Divorce and Toddlers: How to Make Separation Less Stressful

Boundaries and routine are your keys to success.
By:
Chelsea Williams
July 7, 2021
I

got divorced when my son was just one year old. I had no choice but to let go of knowing what he was doing at every moment and share custody with my co-parent for several days at a time. I’d never spent one night away from him until that first visitation exchange. I cried practically all day every time he was gone for the first few months, until I believed he would be OK with the new circumstances.

This may not be your story, but if you got divorced while your kids were very young, you can probably relate to how difficult this is. That’s largely because it doesn’t feel possible to fully explain adult problems to them at this age. There’s no period of life in which ending a marriage is easy, but it can be extra challenging when you’re parenting a toddler.

Dealing with both divorce and toddlers at the same time requires some special considerations. It’s already a lot to worry about temper tantrums and toilet training. How can you possibly handle more stress as you navigate the divorce process?

It’s not an ideal situation, but I’m here to tell you — from personal experience — that you can get through this.

In this article I’ll share some do’s and don’ts for parenting toddlers while separating or divorcing:

  • How to stick to a routine and ease your toddler’s separation anxiety
  • The best way to share expenses for a child this age with your co-parent
  • Tips for answering your child’s questions about their new living arrangements

Maintaining Your Toddler’s Daily Routines

divorce and toddlers: Father and son having fun during bath time


When you split your household in two, it shakes up everyone’s routine for a while. Despite having a parenting schedule in place, the regular back-and-forth can ironically mean you never really get into a routine. That means your children don’t either, and for them it’s harder to handle. For toddlers, unpredictability is even more jarring than it is for older children. Structure equals safety for young ones.

It’s so easy to unintentionally sacrifice routine as a divorced parent of a toddler. Here are some thoughts on how to keep things steady.

Don’t:

Let mealtimes become rushed or associated with stressful moments. It might feel like you don’t have time to sit with your child for each meal now that you’re doing it alone. Hard as it is to make time for this with a messy toddler, meals present an opportunity to pause and connect with them.

Do:

Make a point of having a fun shared meal or favorite treat together. Whether it’s takeout on busy weekday evenings or snacks in the park on weekends, the experience of eating together (with no distractions!) can be fun and memorable for even the youngest children.

Research shows that frequent family meals are tied to fewer negative psychosocial outcomes for children, so you’ll be happy you established this habit now and are more likely to continue it as they get older.

Don’t:

Agree to a co-parent exchange time that’s too late in the day. You don’t want to be getting home after dinner and trying to rush to settle in. Factor in transportation time and your child’s bath and bedtime routines. Think about when you’d ideally like to arrive home and subtract from that time to figure out when to meet.

If the other parent brings them directly to you, share with them how important it is for your child to be there by early evening at the latest. If you get off work late in the evenings, perhaps you can arrange to pick your child up the next morning instead if your co-parenting plan allows for some flexibility.

Do:

Create a bedtime routine and stick to it. Bedtime tends to be when kids are most open to connection. It’s a time of day you know will always happen, so it’s easy to build routine around it.

In the hours leading up to sleep, you can create a short but meaningful set of steps you always do with them. Maybe bath first, story and a bottle, then a song or some soft music. This wind-down routine will become a source of comfort for your child when they’re missing having mom and dad together.

Don’t:

Push your child to continue doing new things if they show signs of resistance. You might’ve gotten so excited when your child recently made big gains in an area of toddler life such as toilet training. Yet, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily stick.

Behavioral regressions are completely normal for any child, and especially when parents divorce. If that means you have to endure a few more months of diapers or ignore their thumb sucking, it’s worth it to protect their mental health. Give your little one some time to adjust to all the changes going on. The big leaps will come!

Do:

Give them time and gentle encouragement for small milestones. After a challenging time like divorce, this is essential for your child to feel a sense of normalcy.

Maybe your toddler is just learning to hold a crayon or open doors by themselves. These explorations of independence offer you a chance to celebrate and have a little bit of fun together after what may have been a serious period of your life. Who says you can’t dance around because they finally got that piece of food on the fork?

Co-Parenting a Child Who Has Separation Anxiety

divorce and toddlers: Mother hugging her crying child


Divorce affects a child’s emotional stages just as much as their physical milestones. Separation anxiety could appear for the first time or pop up again in some cases.

It might make you feel guilty, but there’s no need to worry about this coinciding with divorce. If your child’s been accustomed to living with both parents under one roof, it’s inevitable that they’ll have a reaction to the shift.

The truth is, your kids may never really overcome separation anxiety. That’s not to scare you, but I can tell you my older children still get flustered and upset about having to go to the other parent’s house (and vice versa) nearly every time. As long as I follow the advice below, they recover quickly and know they have a safe place to land emotionally.

Don’t:

Leave without saying goodbye to your child. Some people will advise you to sneak away when your baby or toddler is upset. However, this can make them feel even more afraid because they never know when you’ll suddenly be gone.

You want to retain their trust in this time when emotional safety is of utmost importance. Even if you’re in a hurry, take a moment for a goodbye.

Do:

Reassure your child with a hug and tell them when you’ll be back. Make it short, but stay kind and compassionate. Think about how you’d manage to pull yourself away from your friend or grandparent at the airport. Truly, they need the same things we adults need when we have to separate from loved ones.

Don’t:

Talk about or diminish your child’s fears in front of them. Even if they’re not fully verbal, kids can understand a lot of what’s going on around them.

