How do you tell a 5-year-old about divorce?
March 9, 2005 3:30 PM   Subscribe

My husband and I are about to legally separate with joint custody of our 5-year-old daughter. How do we break the news to her?

She's a shy, sensitive and frighteningly serious 5-year old. She knows what divorce is from friends around her. She's going to spend half the week in her current home and half the week in a new place. The separation will take place the 18th.

We're friendly to each other around her and have been paying plenty of attention to her.

I know there's no *good* way to tell her our marriage is over. We got the standard we still love her, we're still her parents and it's not her fault.

Any advice, either from your memories of childhood or breaking it to your own kids?
posted by Gucky to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I would leave the word "still" out of any reassurances you give her, as it can give the impression that she did something to cause your separation.

Picture her accidentally breaking something she knows you cherish, and then you reassuring her with "That's OK. I still love you" to which she mentally adds "even though I broke the vase."
posted by pmbuko at 3:42 PM on March 9, 2005

My Dad told us on Thanksgiving morning that he was going to move away "for a while" which of course, was forever. I was always a bit annoyed that I thought he was sugar coating it to spare his own feelings. I was 12 at the time and guardedly optimistic that I could now have reasonable relationships with both my parents, and that the yelling would stop. My younger sister had a harder time of it and I think still felt like she had done something wrong, because she hadn't been that close to my Dad in the first place. One of the things that I thought was pretty important about the whole thing was that my Dad's moving out [planned for New Years Day, way to wreck two holidays in one year] was very planned and dealt with. We left for the day to go do something fun [me, Mom and my sister] and when we came home, his stuff was moved out and furniture that was sort of important that he had taken [the big couch in thye living room] had been replaced. I'm sure this took a lot of work on my parents' end to deal with and I was grateful they'd taken the time to do it and not have some messy move-out scene.

From the sounds of it, it seems like the biggest shake-up in your daughter's life is going to be that she's moving to a new place she's never been to in a little less than two weeks. That sounds like a huge deal and more of a tactical/logistical morass than the information about you and Daddy.

The thing that my parents could have done better was provide stability. We went to my Dad's some weekend but not all of them. Sometimes his girlfriend was there, sometimes she wasn't. We got to call more shots than maybe were appropriate for kids our age, but neither of my parents seemed to think that it was important that we spend a routine amount of time with my Dad. We never had to go if we weren't feeling like it, and neither parent would ever grill me for news about the other, which I was happy about.
posted by jessamyn at 3:48 PM on March 9, 2005

My parents divorced when I was 13. My parents broke their divorce to us on a Thanksgiving night. It was the worst day of my life up to that point. I didn't deal with it well. But it didn't really affect my younger sisters nearly as much, who were 3 and 4 at the time. They didn't have the memories that I had, which made it much easier for them.

Your daughter is going to need plenty of reassurance from both of you. All I can say is to try and get across to your child that you BOTH still love her and that will NOT change, despite the upcoming changes. Let her know, as much as a 5 year old can comprehend, that it is not her fault that you are splitting.

Good luck...
posted by bawanaal at 4:08 PM on March 9, 2005

Be honest with her in a way that takes her feelings and her development into account. My parents took precautions to hide their problems from my sister and me which meant that we felt deceived when they finally told us they were getting a divorce (I was thirteeen at the time). I then tried to pry the truth about my parents' relationship out of them, as a result of which I heard many things from the both of them (especially my mother) that I wish they had never told me. You may have different problems with a 5 year old, but if she starts asking questions, be mindful of your audience.

Less is better than more. For a young child, my advice would be to keep it simple.
posted by Crushinator at 4:09 PM on March 9, 2005

We're friendly to each other around her and have been paying plenty of attention to her.
Better tell her asap as she does or will senses something amiss. Plus it will ease her into the new routine similar to leaving the nest to attend school.

I feel for your daughter.

neither parent would ever grill me for news about the other, which I was happy about.
I'd like to add; or talk negatively about her dad and hope he will do the same for you. As any important truths will show themselves when she is an adult. Worst spot to be as child is the prize of a tug a war. Worst game, as it’s really life which is not a game yet creates lots of spoils.
posted by thomcatspike at 4:15 PM on March 9, 2005

I would like to add that I am still very close to both of my parents and love them very much. Your divorce will not ruin your relationship with your daughter. Put her feelings first and things are likely to turn out ok. Good luck.
posted by Crushinator at 4:22 PM on March 9, 2005

When my parents divorced (I was 9), it came as a shock because my parents had never argued in front of us, and the unexpectedness of it all confused me. I had honestly managed to miss any of the warning signs, and didn't fully understand why they needed to divorce until I was a few years older and started asking questions. So a simple, age-appropriate explanation (something a little more detailed than "Your father and I have been having problems") would be in order. My mom also said the standard "it's not your fault" line, which actually only served to further confuse me because I hadn't thought it was my fault... until she said that.

