Dr. Michelle Golland: With the recent news about Halle Berry and Gabriel Aubry breaking up while raising their 2-year-old daughter, I thought it important to discuss the particular challenge of divorcing at this stage of a child's development.
There's never an ideal time to end a marriage, but the devastating pain that is inevitable for the children does impact kids at varying ages in different ways. For Halle Berry, Denise Richards and Kelly Rutherford, ending relationships with the fathers of their children while the children are still in preschool brings its own unique challenges.
Studies have shown an increased fear of abandonment and insecure attachment in kids whose parents divorce when they are between the ages of 2 and 6. Younger children also seem to blame themselves for their parents' divorce, and also have more fantasies about them reconciling. Since these children grow up with divorced parents, they have few memories of their parents' conflict. They are usually closer to one parent over the other and have an easier time developing healthy stepparent relationships than do kids over 7 whose parents divorce. If they have an absent parental figure, they will harbor anger and resentment toward that parent for a longer period time, which makes creating a healthy relationship with that parent a difficult endeavor.
Years ago, a divorce usually meant that the dad moved out. The kids lived with Mom and visited Dad every other weekend. Now, joint custody is often awarded to parents when both parents desire to raise the children. Depending on the maturity of both parents involved, joint custody can mean, at best, both Mom and Dad sharing the nurturing of their children. At worst, it can mean two parents dividing time with their children 50/50 (as if the children were marital property), with each parent fighting to make sure they get exactly their share. This rigid attitude can complicate the situation, because when dealing with children of divorce, having flexibility around what they need physically and emotionally is key to keeping the peace and harmony that kids need to thrive. Just because custody is fair for the parents does not mean it reflects what is best for the child.
For children who are in preschool, these transitions can be particularly challenging. Moving back and forth between two homes (and possibly daycare) can be unsettling, because kids at this young age require stability to feel safe and secure emotionally. It's important for divorcing parents with very young children to remember that kids need to be able to plant roots even when being moved from home to home. It's crucial that the children don't feel like they are guests in any one place, but rather that they're "living" in both places. If the parents can live very close to each other and make the transitions fluid, flexible and child-centered, it will help these young kids feel emotionally secure. The key to your kids not blaming themselves for the divorce will be your ability to control your anger and resentment toward each other.
Remember: Your children didn't choose to have their world torn apart, so it's your job to create as much stability for them as you can in this confusing, chaotic time.