Effects of Divorce in Preschoolers

How will my divorce affect my infant or preschooler?

Caucasian girl watching movie in theater
Adam Hester / Getty Images

Divorce is a big change for the entire family especially preschoolers. While divorce is upsetting to older children as well the older your child is the more likely they are to have friends with divorced parents. They might not like what is going on but they'll understand more of it. Preschool-aged children have a much harder time understanding divorce and without your guidance, they might wrongly assume they are to blame for their parent's unhappiness.

You will likely notice some of the following behaviors during this time of transition. Remember, though, that you can help your child adjust by modeling the behavior you want to see. Divorce isn't something anyone wants to go through but there are ways to minimize the emotional trauma to your child. Be calm and reassuring, and don’t forget to take care of yourself through this process, as well. Your preschooler needs you!

Possible Effects of Divorce in Preschoolers

  • Imagines that the divorce isn’t real
  • Resists being apart from one or both parents
  • Experiences renewed separation anxiety
  • Displays regression (appearing to have unlearned skills he or she previously mastered)
  • Tries to control what’s happening in order to restore familiarity
  • May be fearful in general, even about things that are not related to the divorce
  • May experience nightmares or night terrors

For many children, the stress of divorce also leaves them anxious about "losing" a parent.

Many of the effects of divorce are caused by this fear of abandonment. Regression, for example, can be an unconscious attempt to show parents the child still needs them. It's important for both parents to continue playing an active and attentive role in their child's life.  Pay attention to your child's anxiety and do your best to provide a stable home environment.


Action Steps for Parents of Preschoolers:

  • Offer stability and a predictable routine
  • Offer reassuring words
  • Smile, cuddle and play together
  • Spend quality time with your child
  • Read together
  • Maintain communication with the non-resident parent
  • Maintain a consistent schedule of parenting time with each parent
  • Use a calendar to help your preschooler anticipate visits with the non-resident parent
  • Allow your child to express his or her feelings
  • Make an intentional effort to take care of yourself, too

Talking to your child about your divorce isn't fun but it's important that you listen to their feelings and anxieties about it. When you understand exactly what about the divorce is bothering your child you will be better equipped to deal with it. Some of their fears you may be able to absolve quickly others may take more reassurance. 

It's also important that you do as much as you can to deal with your own negative emotions surrounding your divorce. Children can often tell when their parents are stressed or depressed and this could be more upsetting to them than the divorce itself. It's also important that you do your best to speak positively about your ex in front of your child. No matter what your relationship with your ex is, that person will always be your child's parent.

You have to respect the importance of their role in your child's life. Venting your frustrations about your ex should be done with your ​friends, not your children.