a small child who is regressing may be feeling extremely confused and frightened.
Here are some things to tell your child, again and again:
- When, exactly, your child will next see each co-parent (if you don’t know, try for when she will be able to talk to her other parent on the phone)
- That your child will have a home with each parent
- Whether her school and activities will remain the same
- That you and her co-parent will always love her, and will always be her mommy and daddy
- That you love your older child now as much as you did when she was a baby
Emphasize that divorce is nobody’s fault, and explain, even if you already have, that Mommy and Daddy decided they don’t want to live together anymore because they don’t get along, but that parents and children never get divorced. You can also explain that your child is a big kid now, but you still love to cuddle and hug her just like you did when she was a baby.
Reassure your child that anything she is feeling now is fine, including sad or mad, and that you are her whenever she wants to tell you about what she feels. This would also be a good time to read a picture book about divorce with your child, which can help open up a discussion about divorce and your child’s feelings.
If your child is exhibiting regression, allow her to continue in this “baby” phase for a while. Avoid showing annoyance or irritation and try to accept that this is the way your child is dealing with her sadness and worry. Giving your child extra love, reassurance, cuddles, and one-on-one playtime at this time will make a world of difference in showing that your divorce will not change your loving relationship.
Samantha Rodman – How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce p.137