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Signs of stress in young children after divorce or separation

Children under the age of six often haven’t reached a stage in their development where they’re able to recognize and articulate how they feel.

If you are separating from your spouse, it’s important to recognize the signs of stress your child may be feeling, so that you can apply calming strategies during this important stage.

Infants and toddlers (ages 0-5)

Different ages groups may react to stressful events, such as a separation or divorce, in different ways. For younger children, such as infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers, reactions to stress may be similar. Some warning signs you may notice include:

  • Separation anxiety or clinginess
  • General irritability, temper tantrums and crying without apparent cause
  • Change in bowel movements
  • Expressions of guilt or shame (if talking)
  • Refuse to sleep, trouble falling asleep, night terrors or trouble staying asleep
  • Tics, coughs, spasms or other irregularly repetitious or uncontrolled behavior
  • Regressed development — Depending on your child’s skill level, this may include a return to crawling, having accidents, playing with infant toys, thumb or pacifying sucking or forgetting words and signals they had already mastered

If you are noticing these signs, your child is reacting to change as expected. Big changes, such as the strong emotions you and your ex-spouse are feeling and the disruption in your child’s regular routine, typically cause high stress.

How to help

Infants and toddlers need positivity, security and constancy. If you and your spouse are divorcing, some of the time it might feel like you can’t provide any of these factors.

And while it’s good for children to learn to embrace and work through negative emotions, at this stage in life, you should only offer stability and support to your child. Try these tactics to reduce your child’s stress:

  • Affection
  • Sticking to a new routine
  • Keep your reactions to their needs predictable/consistent
  • Keep emotions positive in front of your child—discuss unpleasant matters with your ex at other times
  • Kneel or sit at your child’s level
  • Avoid leaving your child with unfamiliar people
  • Spend as much time as your able to with the child

If you are anticipating a divorce, seek the advice of an attorney as soon as possible. An attorney can help prepare you so that you have an understanding of the financial implications of the divorce, the legal documents you’ll need, how custody arrangements typically allocate time for parents of young children and more. With a lawyer by your side, you can remove the stress of legal complexities from your plate and focus on supporting your child through this difficult time.

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