Advice on "Normal" 4-Year-old Behavior (Regression Due to Divorce, Adopted)

Updated on June 21, 2009
K.W. asks from Portland, OR
15 answers

My goddaughter, bless her little soul, is both an adoptee (adopted from China at 1 year old) and newly, a child of divorce. This means that some of her development has been behind the curve, which is expected, and currently she is under stress as she now has 2 households to deal with--a blow to the stability she needs, with additional relationships to be formed.

The mom is asking me about a couple of issues the dad has raised, but I am not familiar yet with 4-year-old behaviors (mine's only 2), plus the added issues of being an adoptee and the strains of divorce.

Anyway, the behaviors are:
1) Still wanting her favorite blanket. With mom, she's allowed to carry it around, but will leave it in the car without fuss if they go to a restaurant etc.; dad tries to discourage this but she does ask for it at bedtime.
2) Wanting to be carried a lot -- he says she will cry and not move/be stubborn if refused. Mom says she'll pick her up for a cuddle, but she's too heavy to carry much; sometimes she'll walk away and expect the child to follow, which she does.

Dad has been talking to a lot of other moms who are telling him these aren't normal behaviors. He also recently chatted with a Certified Family Life Educator (CFLE) who said the same and added that this little girl needs to find her security internally – not externally.

Dad feels that this is a new kind of baby-ness not seen before (this child has historically been timid and clingy) and wants to help her break out and do things she wants to do. She does play normally with other children. It sounds to me like she's okay with other kids, but is asking for more from her parents. (The blanket thing doesn't bother me; there have got to be plenty of 4-year-olds who drag their lovies around, but the clinginess is making me sad.)

Is this just a regression brought on by the stress of divorce? Should I assume it's a temporary phase? My heart is breaking for her under the circumstances, but I don't want to add to her burden by letting the adults pester her when she's trying to make the transition.

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So What Happened?

I want to thank everyone for their comments. Lots of good stuff in there. I have forwarded your responses on to the mom.

I was trying not to express my own fury or get too personal, but I'll clarify that it was the dad who left this marriage, after a couple of years of being unresponsive in couples therapy. Mom worked hard to keep things together, but he had lost interest--this wasn't two people being selfish. He is already engaged to another woman and is pressuring my goddaughter to call this woman mama, which absolutely enrages me. So I think Kirsten may have it right, that he is (perhaps not even consciously) impatient with the child for reminding him he's traumatized her by ending one household and forcing a new one on her so quickly. And so my concern is that yes, she will get the message "don't ask for what you need."

MORE UPDATE: Well, the mom in this situation got a FABULOUS job offer, but in California. So the whole custody thing came to a head rather abruptly, and superceded the whole behavioral conversation. He was trying to make a case that his household was the more stable one, which irked me because he was the one that abandoned the first household, and that she was unfit because unemployed, though she had the job offer before her current job ran out--though she couldn't take the offer because he was tying her up in court. And he violated their divorce agreement several times by doing things without mom's permission, like taking the child to his church and so on. Anyway, the upshot is that he was so happy to relinquish paying child support that he is allowing adoptive mom and adoptee child to move to Pasadena, though with lots of visitation. I have no doubt that the upheaval of the move will create more stress in the short term, but I have hopes that things will be less confusing for the little girl over the long term, with parental time in more consolidated chunks. I will miss them both so much, but hopefully will still get to see them sometimes. It is a great opportunity for the two of them to move on and heal. Bless you all for your thoughts and comments, it was really helpful!

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answers from Portland on

It honestly sounds like people are making too much of what this little girl's "regressive" behaviors are. Seriously. She's going through a difficult time, let the girl have her blanket when she wants it, as long as it's reasonable. I would think regressive behaviors would be having frequent bathroom accidents, not talking, not playing with others, talking like a baby, etc.

I have a 5 year old daughter who is very outgoing but still loves to be held from time to time. No, I don't see it that often with other moms, but I think that more because they have multiple kids, rather than a reflection of poor parenting or regressive behavior.

Good grief. It sounds more like an adult problem rather than a problem with the child. Every child is different and each person has different stress coping mechanisms, but these hardly seem harmful.

