Preschool Children and Divorce

This page focuses on what preschool children go through when their parents divorce. Check below for other pages about children here on

Preschool children have the least information about their parents’ divorce. Four out of five of them never even are told about the divorce. This leaves them confused and heightens feelings of abandonment. Consequently, some children who are preschoolers when their parents go through divorce are unable to grow and develop normal cognitive skills.

Backing Up

An experience common to preschoolers in their parents’ divorce is regression. Amy was proud that her three-year old daughter Sherikka was thoroughly toilet-trained. After a few bed-wettings, Sherikka had adjusted without difficulty and was truly proud of her lacy “big-girl panties.” When Amy and her husband David began fighting, though, Sherikka began wetting the bed on a regular basis. Amy was puzzled, but she needn’t have been. That’s a logical and predictable result of marriage difficulties. Children whose parents are in conflict regress to thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, and other behaviors their parents assume they’ve outgrown.


Preschool children often fear places, events, or objects they associate with the conflict between their parents. I haven’t witnessed this myself, but therapists and counselors tell me that a child who was wearing a particular shirt when his parents had an argument may develop a morbid and inexplicable fear of that shirt. Or a child who was holding a doll when her daddy left may destroy the doll and be quite unable to explain why she did it.

Generally, preschool children have fears that are harder to explain than those of children at other ages. Questions like “Who will feed Snappy (the dog)?” and “Who will take me to school?” are common. The best way to respond to them is to answer them matter-of-factly. If you don’t know, say so, but be aware that your child still wants to know.

It’s My Fault.

Perhaps the most widespread and debilitating of the reactions preschoolers have to their parents’ divorce is self-blame. Children of all ages tend to assume they are somehow responsible for their parents’ divorce, but preschool children are less able to talk about that perception. Consequently, their self-blame may manifest itself in ways that are bewildering to their parents.

Preschool children whose parents divorce often assume that something they’ve done caused the divorce. Harriett and George were in the middle of what was for them a relatively calm argument when their four-year old son Freddie poked his tear-stained face out from the hall. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I really didn’t mean to hurt anybody.” Freddie had colored in a copy of Parents magazine that had been lying on the coffee table. He was convinced that his parents were arguing because of his reprehensible behavior. You may think Freddie was just a mixed-up kid, but he is disturbingly typical of children whose parents are divorcing.

As a corollary to the perception that their misbehavior caused the divorce or caused a separation, preschool children often believe that if they are REALLY GOOD, everything will be okay again. This can be an incredibly stressful perception for a little kid, because he or she begins to carry on his or her shoulders the burden of getting Mom and Dad back together again.

Things Parents Can Do to Make it Easier:

The most important thing you can do to help your preschool child through this is to be attentive to the possible effects and get help when you need it. Obviously, you should assure your children early and often that the divorce is not their fault and is not about them.

Visits by the noncustodial parent should be short and frequent. Below two and a half years of age, it’s best to avoid overnight visitation if possible. Letters and phone calls are great. If possible (and it usually is possible), encourage the child to carry photographs and other keepsakes of the custodial parent when he or she leaves home to visit with the noncustodial parent. Conversely, encourage the child to keep a photograph of his or her noncustodial parent in a visible place at home.

Here are some other pages about children here on

Helping Your Children Through Divorce Preschoolers – What to Expect
Children and Divorce – What to Expect Elementary Age Children – What to Expect
Child Support Adolescents – What to Expect
Collecting Child Support Adult Children
Your Parenting Plan Depression in Children
Parenting Issues Custody Questions
Tough Words About Kids Parental Alienation Syndrome