It’s best not to indicate that the emotions they experience when you leave are somehow wrong. This can lead to a buildup of shame over time and an even harder time moving through this difficult period.

Do:

Be open about upcoming changes to get your toddler prepared. Don’t let new people or places be a surprise. Visit a new facility or caregiver’s house long before the day comes to drop them off.

Separation anxiety may still show up no matter what, but acknowledging that a tough moment is coming is much better for your child’s well-being than avoiding it.

Don’t:

Pick a daycare, preschool, or babysitter without doing your research. If you need new childcare or schooling arrangements because of your divorce, take your time and find the right one. You’d want to do your due diligence always, but I can’t emphasize this one enough during parental separation.

Do:

Choose caregivers you AND your child trust. Sometimes, we think we’ve found the right person to take care of our kids because of their qualifications or affordability, but we haven’t thought about how our kid feels.

Now, obviously you can’t leave huge decisions like this up to a toddler. What I mean here is to watch how they respond to any new childcare providers. The gut instincts of a little one are unmatched, and you’ll be able to tell if something doesn’t seem right.

Handling Shared Expenses for a Young Child

Smiling little girl wearing a tutu and ballet shoes


Keeping kids fed and happy is always expensive, but there are some ages when it seems to be more so. The under-five age range is one of those stretches of a child’s life when your wallet takes a huge hit. Add the pressure of parental divorce and you could potentially have an even longer list of things to pay for.

Here are some guidelines to prepare yourself for the financial part of living with divorce and toddlers.

Don’t:

Commit to expensive activities without consulting your co-parent. Toddlers may not have a ton of these yet, but even a tumbling class or beginner soccer team could cost a lot of money.

Depending on the details of family law in your state and how your court case is finalized, you could have a specific procedure to follow about financing extracurriculars. Abide by it without exception!

Do:

Suggest new activities using a convenient co-parenting app. If you’re filled with dread at the thought of talking money with your co-parent, you’re definitely not alone. I’ve been there so many times! I wish there had been a better alternative to drawn-out email exchanges at the time.

Luckily, now there is. With an app dedicated to making expense sharing easier for co-parents, it just takes a few taps to send a request or agree to a shared expense. No need to worry about how to phrase it or keep track of what you’ve agreed to, and no more nagging or being nagged about reimbursements.

Don’t:

Get too attached to brand names of food or other toddler supplies. Your child is probably going to eat, wear, and use different things at each house.

You may be partial to that organic food or adorable night light, but the reality is that your child just may not be able to have it at their other home. There could be some items your former spouse doesn’t have access to or doesn’t agree to use. It can be so hard not to worry about these details, but divorce can be an exercise in letting go.

Do:

Let the other parent know about any dietary changes, allergies, or other physical challenges that could affect shared costs. There will be times when your child needs something specific, such as a certain dairy-free milk. If it’s been recommended by a pediatrician or other professional, be sure to get some documentation to share with your co-parent.

If they aren’t able to afford a new product or medication, but you can, perhaps you could offer to chip in a greater percentage of the cost to maintain consistency for your child (or vice versa).

Answering Your Little One’s Questions

Father and daughter holding red mugs and smiling at each other


Some people make the mistake of thinking that toddlers or preschoolers aren’t equipped to ask any meaningful questions. Those people have never been around a verbal child with divorced parents!

Even your very young toddler will communicate all their emotions to you without words. They’ll tell you they’re upset about the divorce through crying and other signs of emotional distress.

However, if your child is old enough to string together a few words or basic sentences, there might be some more awkward moments coming. Get prepared for those talks by reading my final set of do’s and don’ts about divorce and toddlers.

Don’t:

Avoid saying the word “divorce” or mentioning your family’s circumstances. We know that our kids can see what’s going on around them, so it’s easy to assume it’s enough to just go about life without addressing the obvious. But guess what? That’s not going to be enough to maintain a solid parent-child relationship in the long run.

Do:

Normalize conversation about the divorce. Try to be mindful of the tone of your response to a tough question, including body language and facial expressions. If you’re open and willing to answer questions at this age, you’ll set a precedent of being there to talk about it as they grow.

Children of divorce will always have a lot of questions, and you should aim to make them feel like that’s perfectly fine.

Don’t:

Assume your toddler is having a hard time. When you’re conscious of their needs, your child could actually adjust quite well. Especially if your home life was worse for them when you were married, divorce could prove to be a blessing for the entire family.

Stay aware of your child’s emotional state and telltale behaviors, but try not to invent issues that aren’t there.

Do:

Seek outside help if you don’t know how to talk to your child about divorce. The best resources can often be other people who’ve been in your shoes, so consider looking for local or online support groups.

You might even find another divorced parent in a totally unrelated place, like an exercise class or volunteer activity. Part of maintaining a high standard of self-care is being able to ask for help when you need it.

Yes, You Can Live Through Divorce With Toddlers

It’s true that getting divorced when you have younger children comes with huge challenges, but have you thought far enough into the future to think about the advantages?

I’m here from the future — as a person who’s been divorced for over a decade — to tell you there are some positives. Namely, your toddler isn’t going to remember a time when you weren’t divorced. You also have a longer period of time to work out the kinks with your co-parent before you have really big decisions (driving! dating! college!) to deal with.

So, as long as you commit to a routine, stay open to your kids’ questions, and work to keep a positive relationship with their other parent, you could be surprised at how well your family makes it through. Ultimately, embracing the responsibilities of parenting a toddler can help you experience tremendous personal growth and build a happier life for yourself.

Download the Onward App today!

Chelsea Williams

Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.