Samantha Toweel-Moore (psychologist & occupational therapist) answers:
I am sure there are many parents who share these experiences with you. Divorce, no matter how well it is handled, cannot eliminate change as a stress factor. Change, regardless of the cause, is always unsettling to some degree.
Your son may have to adapt to the typical changes of new locations, new routines, a new picture of the family structure within his home, new time allocations with his parents, new transport arrangements and new meals, just to mention a few. The stress of change is accumulative. His world is unsettled on a practical level at the very least. His behaviour reflects the discomfort he feels and the help he is seeking.
I commend you for taking every care to deal with all the practicalities and emotional triggers in a manner that is child-friendly. Your efforts do help to keep this difficult process as painless as possible for your son. However, children as young as your son are egotistical. They see everything that happens in their world as a result of their actions, no matter how illogical this may be. It is very possible that your son feels some responsibility for all the changes in his life.
You can help him overcome these difficulties by sitting with him, together with your ex-husband, and explaining to him that you both love him the same as you did before you lived separately and that you live separately because daddy and mommy need to be apart to be happy and you want happiness for all of you. Nothing he can do will change the fact that daddy and mommy need to be apart to be happy. You have tried living together, but it doesn’t work. Make it clear that it is your decision as adults to live apart and nothing he said or did made this happen.
To counteract the possibility that he may be reacting to your tension and using the negative behaviour to get more attention from you if you are preoccupied when you are with him, set aside at least 30 minutes for one-on-one time with your son each day. Switch off the television, radio, phone and computer.
Model the behaviour you want to see. Be calm and kind. When you make mistakes, don’t beat yourself up or call yourself names, or he will do the same to himself. Try to anticipate bad behaviour triggers and distract him. For example, play a game when you make a request. Give each other character names and act out activities to make them fun and him less inclined to resist.
A psychologist could provide a more in-depth analysis and ways to handle the cause of this trouble, should these tips not create the change needed. But it has been my experience that one-on-one time on a regular basis and parents who are kind to themselves create big positive changes for little people.