Expert Q&A: Toddlers and Divorce




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Have a child behavior question you want answered by Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman? Click here to send her an e-mail. Selected questions will be answered and posted online.

My four year old daughter is a darling child. She is typically very agreeable and very lighthearted. Her father and I went through a divorce 18 months ago and it was bitter. She would throw fits when she had to take visitation with him to the point of uncontrollable crying, angst and beating her head on the windows or anything she could find. He left in October for a military deployment. I could not get her to speak with him on the phone. I asked if he would try Skype (video calls) and it worked successfully, however, he can only do it on rare occasions. He instead calls her and she refuses to speak with him. During this time, she has begun having horrible outbursts and tantrums for no apparent reason. I have tried time out, naughty chair and talking it through with her but they have become more frequent. My question is two fold. Is there anything I should be doing that I am not to get her to speak on the telephone with her Dad (have I pushed to hard to get her to do this and is this causing the tantrums)? Is there anything I can do about the tantrums or should I have her seen by a child psychologist? –Sonya

Hi Sonya,

It sounds like you have a child who is feeling the stress and confusion that is associated with any type of change in the family system, albeit divorce, arrival of a new sibling, moving to a different town etc. The bottom line is, divorce is hard for children as well as parents, even if it’s for the better.

Unfortunately, since the dynamics of every family is different, the reasons for why one child may act out in school whereas another child may throw a temper tantrum, depends on many factors. Some of the questions that stand out to me are things like, the child’s temperament (in general), how they typically cope with stress (i.e., talk about it, act out, close-up), the cohesiveness of the family system prior to the divorce, and the type of relationship the child had with the parent prior to the divorce, to name a few. It is not a bad thing that your child is having a reaction, as this is a huge change. At least she is trying to tell you that something is upsetting her.

It’s also important to remember that young children “act out” when experiencing stress, as they can’t express their feelings and emotions the same way adults do (even adults choose to act out as opposed to just saying how they feel—we are all guilty of that).  I applaud your efforts in trying to foster a relationship with your child and her father. This is important! However, although this is a priority, it sounds like the more you push, the more she resists. You mentioned that she does not want to speak with him on the phone, but will participate in video calls. Let’s take a step back. Although you seem concerned that she is resisting a relationship with her father, it kind of seems the opposite to me. Hear me out… if she really did not want to speak or hear from him, it would not matter whether it was on the phone or video. That is, she would likely refuse both. Rather, it seems that she wants to stay connected with him, but maybe the phone is too intangible.

Actually seeing him may be more concrete and easy for her to connect with him. You may be asking, then why did she refuse visitation with him. Well, there could be many reasons. Without knowing a lot about their relationship, it’s hard to say. Maybe she was unsure about what was going on and could not make sense of the situation. Regardless of the potential countless reasons, let’s stick with what works. Video calls may be a good halfway point for her to start connecting with dad again. I know that this is not always possible (given the information you provided), but right now, it may be the way to go—even if that means it is less frequent.

If the video calls are more of a positive experience for her, don’t you think it’s much better for her to have infrequent positive experiences than a lot of up’s and down’s between using the phone and video calls. I am not suggesting that phone calls are out of the question, but if you keep on pushing her to do something she is clearly resisting, you will likely get nowhere fast. Maybe you can work up to a phone call and start with what works now. I would not go as far as to say that you caused the tantrums because you pushed too hard for the phone calls. Chances are, she was going to have a reaction to something sooner or later. However, pushing her to do something she is not comfortable will likely exacerbate the tantrums.

So, whenever its feasible, perhaps you should continue with the video calls and in the meantime, explore other ways of communication such as writing letters, drawing pictures, or even emails. As far as what to do about the tantrums, you are not the first parent to tell me that all the suggestions offered by every doctor just don’t work! I get that completely and know that sometimes the best tools can be ineffective. In your case, it seems like the tantrums began to surface around the time of the divorce. Addressing the tantrums is seemingly a big concern for you, so maybe working on communication may be a good place to start. Children are likely to feel unsure about what their life will look like after their parents split up. It’s important to reassure them and show them that they can continue to count on their parents to provide stability and love throughout their lives. More than anything else, your child want to feel protected and loved.

That is why it is so important to provide reassurance every step of the way. They should know that even though the physical circumstances of the family unit have changed, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both of their parents. You can do all of these things by either verbal communication or non-verbal actions. I just mentioned a few of the verbal communication examples, but the non-verbal actions are just as important. Remember, children pick up on your manner, expressions and actions almost more than your words. Offer your physical presence and support by hugging your child, playing a game, or just sitting down together.

I am not suggesting that every child who experiences a divorce needs to see a child psychotherapist. Hopefully, opening up the level of communication will help her. However, sometimes, this can be aided by a working with a professional who is trained to work with children in these circumstances.

Whether or not you seek professional help is something that you have to gauge. I will say that sometimes children find it beneficial to have a place (other than their parents) where they can feel safe to work out some of the things they are experiencing. For example “play therapy” is a technique whereby the child’s natural means of expression, namely play, is used as a therapeutic method to assist him/her in coping with emotional stress or trauma.  It has been used effectively with children who have an understanding level of a typically developing three to eight year old, who are; distraught due to family problems (e.g., parental divorce, sibling rivalry).

Hopefully, some of this information will help lead you in the right direction. Always remember that you know your child best. I wish you the best of luck!

About Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman:

Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman is a licensed psychologist in the state of New Jersey and New York. She completed her residency training at New York University Langone Medical Center-The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine, which is an accredited program by the American Psychological Association. Thereafter, she completed a two-year fellowship specializing in Pediatric/Adult Neurospychology. Dr. Grafman’s education and training is unique in that it has afforded her the opportunity to serve children, adolescents, young adults, and families at the individual and group therapy level, as well as providing psycho-educational and neuropsychological assessment. Dr. Grafman currently maintains a private practice in Ridgewood and Closter, New Jersey. If you would like to discuss the contents of the articles on this site or have questions about services, you can contact Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman directly at the Center for Neuropsychology & Psychotherapy, LLC in Ridgewood & Closter, New Jersey at (201) 252-2528 or www.neuropsychandtherapy.com 


Have a child behavior question you want answered by Dr. Melissa Fiorito-Grafman? Click here to send her an e-mail. Selected questions will be answered and posted online.