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The process of divorce can be a very traumatic experience for a young child. Understanding some of the underlying dynamics of a child's thought process can help you make this chaotic time less frightening and disturbing for the child. Remember that I am talking about making a situation less traumatic – not completely eliminating the disturbance. Divorce will always produce some level upheaval for a child.

The two primary stress-producing mechanisms that usually occur psychologically in the child are magical thinking – and fears of abandonment.

Magical Thinking:  A young child still lives in a world of magic and wonder. Wishes can come true – fairies are real – and even a young child can have magical powers. During a divorce, a young child may believe that some bad wish or thought that they may have had about a parent has become true! They may then feel that they are at fault for what is happening. Along with magical thinking, the child may also believe that this is all happening because of their behavior. The child may think that, "Daddy left because I was bad!"  Some children may not even ask about the divorce because of the fear that they might actually find out that it is their fault. These feelings can produce excessive amounts of fear, anxiety, guilt, and self-blame.

Abandonment Fears:  You can expect very high amounts of separation anxiety when the child understands that one of the parents will be leaving the household. Fear of abandonment can be become paramount. The child's inner thought is usually something like, "If Daddy left me – maybe Mommy will leave me too!" These fears are very intense and real for the child.

What can a parent do to help minimize these dysfunctional thoughts? Here are some concrete examples that will help:

1)Tell the child over and over that they are not being punished and that they are in no way responsible for what is happening. Tell them that this is not happening because of anything that they did, said, or may have thought. You cannot say these things too often

2)Be tolerant of unusual behaviors. In an effort to regain some control over their world, the child may become very possessive of their things, or become overly possessive of you. The child may become overly sensitive to real or imaginary illnesses. Fuss over them at these times as much as you can. These behaviors are all aimed at simply getting much needed reassurance that they are still loved and that you are going to continue taking care of them.

Understanding some of these concepts and keeping them in mind can help you to help your child during those difficult times.

**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.


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