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Toddler's Developmental Needs During a Parental Breakup

by Hannah Wahlig

The trauma of a parental breakup is felt by every family member, even the littlest ones. As young children move out of infancy and into toddlerhood, their increased capacity for understanding verbal and nonverbal communication, expression feelings, and recognizing changes in routine and behavior makes them more susceptible to the effects of a breakup or divorce. However, their developmental capacities also make them more receptive to efforts to meet their concerns. Managing a divorce with a toddler require careful consideration of their developmental abilities and needs.

The Need to Understand

Toddlers are constantly expanding and experimenting with their vocabulary, but they likely don't understand specialized terms like divorce, separation or break-up. When you are explaining the end of a relationship to a toddler, it's best to use simple terms and examples that can be easily understood. For example, instead of saying, "Mom and dad are separating," try, "Mom is not going to live here with us anymore, but you will still spend lots of time with her." Toddlers are able to understand the practical implications of a separation, but they are unlikely to understand why the changes are happening or what they mean. Do not delve into specific explanations; instead, focus on reassuring the child that he is still loved, cared for and very important to both parents.

Expressing Feelings

Toddlers are not particularly skilled at articulating their feelings, but that doesn't mean that they don't experience feelings about a parental breakup. Toddlers are likely to feel confused, angry, sad or afraid, but they may not be able to explain their feelings in words. Instead, they might cry more, throw temper tantrums, stop sleeping through the night or refuse to use a potty and instead insist on diapering. Reassure your toddler that feeling upset is okay, and that you are there for comfort her if she needs extra time for cuddling or quiet play. Because toddlers are highly egocentric, your efforts to calm them should focus on the insistence that they are safe, loved and cared for, rather than focusing on your own well-being.

Attachment and Security

Developing a healthy sense of attachment is a critical element of toddlerhood, and a parental breakup can create anxiety and feelings of abandonment for young children. The quality of a toddler's attachment to each parent or caregiver can impact his emotional health later in life, so fostering feelings of security and closeness with each parent is critical for long-term health. A toddler should be reassured by the primary caregiver that she will have special time with the other parent routinely. Toddlers typically have a poor sense of time, so using phrases like "in a few hours" or "this Wednesday" may not have much meaning to a toddler, and you may have to develop another method of counting the time until the next visit. For example, instead of a few hours, say, "After we have lunch, quiet play time and outside time, Mom will be here to pick you up." For longer stretches, consider setting up a calender and marking off days for special visits.

Practical Considerations

For toddlers, routines are not just about practical planning for the day; routines establish a sense of predictability and reliability that contribute to a security. Maintaining routines as reasonably as you are able during a breakup is important for helping toddlers feel secure. Normal daily activities, like meal times, naps and bedtimes should all remain as close to normal as possible. Behavioral expectations should also stay constant. Though some additional patience and compassion during increased bouts of crying is necessary during a separation, you should keep major house rules, particularly in regards to violent or destructive behavior, in tact. Consistency with rules is particularly important if the toddler will now spend time in two different households. Be clear about expectations for behavior, and enforce rules consistently.

About the Author

Hannah Wahlig began writing and editing professionally in 2001. Her experience includes copy for newspapers, journals and magazines, as well as book editing. She is also a certified lactation counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Mount Holyoke College, and Master's degrees in education and community psychology from the University of Massachusetts.

Photo Credits

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