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answers from Seattle on

Your God-daughter cannot possibly show ''typical''' behaviour when her life has been completely NOT typical. She was removed from whatever setting she spent birth to age one year --- that must have been so terrifying and so hard - that alone could easily cause life-long problems
( often it doesn't --- but that's because children are so amazing---- so amazing - but it needs to be remembered here.) NOW - she has a whole new set of changes and some of 'em pretty darn scarey. SHE IS ONLY FOUR --- how mature and flexible and self-directed and grown up should she be?????????????? ( I'm not screaming at you, K.- you are an incredible woman and Godmother - she is lucky to have you--) please, please encourage the people in her life to give this little girl a BREAK --- she is ONLY FOUR. She is being as self-calming and mature as she could possibly be expected to be.

You can be my God-daughter any time-- -BLESSINGS on you-
J.--aka- Old Mom

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answers from Seattle on

Hi K.,

I agree with Judy. I'd be worried if your God daughter were having these issues under normal circumstances, but these aren't normal circumstances. Most 4 year olds haven't been through what she's been through in her life.

In the her four years of life she's spent one year in an orphanage where the care has been perhaps questionable at best, experienced some developmental issues (to be expected, given the circumstances), adopted (which is a GOOD thing, I'm not saying otherwise), taken to a new country where she's learned a new language, adjusted to a new culture, new food, a new family, found security, and then has had that security shaken by a divorce, and is now living life in two homes.

With no disrespect intended towards anyone, I'd be a little worried if she WASN'T showing some signs of stress at this point. At least she's not internalizing her stress; instead she is finding ways to soothe herself by carrying her blanket with her everywhere. I would encourage her dad to allow her to keep her blanket with her if it makes her feel more secure; for heavens sake, she's been through enough changes in her life already, and if she's finding comfort in her blanket, then so be it.

I think it's more or less a temporary thing. What she probably needs is more reassurance from mom and dad, not less. Both parents need to spend time with her right now, and if she needs to be held and cuddled, then they need to do that, especially mom. While your God daughter sounds like she's fairly independant, she's still vulnerable for a variety of reasons, and both parents need to make the effort to reassure her that she is loved and that they love her. Regression in behavior during times of stress is common in kids this age, and it needs to be handled with sensitivity by the parents. Busy or not, both parents need to make time for the little girl...she's only 4 and the world is a very confusing place for her right now.

I'm not sure what that child life specialist meant when she said the little girl needed to find her security internally, not best advice is to encouarge everyone to cut the little one some slack. She's been through a lot in 4 years.

Maybe her parents could talk to her pediatrician...he/she may have some suggestions about how to best support her. Some counseling may be in order for the little one.

Be sure to give her lots of hugs, and be there to support her best you can.

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answers from Portland on

There have been a number of overseas adoptions in my religious community, and my observation suggests that such kids often have issues arising from their unusual situations in infancy. Beyond a young adopted child having trouble trusting and attaching to a new family, other issues are usually not serious and will pass in time if the child is given enough reassurance.

My inclination would be to allow this little girl to hang onto her blankie as long as she needs it. And it is a real need. It's her emotional life raft - dependable and unchanging. The more adults try to remove this friendly comfort from her, the more she is likely to develop other symptoms of anxiety. Blankies are harmless, and she will outgrow this need on her own.

And by all means, parents should spend a little extra effort carrying this child when she expresses the need for physical closeness and security. She may ask less to be carried if they spend more time initiating physical contact themselves; little snuggles, big hugs, holding and laughing, a back-rub at bedtime - whatever seems to coax her to relax and trust. She needs to know she is still deeply loved by both parents, in spite of the changes.

It's wonderful that this little girl has such simple needs for comfort, and is able to ask for what she needs. It's not always so clear-cut. As other moms have observed, she has survived some very scary change in her young life, and is now faced with new, probably confusing and unsettling changes. I'm guessing she'll do well with more reassurance, not less.

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answers from Portland on

K.--I hesitate to do this, since you speak of being a godmother and might be offended by the language, but I want to give you this part of my reaction, verbatim: "I don't know what the hell a CFLE is, but that one (!) ... " and then I degenerated into sputtering. Either that CFLE has some residual childhood self-condemnation issues they are projecting onto the situation, or they have been specifically trained to "support" a certain, non-scientific and non-observational, view of what children "are" capable of (ignoring not least of all what they actually NEEEEEEED--good God, at 4? adopted from China? experiencing divorce????).


