From the Therapist's Desk

HEALING PARENT-CHILD ESTRANGEMENT IN CHILDREN 3-5

Through the eyes of a preschooler the world is a magical place where wishing for something can make it come true.

Preschoolers live in an imaginary world in which they often make up stories to make sense of their experiences. This can include stories about their family. They also have developed the beginning of concrete, black-and-white thinking that makes them more likely to blame themselves for a parent's departure.

Preschoolers are eager to have two parents and will fantasize about their parents being together. It is not uncommon for children this age to 'shop' for a replacement for the absent parent.

The returning parent needs to try to provide an environment that feels friendly and familiar to your child. If you are able to start your parenting time with your children in your own home, display your child's artwork, photos, and other things suggested by your coparent. If you start in supervised visitation, choose an agency or setting that feels familiar and child-friendly. Your child needs to know that they have a space in your home and in your heart when they are not with you.

At this stage children have an increased capacity to worry and can become anxious. Help your child develop words for expressing their feelings in a more concrete way. Typically children this age fear abandonment. Provide your child with constant reminders that you are not going anywhere and will be there when they expect you to be -- for example when they visit or when they get out of school or daycare or have a special event. Show your child they can count on you to do what you say you will.

If you are not prepared to stay and be this reliable and consistent parent, then don't proceed with the healing process. It's not fair to your child.

Watch for signs that your toddler is experiencing anger through behaviors such as biting, hitting, being irritable and withdrawing. Other signs that your child is under stress and that you may need to slow down the reunification process include nightmares, baby talking, wishing to sleep with parents, stuttering, toileting regression, or other behaviors that weren't happening before.