Childhood fears - whether of the dark, the bogyman or being left at school without a parent - are normal expressions of the most fundamental conflict of the young: the simultaneous desire for independence and protection.
"When a divorce occurs, those classic childhood fears often become more pronounced because home base no longer feels secure," says Dr. Joan Zuckerberg, a psychotherapist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and co-author of "Difficult Questions Kids Ask (And Are Too Afraid to Ask) About Divorce." But experts say there are steps parents can take to keep a youngster's anxieties under control and ease the transition after a divorce.- At some point, all kids are afraid of being abandoned, but when parents separate, the fear of being left alone becomes all too real. Kids may assume that since one parent has left, the other will, too. Suddenly, a child's natural desire to explore the world becomes tainted by the anxiety of being left at home with no one.
To a child who feels deserted, a detailed explanation of where you're going when you leave the house can make all the difference. And post your ex's phone number and photo on the refrigerator. Concrete images remind kids that even when parents aren't present, they still exist and are thinking of the child.
- During a divorce, a normal fear of monsters can leave a child feeling as if "bad guys" are an actual threat. She might develop exaggerated real-life fears, such as, "Will Mom be able to fight off an intruder?"
Telling a child what you've done to secure her safety ("I checked the doors and locked the windows") will help her rest easier. With an older child, work out the details of what to do if there's an emergency. Review how to call the police and how to contact a neighbor or relative.
- Kids often harbor a kind of romantic love for a parent of the opposite sex. And while a child might feel some guilt over these desires, the "rejected" parent serves as a buffer for these emotions. A divorce can leave a child fearing that it was those feelings that chased the parent away.
Though kids experiencing a divorce need extra care, ultimately a child feels safer when rules and boundaries are in place. If your child is constantly asking to cuddle, play a game at the kitchen table sometimes instead.
The world can seem like a threatening place to a youngster. Alleviating a child's fears helps her see that divorce will change, but not weaken, her base.