Home > Mom's Life > Marriage and Divorce > Dealing With Divorce > How Divorce Affects Children > Four-Year-Old Starts Misbehaving After Parents Divorce

Expert Iconexpert advice MORE

Four-Year-Old Starts Misbehaving After Parents Divorce

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Shari Nethersole, M.D.

Q: My brother and sister-in-law have separated and are now living in separate cities in California. My four-year-old niece is having a difficult time adjusting, and misses both parents being together as a family unit. She has started to bite and hit, and last week hit at her day care teacher. How can her parents help her to adjust to the separation? I would like to help her but I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, and they are in California. We would appreciate receiving any guidance you can offer.

A: Divorce and separation are difficult for children at any age. One of the common reactions, even in a four year old, is for the child to blame herself. It's also quite common for children to regress and act more babylike. For a four year old this could include actions such at hitting and biting. Children may also use these aggressive behaviors to show their anger or to get attention. It is very important for the parents to make a special effort to be loving and comforting to their child.

An honest (though age appropriate) explanation for why the parents have separated is necessary so that the child has less reason to blame herself ("Mommy and Daddy don't get along with each other anymore, but we both will always love you"). Any anger between parents is likely to be taken on by the child if she is a witness to it. The parents should also avoid making negative remarks about the other parent in the child's presence.

There are a number of books that parents can read that talk about managing children's reaction to divorce. There are also children's books that discuss separation and divorce that either parent can read to/with the child. If you go to your local bookstore and look in the parenting section or in the children's section, you might find a suitable book that you can send to them. If the behaviors continue, your brother and sister in law should talk to their pediatrician. It may be useful for them to see a psychologist, and the pediatrician can refer them if necessary.

More on: Expert Advice

Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks


Healthy Smile Checklist for Kids
Have better dental check-ups with this free printable checklist that helps keep your child flossing, brushing, and smiling! Brought to you by Philips Sonicare.

Kindergarten Readiness App
It's kindergarten registration time! Use this interactive kindergarten readiness checklist, complete with fun games and activities, to practice the essential skills your child needs for this next big step. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

8 Easter Egg Decorating Ideas
Need some fun ideas for decorating Easter eggs with the kids? Look no further for colorful and cool designs!

7 Ways to Curb Kids' Exposure to Violence
American children are exposed to violence more often than you might think. Learn how to limit your child's exposure to violence and manage the mental health and behavioral effects it can cause.