Q: How do you help very young children cope with their parents' separation and divorce? When the concepts are so complicated, how can parents tell if children are emotionally OK? My children are 3 and 5, and I'd like to know how to make them feel better about things.
--Sally Keller, Ontario, Canada
A: Children can grow up with divorce and be just as healthy as children who live with both parents. But it takes hard work, commitment and compromise by both parents.
The topic is complex, and we'll cover it in two parts. Today's column deals with minimizing upheaval and preventing trauma. Next week, we'll talk about children's emotional adjustment.
In the turmoil surrounding a divorce, it's easy for parents to wonder how their children will survive, much less be happy again.
"But there is a difference between temporary crisis and long-term pain," says Constance Ahrons, a psychology professor the University of Southern California.
"If a child is allowed to keep meaningful relationships with both parents, in a year or two, they come back to normal."
Most people hear only about difficult divorces, so constructive role models are rare, says Dr. Ahrons, author of "The Good Divorce" (HarperCollins, $23.)
One thing that's crucial for young children is to change their rituals and routines gradually, particularly in the first few months.
For example, some experts feel children between the ages of 1 and 5 benefit more from short daily visits with the out-of-home parent rather than from the common scenario of the child spending an entire day with Dad once a week.
Many parents get so caught up in a power struggle over rigid time slots that Dr. Ahrons says they can't think creatively about what's most beneficial to the children.
Lots of readers said that the worst things divorced parents can do is fight bitterly in front of their kids and bad-mouth each other.
"Even if you dislike your husband, your children do very much love their father," says Judy Feador, a parent from Strongsville, Ohio.
CAN YOU HELP?
Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608.
* Boys will be boys: "I didn't grow up with brothers, and now I have two boys of my own, ages 3 and 6," says L.T. of Phoenix. "How can I tell the difference between when my children are just being normal, active, boisterous boys and when they're being obnoxious? How can I tell what's behavior that needs to be curbed?"