This can be a tricky time even without the added complication of family separation. Toddlers and younger children will inevitably go through a period of difficult behaviour – often called the 'terrible twos'. But changes in the behaviour of children who are dealing with family separation are likely be even more marked.
Children may noticeably display anger and sadness. There is often increased tearfulness. Some boys may become restless and withdraw whereas others will become disruptive and even aggressive towards either adults or, more often, their peers. There is a danger with older girls within this age group that they will try to take care of their parents and become ‘little adults’. Girls who are allowed to do this suppress their own feelings and don't get the chance to deal with their own experiences. Children of this age may also show regressive behaviour like bedwetting, clinging or thumb sucking.
This stage in your child's development is full of important markers and children should be as free as possible to concentrate on achieving them. This is the stage when children are making rapid progress in language skills, are learning how to socialise with those around them and discovering new ways to manipulate the physical world around them.
Signs of distress
Look out for signs of regressive behaviour. Your child will very often start behaving like a younger child again. You might find that he wants to be rocked, cuddled, wrapped up, spoon fed or even bottle fed. He will often look for comforting objects from the past such as a dummy, a favourite toy or blanket. Look out also for nightmares, sleep disturbances, prolonged bedtime routines, demanding and crying about seemingly unimportant things. Keep an eye open for increased aggression and being oppositional more than usual for the age group with you or play mates. He may also display his distress through breaking things or drawing on walls and may be reluctant to leave you to go to school or nursery.
Things that help
The important thing is to understand that this is not a child being deliberately difficult but a child in need of reassurance. Take his feelings seriously and, if he needs babying for a while, that's okay - hold him, rock him, cuddle him and even spoon feed him. Allow him to use a bottle for a short time and let him have a dummy or other security object if that's what he needs. Be patient and understanding and offer him as much reassurance as possible. Make sure that he knows that he's loved and cared for. The regressive behaviour will stop when the world feels safe again.
Things to avoid
Watching your child regress can be very irritating. Having him demanding to be picked up or cuddled, or having him follow you all round the house can increase any sense of stress that you are feeling. But, however irritated or frustrated you feel, try not to show it. It can be hard to avoid telling your child to stop being silly and grow up... try not to. At the same time, it's important not to overindulge your child as a way of alleviating feelings of guilt. Buying things, making promises that can't be kept or 'spoiling' him will make things worse rather than better. Just allow him to regress for a while, offer plenty of reassurance but keep things as normal as possible.