We have a 3 y/o daughter. A few months ago her and I thought it would be best to try and work out our differences by moving into separates homes.

Since then my daughter, now 3 who has always been a really good kid, has started acting out in ways than seems like regression. She is peeing on the floor, yet been potty trained for quite some time, hitting kids at day car, and throwing sand at other babies. It seems like an obvious sign of her stress with our separation, but I don't really know how to handle it. My wife I am brainstormed for ideas and came up with a few, but I wanted to reach out to the parenting community also and and for any thoughts, insights, ideas or suggestions.

Its not a problem about lack of discipline or she would always act like this. From my perspective this is a transitional problem and an overwhelming inability for her to cope with so many changes using regular methods.

Some ideas we came up with:

  • Set firmer boundaries.
  • Connect with her more individually, when she is only with one parent, lots of one on one time.
  • Be attentive as she needs, give here extra guidance and support right now. Undistracted time and attention. (i.e. no tv, or work while we are with her)

How can we prevent this?

  • Help remind her of our expectations. be close when she is around the cat or people to help her do the right thing and physically stop her from hitting if need be. No kid wants to keep hitting or feel out of control.
  • remind her to pee often or offer diaper if necessary.
  • Lots of patience, love, and empathy.
  • talk openly about changes to house and routine and how it's a hard transition. let her know she can feel sad, mad, scared and she is always safe with mom or dad and we love her unconditionally.
  • Verbalize what she can expect for the day (i.e. we will be together until after your nap, then you will go see mom.)
  • self care for myself and my wife to prevent added anger and frustration. She needs us to be as calm and loving as possible in order to feel safe.
  • More time outside to get fresh air, sunshine, and play in the dirt.
  • Try to have more fun with her. laugh, play, lighten up a bit.

Any other ideas or suggestions? Thanks everyone in advance for taking the time to read this!

  • 1
    In addition to setting firmer boundaries for 'bad behavior' have you considered giving her a way to 'act out'? Validate that is OK she is frustrated and sad, but channel the energy appropriately.
    – Ida
    Oct 6, 2014 at 16:30
  • Thanks for the late accept. So did your child's situation improve?
    – sbi
    Apr 28, 2015 at 20:35

5 Answers 5


Here's my attempt:

You messed up your relationship (I'm not criticizing it, BTW, I'm just stating a fact) and that obviously troubles your daughter. If you feel like you cannot fix your relationship, all you can do is to try to minimize the negative effects this has on your daughter.

If I was in your place, I'd start out by asking myself why she behaves the way she does. Obviously, there's a temporal correlation between what you consider bad behavior and the breakup, so there's very likely a cause-effect relationship. What's troubling her so much about the two of you splitting up? Have you fought? Was that before you decided to break up or afterwards? (That is: Is the breakup the problem or might it be part of the solution for her.) Has either of you talked bad about the other? Do both of you see her regularly? Is she insecure whether your love to her might someday wither, too? How's her parents' mood? What practical constraints and limitations does she experience due to your split? etc.

The items you list seem to make sense to me. Here's a few thoughts they triggered in me:

  • Talk to her about the your breakup. Explain how the love between two adults (fragile) is different than the love between parents and their children (nearly indestructible), or between siblings. Make sure she feels secure in the knowledge that the two of you will always love her, no matter what.

  • At that age, children have a hard time envisioning anything more than a few days ahead. Anything "next week" is so far in the future it might just as well never come to pass. Switching her between the two of you every few days might be preferable to her than staying for a week with either parent. A schedule she can tick off ("three more nights until I go back to daddy/mummy", "two more nights"...) might be helpful.

  • She is helplessly in a situation she has no control over. So involve her. Let her have a minimal say in the things to decide. How long she will be with whom. Which room will be hers in which apartment. There's practical limitations to all this which she will have to accept as well as you do. But explaining these might make it easier for her to understand what's going on.

  • The two of you are the most important people in your child's universe. Parents are their children's gods and need to be. Do not befoul her universe by talking bad about each other.

  • You are her parents and will be for the rest of your lives. You can split as lovers, but you can never quit being a set of parents. Always remember that. Try to make it easier to keep being mother and father.

Talking to a 3 year old about love and relationships certainly is very challenging. IMO the golden rule about how to deal with a child's questions is:

Always truthfully answer all the questions you child asks. Answer exactly the questions your child asks, and only those (and not the ones you think you heard or the child should have asked).

