Nurturing Toddlers Through Divorce

Nurturing Toddlers Through Divorce

Divorce can be challenging for children of all age groups. However, toddlers and divorce can be an especially challenging combination due to a toddler's unique stage of development.

The toddler age range is usually from 1 year to 3 years of age. During this developmental period there is typically some tremendous intellectual, social, and emotional changes in toddlers who are developing new skills in many areas, including language, thinking and movement and reasoning skills. They are becoming more independent, and are very likely beginning to want to “do it myself”. They want to make more choices on their own. This can mean becoming braver about trying new things—and about testing parental limits too.

Toddlers also have feelings that can be big and overwhelming. They are beginning to learn to understand the feelings of others around them. Assuming that they have been living in an intact family situation, they have likely formed loving attachments with both parents. It can be common for toddlers to have a tough time separating from their parents and they can be highly sensitive to changes in their environment. All of which can be particularly difficult when families are going through a challenging transition and reorganising itself following a decision by the adults to separate.

When supporting your toddler adjust to parental separation it helps to always keep in mind where they are at, from a  developmental perspective.

At 2 - 3 years old your toddler has no ability to understand complex events, limited ability to anticipate future situations or understand and consistently self-regulate their big feelings.

Toddlers also tend to be fairly concrete thinkers and don’t yet have the language skills or vocabulary to always articulately or accurately verbalize their feelings.  This means that if they are struggling with the separation and with no longer seeing both of their parents each day, it unfortunately won’t be as obvious as them reaching out  and saying “This is hard for me. I don’t want this to happen and I’m not feeling okay about any of this”.

Instead their feelings will come out in their behaviour. They will show up through testing limits, big emotional moments, possibly becoming more clingy or unsettled, or regression in terms of developmental milestones, refusal to cooperate with simple requests and may be even more meltdowns over seemingly small things.

You can help your toddler by:

  1. Finding words for their feelings, by noticing their moods, talking to them about feelings and encouraging them to talk. E.g.,  "It looks like you might be concerned that mummy won’t be here to read your bedtime story tonight. That feeling is called worried. Let's figure out a plan to help you with the problem if you are feeling worried."
  2. Make feelings and emotions a part of your every day conversations.
  3. Read books together about children and separation and divorce to encourage conversation and build emotional literacy.
  4. Be aware of your own emotions and take care not to project your own feelings about the separation or your ex-partner onto your child.
  5. When talking to your toddler about family try to project the idea that you and their other parent are still a team (even if in that moment it doesn’t feel like that way).
  6. Where possible, maintain consistency in your toddler’s schedule and day to day routine across both homes.
  7. Create predictability in their life by sticking to any agreements you & your coparent make regarding parenting plans.
  8. Reassure your toddler that they will be cared for and loved, no matter what.

Story of separation

Even though they are very young, toddlers also need you to provide them with an age-appropriate ‘separation story’ to make sense of their world, their feelings and changing family circumstances. They will need to hear this story at different stages of their life, so it will be a narrative that can be updated/added to in a way that makes sense to them depending on their age.

For toddlers, the separation story might be something along the lines of “Mummy and daddy love you very much. But what’s going to happen is that Daddy will live in a different house, and mummy will stay in this house. You will live with mummy, and you will see lots of Daddy too. When you are with mummy, she will take care of you, read you bedtime stories and tuck you in, and give you lots of hugs. And when you are with Daddy, he takes care of you, give you your favourite foods, and give you lots of hugs”. 

Toddlers do not need the details behind the separation or an explanation that lays fault for the separation with one or other of their parents.

Shield them from conflict.

The quality of a child’s experiences in the first few years of life – positive or negative – helps shape how their brain develops. Therefore it is also important is that both you and your coparent do your absolute best to shield your child from any tension, emotional outbursts and ill feelings that might be simmering between the two of you.

Remain mindful that the environment between the two of you and your homes creates a sense of security for your toddler that they need to thrive and develop. If they are exposed to tension or conflict or hostility between their parents, it can shatter their emotional safety net.

Be Positive Role Models.

Additionally, always remain mindful that your toddler is likely watching your every move, especially at changeovers when they see both parent physically together in the same space.

As parents, you and your other parent are your child’s biggest influence and roles models. Do what you can do to ensure that they see both of you treating each other with respect and civility and, hopefully, kindness.


By understanding developmental needs, maintaining routines, fostering effective communication with your coparent, minimising your toddler's exposure to conflict, encouraging emotional expression, and taking care of yourself, you can create an environment that supports your toddler's health and wellbeing even during this challenging time.

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