If the Dad is finding a lot of moms who agree with him, I am sorry for him and all the moms who think their children should be pushed to be small adults.

They aren't event neurologically able--ie, their actual physical brains--aren't prepared for that sort of self reliance, *in a healthy way.* Sure, they can do it, and lots do, particularly in the face of trauma or any sort of abandonment (she would already have THAT issue preprogrammed at some level, even before the divorce situation). But kids can't be self-reliant, independent beings in a healthy way UNLESS THEY HAVE A FIRM FOUNDATION BUILT ... and that foundation can come miraculously from God, or it comes from the people around them (since God made us a communal animal, and to my observation expects us to live into that plan).

Daddy might be feeling the pinch of her behavior as a judgment on himself/the failure of the marriage.

But his little girl has unmet needs, and yes she is trying to meet them herself (blanket, she still trusts them enough to actually ASK for snuggles--some kids get so hurt they stop doing that--he should ask himself how he would feel if she accepted the teaching he is suggesting, that she shouldn't ask for love when she feels insecure and she can't trust her father to listen to her needs and try to meet them).

Dads put a lot of store by this "independence" thing. Lots of them, in our so "equal" society, don't realize that their little girls won't thrive under that. Little girls are independent a whole different way than boys (and moms who expect their boys to be 'independent' spiritual thinkers and movers would do well to realize the same mistake).

Sorry. This sort of "tough it out" social teaching makes me very angry.

My 15c.

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answers from Portland on

I think you are absolutely right to be worried about this girl. Not because she is anything other than a scared little 4 year old, but because her parents expect her to fit into this little box they have created and won't allow her to be who she is and develop at her own pace.

She is attached to her blankie because she is insecure and can't trust her parents to provide that security. Being adopted from China, she did not receive in the first year the normal bonding and development that would make her a secure and stable toddler. She did bond, and trust her parents and they have now turned her world upside down with a divorce. Not that they don't have the right to divorce, but what right do they have to take her little world and shake it all up to suit their own need and wants and then tell her she has no right to carry around a blanket to make herself feel safer.

The clinginess is the same thing. She wants to make sure that her parents aren't going anywhere and will always stay with her. The more they push her away, the more insecure she will get.

I know that sometimes parents can't stay together, but you have to admit that a divorce is a totally selfish choice in the respect that it is for the parent's happiness and at the children's expense with them having no say. If parents choose to go that route, they need to be prepared and willing to help the children through this tough time at their own pace and in a way that is best for them. Saying that you just don't have the time is SAD!!!

I really don't want to rant on and on, so I will stop now and just say that these parents really need to get his poor girl in counseling with someone that has experience with children of both adoption and divorce.

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answers from Medford on

my 4 yr old still has a special blankie and even a certain cup she likes to drink out of right before bed. those are her outside securities I suppose. My sisters have 4 yr olds also. The clingyness is a phase. It might be more intense for this little one because of the stress between the two people who used to be stable and now all the sudden they are not. The father needs to look at himself. He needs to be emotionally available for the little one. Thats the only way she will let go of her security blanket. Even then she may not. My sister had a security stuffed animal that she took everywhere until she was 10. But that was because it was kind of a tough situation. I suggest conseling for the little girl and hopefully she will be able to feel safe again. It's all about emotional security. I don't know if I helped at all but good luck.....the little girl is just looking for stability and security. A blankie never gets mad and is always there!!

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answers from Corvallis on

So the dad has been talking to ot mom about the childs behavior, but dot they know how children act after a divorce????
My daughter was 4 when her dad and I seperated. All of my kids (at the tiime 6 and 10 and 4) needed extra mommy time and the same when they were with their dad. My youngest wanted to sleep with me, actually they all did. This is a huge uprut to their comfort zone and not sure where they fit in (and if they caused it).
I say screw what everybody is telling dad and give the poor poor little girl the reassurance that she is so desperately needing!!!!
Another thing, my understanding of little one adopted from China are a little behind on development (just the way it is, sooo many babies and not enough staff though they try).
I just cant express enough that she so desperately needs to feel safe and comforted!!