In general, most children rarely ever ask a question where they cannot deal with the answer. Many parents, when asked a question they consider hard ("Where do babies come from?"), do either skip over details the child asked for ("How do they got out of mums belly?") or answer way more than the children even asked ("It, er, takes two people, ah, a man and a woman, um, to make a baby, and...") or (very often) both at the same time. Concentrate on answering the exact question the child asked ("Babies grow in their mum's belly until they're grown enough to live outside.") and stop it right there. Do not trouble your child with answers to questions it didn't ask (how babies get in there and how they get out), unless your child follows up with such a question.


In addition to some of the great advice offered here, I would recommend: don't change her home.

Separating parents will often play ping pong with their kids - pass the kids back and forth between Mom and Dad's home. This can be very frustrating for a child because they don't have a place to call home anymore.

I've seen parents who treat the home where they family was living together pre-separation as the kids' home. The parents then take turns (instead of the kid) living in the home with the kid. It's an added expense (three homes instead of two) but it can make a huge difference to your child.


You are doing all that you can, and it sounds like you have a pretty good handle on things. It sounds like you understand that it's impossible to completely prevent or 'fix' her behavior, and that's good. She is going through a tough time, just like you and your wife are, and there will invariably be some outbursts. I would advise redirecting her when she misbehaves, and explaining to her healthy outlets for sadness and frustration.

No one should stay together if they don't love each other any more, or don't make eachother happy anymore. All it does is draw it out and make the suffering for everyone concerned last longer. Don't let anyone try to tell you you're giving up or a quitter -- 14 years is a very very long time, and they are not in your relationship. You are.


You are clearly an organized and intentional parent and have instilled discipline into your child (great!), yet your child is suddenly acting up. It sounds like you need to work on your marriage more than your parenting.

I'm sorry if that sounded insensitive, or maybe even off-topic, but it's important to understand that a 3-year-old's entire universe is wrapped up within her parents and she sees it all crashing down. Better to address it than mask it.

If moving back in together is absolutely not an option, try couch time. 15 minutes a day spend some time on the couch with your spouse in full visibility of your daughter. Make sure she sees you two being patient, loving, and empathetic with one another. Talk about your day and make an honest effort to be openly loving and affectionate with your spouse. Talk about something other than your child. Reminisce about fun times--anything, really. Just be sincere.

This may sound like non scientific feel-good advice but I offer it from personal experience and the experience of many of my friends (we are all about couch time). My son was having trouble sleeping when he was about 20 months and we couldn't figure out why. It turns out that my wife and I just got busy and our son hardly saw us together at the time. We started doing couch time with him in the room (setting him on a blanket and telling him to play alone for 15 minutes) and the results were almost immediate. Your kids see you as superman/woman and that's where their confidence lies.


The only thing I want to add here (and I would have made it a comment, but I really want to draw more attention to it's importance) relates to this, which you have stated you are doing:

talk openly about changes to house and routine and how it's a hard transition. let her know she can feel sad, mad, scared and she is always safe with mom or dad and we love her unconditionally.

That is so, so important. Implied but not expressly stated is the need to actually give the 3 year old child a vocabulary for naming all of her feelings.

How does a child tell you she feels guilty about the separation, that she's afraid that she wasn't good enough to keep you two together? How can she express that she's terrified that if you can leave mommy, it also means you can leave her? How can she say that it's bewildering to her when you try to reassure her saying you won't ever stop loving her, even though she sees with her own eyes that you've stopped loving mommy (to her, why else would you move out? She doesn't identify with what it's like between adults?)

She can't empathize with you. Her world is a small place. She feels powerless. Powerlessness is the most terrifying thing to a child who thinks the world revolves around her and that she has control of it.

Those words are sophisticated, of course, but the emotions are not. They are primal. She needs to be able to name them before she can really deal with them through talking and activities that give her a better sense of control over the things she can control and the things she can't.

The references may be behind a paywall, but reading the abstracts might help you, and will give you ideas in your searches related to helping your daughter.

Read about the effect of divorce on young children. Learn about programs that deal with this very issue. Avail yourself of their services and ideas.

Resilient children, psychological wellness, and primary prevention
It's Beyond My Control: A Cross-Temporal Meta-Analysis of Increasing Externality in Locus of Control, 1960-2002
My life in care: experiences of non-participation in decision-making processes
FOSTERING RESILIENCE IN THE AFTERMATH OF DIVORCE: The Role of Evidence-Based Programs for Children
Surviving The Breakup: How Children And Parents Cope With Divorce

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