Q: I am going through a rough divorce, and I have a restraining order against my ex. Despite that, the courts gave him visitation with our 4-year-old every Wednesday and every other weekend. My son has been through play therapy and still has someone helping with kindergarten prep for kids exposed to trauma. In the past year or so, when I ask about his day, he says he doesn't want to talk. He used to be very chatty; he just wouldn't talk much about his time with his dad. Now he won't talk much about school other than saying he likes his new summer program. I've tried everything I can think of: asking direct questions, general questions, if he wants to hear about my day (usually he says yes). I've also tried doing nothing at all. I'm concerned his dad is telling him not to tell me anything (even if nothing bad is going on there). I'm trying to foster an open environment and not pressure him to talk.
Do I reach back out to his play therapist with my concerns? Try something else? If something bad is happening to my son, the courts in my area likely won't acknowledge it if it's just the word of a 4-year-old without physical proof. Even if nothing bad is happening, I want him to know he can talk to me about anything.
A: There are so many details I don't know that it's hard to figure out where to begin. We have a 4-year-old who has either witnessed or been part of trauma, making therapy necessary. We have a timeline I'm not totally sure of, but I'm guessing this custody agreement has been in effect for a year, and your son has grown quieter during that time? We have a boy who was chatty and now isn't. And there is talk of something "bad" that could be happening, which could be anything from physical or sexual or emotional abuse to your ex simply pressuring your son to stay quiet when it comes to the divorce (or all of the above).
If you suspect something is happening to your son at his dad's house, you need to call your lawyer and the therapist, and then write everything down. Dates of conversations, moods after pickup, sleeping patterns, eating habits, decreased interest in play or other activities that your son once enjoyed...you name it. Though this is exhausting, the more details, the better.
Depression is rare for a 4-year-old, but it isn't uncommon among children who have witnessed, experienced or are still experiencing trauma. Here is a list of possible behaviors that could point toward childhood depression (your child doesn't have to exhibit all of these to be depressed):
- Irritability, anger or being "on edge."
- Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
- Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities as well as from friends and family.
- Increased sensitivity to rejection or criticism.
- Changes in appetite (either increased or decreased).
- Changes in sleep (sleeplessness or too much sleep).
- Crying or temper tantrums.
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing.
- Fatigue and low energy.
- Physical complaints (such as stomachaches or headaches) that do not respond to treatment.
- Reduced ability to function during activities at home or with friends, including in school, extracurricular activities, and other hobbies or interests.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
- Thoughts or talk of death or suicide.
A 4-year-old is in the developmental stage of the "here and now" while also developing a sense of self and opinions. He isn't able to fully articulate his interior world, especially if a primary attachment (his dad) may be sending him conflicting signals. Even if his father isn't hurting him, many children feel deeply torn in divorce and custody issues; splitting loyalty between two primary attachments is extraordinarily painful.
Because 4-year-olds are too young to understand the complexities of marriage, it is easy for them to assume they're part of the problem. Because he has been a witness to trauma, I strongly recommend continuing therapy, constant contact with your lawyer, and frequent conversations with his teachers and school counselors. I would like to see every adult in your son's life put in a position to protect, support and love him in a healthy way.
As for right now, stay physically and emotionally close to him, including cuddling, reading, coloring, building, playing or watching a show together. Do anything you can that builds connections, lights up his eyes, makes him smile and helps him relax. He may be afraid to talk to you, or he may not even have the words to communicate his emotions.
Your daily, consistent and compassionate warmth will build an invisible bridge of support. You may not be able to see the effects of your connection, but the roots are there. Children can make it through almost any hardship when they have a deep connection to someone who loves them unconditionally. You are laying this groundwork, so don't give up.
Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counseling and is a certified parent coach.