Early Childhood Regressions: Trauma or Conflict?

Milestone regressions and behavioural changes of young children are frequently a major concern of separating parents. There are two, very rigid viewpoints often held by parents when regressions are reported. 

Parent A often reports that the child has regressed to bedwetting; is having unexplained tantrums, or appears to be over-tired etc. They fear that the child is not being adequately cared for and this often results in withholding the child due to those fears. In many cases it results in re-litigation or further delays current proceedings. 

Parent B most frequently claims that the child is happy in their care and that they are well looked after. They have trouble grasping the problem because it’s not occurring under their watch. They will commonly claim that Parent A is making this up to cause trouble for them. 

While all suspicions of child maltreatment should be explored, there is a more likely explanation which is centred around the child’s perception of their dramatically changed world. Psychologists and family therapists state these regressions or changes in behaviour are not necessarily something bad that is being done to the child or fabricated by the other parent. Rather, it is often the presence of conflict between the parents, and the absence of the familiar relationship of the parents when in the child’s presence. 

Even when children have been exposed to parent conflict prior to separation, they become accustomed to it. Their routine has stayed the same, they are fed and cared for in the one home and both their parents are coexisting with them under the one roof. When separation occurs and routines are disrupted, the child can have significant adjustment issues. 

However, this is not a reason to resist shared care. Children, even young ones, can and do adapt fairly quickly. It is the presence of conflict and the refusal or inability of parents to separate their issues from the child’s needs that cause the behaviours that underpin this apparent trauma. 

I asked Family Therapist, Terri Kelly for her views. This is what she said. 

One of the hardest things a parent can do is find the courage to pause and ask themselves ‘what if?’. 

What if the way my child is behaving means something different to how I see it? 

What if my child doesn’t see the parent the same way I do? 

What if my thoughts and beliefs are colouring my views on what my child’s behaviours mean? 

Finding the courage to be vulnerable enough to see a different perspective is a huge ask when you have fears and doubts about the other parent and surety that you are right in how you see things. 

But, what if? 

There is always more than one way of understanding your child’s experiences. When you find the courage to pause and ask yourself the question of what if, you open the door to new possibilities of seeing the world through your child’s eyes.

Terri Kelly

What the child needs is a sense that everything is okay between their parents, even if it’s not. Prior to separation, they are familiar with seeing their parents talking to each other and sharing time together with them. When conflict is high after separation, what they now experience is an abrupt changeover in a strange location where neither parent can be civil, let alone spend time in the company of the other parent.

These children need particular care and for their parents to be attuned to their perception of the world. Being child-focused means being able to consider these matters through the child’s eyes

From the child’s perspective, they are dropped off and picked up in a hostile, often unfamiliar environment. They get a strong sense of their parents’ anger and resentment displayed toward each other. Sadly, even infants get a sense of being caught in the middle. They feel torn in their love, and as a consequence will often say or do things which are out of character. They will feel a need to express an allegiance to one parent, or the other. Sometimes both. 

A child will often say “I don’t want to go back” or “I don’t want to leave you”. In reality, what the child is most likely saying is “I don’t want to feel torn between you”. 

When you find the courage to pause and ask yourself the question of ‘what if’, you open the door to new possibilities of seeing the world through your child’s eyes.

What is optimum for children in these moments is time together with their their parents. At very least, they need to get a strong sense that everything is okay.  

While it seems a far cry for many parents involved in family court proceedings to facilitate time together as a (separated) family, those parents who navigate amicable separations report doing these activities regularly. Studies show that these children do not have the same level of associated trauma as parents who are high in conflict. 

So how do you go from being hostile to being ‘friendly’? Well, that’s up to how much you are willing to help your child adjust. And this means both of you. I say this over and over in consultation with separating parents: “You must find a way to separate your relationship issues from your co-parenting requirements to meet the child’s best interests.

You don’t have to be friends with your co-parent, but if you want to give your child the best chance of adjusting without added trauma, being friendly toward them will significantly help. 

Recommendations 

Some adjustments I suggest parents make (wherever possible)

  • Always speak positively about the other parent 
  • Help the child make a gift from them for their other parent 
  • Send photos to their other parent on behalf of the child and show/tell them you’re doing it. Bonus points if you can read/show their happy response once received. 
  • Give hands-on help to facilitate Facetime calls. Say hello. Be courteous. 
  • Invite the other parent to share part of special days together as a ‘separated’ family. 
  • Share an occasional meal together. 
  • Become okay with the other parent being in your home for short periods. 

Even if you’re faking it, you’re doing it for the child. It is vital that both parents put aside their differences for this to occur. If you can’t achieve that on your own, or you fear your co-parent won’t do their part, you should seek support from a co-parenting coach or parenting coordinator. 

In the vast majority of cases, the child is not being hurt or harmed in the other home. They are not traumatised by the separation itself. What they are responding to is the conflict they witness, or sense between their parents, and the absence of having both of you together in their very small world. 

So ask yourself, What If…..

For more information, contact Jasmin Newman