Child Custody: Your Preschooler in a Divorce

Child Custody: Your Preschooler in a Divorce

Having a preschool aged child is a lot of work. Getting divorced when you have a preschooler presents even more challenges. This article will help parents make compassionate choices when dealing with their preschooler’s pre-divorce angst and when making child custody determinations.

PRESCHOOLER CONCERN: Am I the cause of your divorce?

Young children see themselves as the center of the universe. It is not unusual for them to believe that their parents’ anger, sadness or divorce is their fault.

How to handle the situation. Divorcing parents need to be aware of this pattern of thinking and consistently reinforce that what is going on in the parents’ marriage is not the child’s fault. Parents need to reinforce that their separation and divorce does not change how much Mom and Dad love them and that nothing will ever change that.

PRESCHOOLER CONCERN: Are you going to abandon me?

Preschooler’s minds work very differently from adult minds. Fantastical thinking, both conscious and unconscious, is common in preschool aged children. Unfortunately, their fantasies and expanding imaginations sometimes take them to dark places, such as a concern that they are about to be abandoned, that their parents no longer love them, or that the family break-up is entirely their fault.

How to handle the situation. Open communication -- which is at their level and consisting of only those facts that will help ease their minds – is essential. Parents must consistently reassure their child that he or she is safe and secure and that the parents’ love is forever.

PRESCHOOLER CONCERN: Are you still my hero?

Children of this age often idealize one or both of their parents. Though this doesn’t usually last, a divorce can step-up the timing of a young child’s realization that his or her parent(s) is not a true hero. This realization can be both painful and traumatic.

How to handle the situation. This is a good time to talk with your young child about “perfection”. Let your preschooler know that no human being is actually “perfect,” but that both of their parents try hard every day to be the best protector they can be and that Mom and Dad’s love and support will never stop.

PRESCHOOLER CONCERN: Are you punishing me?

Young children are not able to fully conceptualize cause and effect. They may believe that their parents’ separation is punishment for whatever “bad deeds” they may have recently committed. Children of this age tend to have a sense of immanent justice – they believe that punishment for bad deeds is inevitable. A family breaking apart could easily be perceived by a preschooler as punishment for something they did wrong (or perceived they did wrong), even though the scale of deed to punishment would seem out of scale and unrelated to most adults.

How to handle the situation. Make sure your child is clear that there is no connection between his or her deeds and misdeeds and the ultimate separation and divorce.

PRESCHOOLER CONCERN: What are you fighting about?

Preschool aged children are very sensitive to open conflict between parents. Their interpretation of events is often more exaggerated and significant then their parents may realize. Even a simple comment, in the context of a tense marriage, may be interpreted by their child as a “big fight.” Children are then left trying to understand the meaning of what was said. With their active imaginations, preschool aged children may create a scenario in their mind which is far worse than what an adult would predict from the same set of circumstances.

How to handle the situation. Do not fight in front of or within earshot of your children. Even small arguments and disagreements, when there is already tension and the threat of separation and divorce in the air, should be dealt without outside of earshot of your young child. If a mistake is made, let your child know that all Mom and Dads have disagreements, just like kids, while reassuring your child that he or she is safe and loved. 


By Lyndsea Seril, Human Development Specialist & Robin Graine, JD, CDFA