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answers from Seattle on

I'd probably do the same things if I was in her position! I had a security blanket well into elementary school. Knowing that her parents are no longer together, she is probably trying to make sure that they are still going to be there for her. No wonder she wants to be cuddled extra right now. I'm not an expert, but as a mom, that seems like perfectly reasonable coping skills for a 4 year old to have.

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answers from Portland on

You are like a ray of light and the perfect Godmother for this little girl. You see that she is really in need of lots of hugs and stability. Her parents may need your coaching here. Maybe they need to see how to nurture her. She has experienced a great deal of stress, so the advice to find "security internally" is not realistic in her case. She is reacting the way many children would react to chaos, divorce and adoption. As a previous school counselor and counselor in private practice I would encourage her parents to attend filial "play therapy" sessions with their daughter. Play therapy is useful because much healing can occur if parents are properly trained in Filial Therapy. I did attend a workshop taught by Garry Landreth, and I learned many of the techniques. I would highly encourage the parents to contact Daniel Sweeney, who lives in Oregon and has studied under the supervision of Garry Landreth.
If the parents will not attend, maybe you can offer to attend with them, or since you seem like a very active Godmother, you can attend with her if the therapist will allow it. I'm sure the therapist would also prefer to have at least one parent attend.

In the meantime, remember that we cannot make other parents love their children the way we would love them. The best you can do for her is love her the way she needs to be loved yourself, which I see you are doing an excellent job of.

As her Godmother you can:
-Give her lots of hugs even if her mom or dad is pushing her away and expecting her to trail behind.
-Look her in the eyes when she talks and really listen.
Repeat what she says back with interest and without judgement.
-Enjoy her interests with her (play doh, dolls, art, music, etc.)
-Listen to her feelings without judgement or criticism. If she wants her blanket, let her have it. It's her blanket. If she wants a hug, give it to her.

This little girl is bleseed to have you as her Godmother. Thank you for caring so deeply about her. She will always remember the love you gave her in the midst of heartache, rejection and chaos.

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answers from Seattle on

She's only 4! This sounds like normal kid behavior. I am wondering why the parents of an adopted child (already a difficult adjustment) are not doting in this child to help her through the transition of a new divorce. Sounds like everyone needs a little counseling. Maybe the parents are the ones with guilt issues and the child feels it. Dont worry about her she kids are resilient. All they need is love and security.



answers from Seattle on

I think for the sake of the child that the parents should go to a family/child counselor. She/he would help them set up common rules and expectations for your goddaughter. This would give her stability and enable her to blossom into a beautiful little girl. They would not have to talk about their marriage-divorce etc--just their daughter.



answers from Portland on

Between 3.5 and 4 my daughter went through a clingy period where she wanted me to carry her more. Ugh. Prior to that she had all of maybe a couple of months of separation anxiety when a baby/toddler. She has also been showing some signs of shyness and she has never before been shy. I think there are some mental development issues that they go through around 4 and the stranger danger issues are coming into play for us. So, between development and divorce, I can see some need to know that she is still loved with extra closeness and cuddle time. We do need our mommy's and daddy's to show us they love us, especially in times of stress.

When some of the stress of the divorce has mellowed, yes, she should be able to find her security internally, but she needs to know that she is loved and that the divorce is not her fault. Give her some time and lots of loving and reassuring.

Good luck to the family,



answers from Seattle on

I am so sorry for everyone involved in this, but especially the little girl. What a tough thing for her. I can't comment much, but I do know that attachment issues are very big for international adoptions. I'm not surprised she is feeling insecure given her life start and now having the only family she's knows ripped apart. It seems like a professional counselor of some sort with experience in international adoptions and issues would be helpful. I'm sure their adoption agency could recommend someone.

I have 2 1/2 and 5 1/2 year old boys who are VERY attached to their blankies. I am not the least bit concerned about it. Most children have comfort items like that. In fact, my 14 year old still has a piece of a tattered diaper that he had as a child and occasionally likes to sleep with it.

Prayers to your friends and their little girl. I hope they get the help they need so she can feel more secure.




answers from Portland on

I think she should be aloud to carry her favorite blanket for comfort and especially now it seems she needs extra hugs and holds. Both parents should try to do this as much as possible and as time passes and her new life situation settles in place she will get more independent!

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