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Four-Year-Old Starts Misbehaving After Parents Divorce
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.
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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.