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Children's Health

How will leaving me affect my daughter?



My 11 month old daughter`s father and I are going through a custody battle. She was with him for 3 weeks and came home a week ago (I have primary physical custody). Now, she is clinging to me, not wanting me to leave her alone. A temporary custody order was issued stating that she is to go back with him next month for 3 months. How will this affect her mentally and emotionally?


Your daughter is at a very difficult age for having to go and forth between her dad and mom. At this age she is dealing with stranger anxiety and separation anxiety. Not that her dad is a stranger, but he is less familiar perhaps than you are and there probably are people she does not know well around him. Separation anxiety is in full bloom now as well, where she absolutely does not want to be away from the person she knows best, which is likely to be you, since you have primary physical custody and even today, mothers provide most of a child's care each day. Research shows that changes in caregivers is very physically and psychologically disorganizing to children, and likely is for adults as well, even though we may understand why it happened, whereas young children do not. A very young child only knows that their anchor in every day life is feeling insecure and it is scary for the child.

On top of this is the stress, worry, upset, and perhaps anger you feel over the separation and custody issues. Small children recognize these feelings in their caregivers and they are unsettled by them. Also fighting and crying, yelling, and changing a child's schedule is very upsetting to them. Children most often come to believe that that they are the cause of the bad feelings. They also are crankier and sleep poorly because of the upset feelings and uncertainty that surround them.

Long term, however, research also shows that younger children tend to do better as older children, teens, and adults when their parents divorce during their infant and toddler years. So what can be done for your child now?

First of all, both you and her father need to understand where she is at developmentally, what she can and cannot understand of your and her life changes, and what things will help her weather the changes best. The stranger and separation anxiety are normal in children her age and a sign of good brain development. They mean she knows who the people are that protect her and make her feel safe. She also now knows that when you ar out of sight, you still exist and she cries to attract you back to her. Her clinging is normal behavior when a child reunites with her preferred caregiver. She cannot understand at all, why the changing back and forth between two homes  is happening to her. It is physically upsetting and emotionally upsetting. She may have diarrhea, refuse to eat, vomit, have trouble sleeping, and cry more because of the change - even though she loves you both and both of you offer her a good home. What she needs are for you and her dad to be pleasant and kind with one another when she is within hearing and sight range. She needs for you both to be calm and positive during hand overs and to observe the same daily schedule she is used to for meals, snacks, bedtime, play, etc. If you live near enough to one another, the child care should stay the same. All of this will help her feel safer and more secure.

As she moves into the toddler years, you both need to thoroughly childproof your homes and have the same limits on her behavior in both homes, the same daily schedule and child care arrangements whenever possible. Toddlers finally understand that they are not parts of their powerful parents but rather their own selves. Negativity is the strategy these little ones use to declare who THEY are, that is, not their parents, and by resisting doing what their parents want. It is common for toddlers who love ice cream say "No!" in response to offers of ice cream just because it is not what the parents want or expect. This is a normal developmental step but frustrating to parents. Toilet training and feeding can also become battle fields in one home, never mind two homes. Be sure you both read a lot about coping with these issues and develop and use healthy strategies to guide your daughter. I highly recommend Penelope Leach's "Your Baby and child: Birth to Five Years."

I wish you well in these challenging times for all of you and hope the information shared proves useful to you.

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Response by:

Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN Mary M Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, FAAN
Professor of Clinical Nursing
College of Nursing
The Ohio State University