Between the ages of 3 and 5, kids are magical thinkers. Their feelings and actions are so powerful, they may fear that Mommy or Daddy left because of something they said or did. "One four-year-old girl I counseled was certain that her parents wouldn't have divorced if she and her brothers hadn't argued so much," says Neuman. This kind of guilt not only prompts kids to feel bad about themselves, but it may also make them anxious about the future, he says. "If they can cause their family to break up, what other horrible things might they do?" Reassure your child that the divorce wasn't his fault, that it happened simply because Mommy and Daddy are too sad together.
Preschoolers often worry that the custodial parent will move away too, leaving them to fend for themselves. They may try to act like superkids -- eating all their vegetables, putting their toys away, going to bed cheerfully -- figuring that you'll be more likely to stick around if they don't make waves. When Susan Rapaport and her husband split up four years ago, her son, Joseph, who was 5 at the time, would get excessively upset whenever anyone reprimanded him. "So anytime I had to call him on something, I made sure to add, 'I want you with me always, and I'm never going to leave you,'" says the Chevy Chase, MD, mother of three.
Similarly, preschoolers may become overly fearful when you go to work or even run a quick errand, assuming that you're gone for good. Before leaving, be as specific as possible about when you're coming back: "I'll be home in time to feed you dinner" is more reassuring than "I'll see you later."
Kids this age may also react to a divorce by regressing. Because their coping skills aren't well developed, they may use baby talk, demand a pacifier, or need to cuddle a beloved blankie in order to comfort themselves during stressful times. If this occurs, help your child put words to the situation, and be sure to shower him with extra love and attention. Let him know that his feelings matter and that he can depend on you to be there for him, says Neuman. Once things settle down and he adjusts to the divorce, his babyish behavior should disappear within two or three months.