Q: I’ve been going through a contentious divorce. I have two daughters, ages 5 and 2-1⁄2. As a loving, involved dad, I’m very concerned about how the divorce has affected my children. My older daughter has become more defiant when she’s with me. What prompted me to send this question was yesterday my 5-year-old said she wanted her sister to get killed. Please offer some advice on how to handle this, as well as any insights/understanding of what this might be about.

A: Contentious divorces undermine mutually respectful communication between parents, adversely impacting the children. How each child is affected depends largely on her developmental stage, her unique temperament (the how of behavior), and the co-parenting approach. When children are exposed to ongoing conflict between their parents, caught in the middle of their war zone, it rocks their world. There are a myriad of reasons your daughter may be more defiant, and particular reasons she’s saying something that’s so distressing for a parent to hear (wanting her sister killed).

A child of this age doesn’t have the emotional maturity to understand why her family now lives apart. Her sadness and frustration can manifest in behavioral changes, often in aggressive acting-out. She is trying to assume some control at a time when she has very little. It’s important to address these feelings of anger and frustration, supporting her by talking about them openly. When her feelings are unconditionally accepted, assure her you will listen to whatever she needs to express. Keeping an art journal with crayons/markers is a great tool for children to release tension — “When you’re this mad at your sister, show me how mad with a picture.”

At her stage of development, fears are normal. A new period of nightmares and anxiety may surface. Fairness is very important at this age. Five-year-olds begin developing a moral awareness, which often manifests as anger. While they are able to have empathy for others, they also become aware of the effect their actions have on others and on their own feelings. The previous stage of fantasizing and wishing must now start creating room for reality. Very often at 5, children resist the way the world is, because it’s still a struggle to accept that you can’t have what you want, that life just doesn’t work the way you want it to. Lying, cheating, and stealing are common at this age. Parents worry that their child will grow up to be a criminal or a sociopath. Between 3 and 6, children use their capacity for magical thinking in pretending that things really aren’t the way they are. Ex: “I didn’t steal that, it’s really mine,” OR “She told me I could have it,” OR “Mommy and Daddy will love each other again.” It’s important for parents not to overdo their reaction, or in any way shame their child so she’s so upset about doing something wrong that she won’t learn from it. She really needs to be supported in learning to master the feelings of not having her situation be the way she wants it to be. She needs her parents’ help in tolerating the intense emotions, knowing if she can handle it, she won’t need to lie, or cheat, or steal. This can also surface more during this volatile period.

Consider your daughter’s temperament, how she reacts to the divorce and the changes in her life. If she is more “spirited,” her reactions will likely be more intense — for example, when she’s angry, she may express that by being more defiant, more aggressive, less cooperative, to firmly assert herself. Her behavior is the clue to her emotional state, thus whatever she is doing or saying will indicate what’s at the root of the problem, the feelings driving her behavior. When she’s defiant, or aggressive, she’s letting you know she’s having a problem, that she’s emotionally out of balance. Her temperament will play a significant role in how that’s expressed.

A contentious divorce is a key factor. Your daughter needs to have her childhood, free of any worry about her parents or what will happen/change next. Children need predictability, spending quality time with each parent, without any hostility between them. Transitions should be seamless, with parents cordial, respectful of one another. With a high-conflict divorce, children do better with transitions taking place at school, day care, etc., minimizing their exposure to their parents’ animosity, sparing them distress. Children must never be expected to choose loyalties, or to hear any negative comments about the other parent. They need to feel open to loving and being loved by both parents, regardless of how the parents feel about each other. It’s particularly important for divorced parents to take time to recharge, as children don’t do well with stressed, frustrated, guilt-ridden parents.

Crafting a parenting schedule that’s consistent, predictable, with a clear understanding of “mommy time” and “daddy time,” eases any insecurities, confusion, or fears. I recommend that parents help their children make a calendar — with stickers, color coding, whatever artistic means each child wants to use in providing a visual, foreseeable parenting calendar — which minimizes surprises and changes. This can be posted in the child’s bedroom and/or on the fridge at each parent’s home. Children often believe “if my parents can stop loving each other, they could stop loving me too.” This is best addressed by parents consistently assuring their children that they did nothing to cause the separation and there’s nothing they can do to change this. Let her know that you and your ex-wife will always be Daddy & Mommy, continuing to take care of them and protect them. Reinforce that it is never her job to take care of either parent or her younger sister, because it is always her parents’ responsibility to take care of her and her sister. If she believes that her sister may be causing some stress for either or both parents, she’s expressing anger about that. Whenever a child says something like “I wish she would be killed” or “I wish she was dead,” speak directly to the emotional root rather than taking the statement at face value. Ex: “Wow, you’re so upset with your sister. When you feel really mad at her, you wish she wasn’t here. It’s so hard when everything seems to be changing.” Just comment, letting that percolate, without asking any questions, such as “Why would you say something like that?” She has no idea WHY, she just feels angry, jealous, sad, out of control, and this is how she’s expressing these intense emotions.

I recommend buying the book “The Dinosaurs’ Divorce,” to read with her. It’s helpful, and healing, for children to understand their feelings are normal, that similar situations happen to others. A book such as this provides opportunities for children to talk about their feelings. When they know there won’t be any judgment, criticism, shaming, or consequences to the strong emotions they have, it creates a wonderful space in which a young child can ask questions, express concerns, letting you share how she’s experiencing the changes.

Please send me your questions.