The good news is, after I got a better explanation and noticed that there was a lot less tension around the house, I came to the realization that my family was better off this way.
There's no easy, trauma-free way to do this... so just do your best to make the transition easy on your daughter.
posted by Soliloquy at 4:29 PM on March 9, 2005

Since she's 5, there's some details that obviously need to be left out, but honesty will be important. Children are surprisingly good at discovering lies, and they're even better at remembering them.

For her sake, work with her father whenever you need to regarding anything for her betterment. Don't let anything come ahead of her, ESPECIALLY financial matters. When my parents divorced, there were plenty of fights over money, not good at all.

Be careful not to overcompensate. It's easy to think that spoiling her will keep her mind off of the divorce. Just the opposite, the more change, the more thought about it.

If she forms a close bond with another adult, like a teacher of school counselor, let them spend time together. She may want to talk to an adult she can trust who isn't involved.

Also, don't try to jockey for position of favorite parent. Even a 5 year old can tell when one parent is being too nice. They don't know that they want limits and guidance and even punishment when needed, but it's important to do what's best for her, even if it gets you yelled at and told that you're "meaner than daddy". She'll thank you years later when she's old enough to know better.

Don't pry for information, but it's good to keep an eye on her interests. Asking what she did over at Daddy's is fine, just make sure to stay focused on her.

Try to arrange with her father that she has relatively similar conditions at both houses. Keeping favorite toys at one house, or having a stereo at one but not the other can lead to a bit of unintentional favoritism.

Of course, these are just suggestions from what I went through years ago. Take of it anything that actually sounds useful.
posted by Saydur at 4:44 PM on March 9, 2005

My mom also said the standard "it's not your fault" line, which actually only served to further confuse me because I hadn't thought it was my fault... until she said that.

Same here.
posted by Crushinator at 5:04 PM on March 9, 2005

If there's another kid her age that she just doesn't get along with, even though there's nothing wrong with the other kid, you could use that as an analogy. "You already know how some people just don't get along well together. It's even harder when people are living with each other. Your dad and I tried and tried and we just can't. There's nothing wrong with him and nothing wrong with me, it just isn't working. Now, we both care about you very much and we are going to make sure that even though the two of us won't be living together anymore, both of us will still spend a lot of time with you. It'll just be a lot more separately than it has been so far." Etc.
posted by kindall at 5:11 PM on March 9, 2005

I think you're already doing the right thing by being conscientious about how this is going to affect her. I think the most important thing long term is to make a deal with your ex that you'll always deal directly with each other and not use the child to ferry information back and forth or pass along notes or anything. Little kids are a lot savvier about that kind of stuff than they seem. I remember incidents from my young childhood that played out about like this:
Mom: Have you ever seen your father's private parts? It's okay to tell me.
Me: One time I went into the bathroom and Daddy was peeing.
Mom: Hmmmm.
Later: Dad: Did you tell your Mother you saw my penis?
Me: Uh oh, I did something wrong.

NOTHING bad had happened, and yet one parent was pumping me for information to use against the other parent, and even at the age of four I knew I was stuck in a no-win situation.

Thinking about my mom telling us "Did your father ever tell you about the time he flew drugs to South America?" is funny to me now, but it certainly made for some really awkward situations back then.

I know this isn't exactly what you asked about, but I guess I just think that how you handle breaking the news of the divorce is a lot less important than how you handle the next 20+ years as her divorced parents.
posted by bonheur at 5:58 PM on March 9, 2005

Perhaps you should think of this as an ongoing discussion and adjustment rather than one "break the news and get it over with" occasion. I'd keep it very simple and then listen to and watch your daughter for clues as to what she in particular needs to hear.
posted by orange swan at 6:27 PM on March 9, 2005

Already touched on, but perhaps a list of "things that will never change" is a better way to tell her things like "we still love you."

This is a horrible analogy, I know, but in an emergency work meeting once, when the company had just been sold to a larger competitor, it was very reassuring when one of the managers said "Things are going to change. Not everything and not right now. Some things will stay the same. Certain things will be better, some things will be worse, some things will be about the same."

That was just very realistic, honest, and simple. And a lot better than what was going on in my head, which was "OMFG! WE'RE ALL FUCKED!" When someone is in a state of shock about big news, try to remind them that it's not their ENTIRE world that's changing. That's always the big fear, that EVERYTHING is now an unknown. Anything to ground her will help.
posted by scarabic at 6:59 PM on March 9, 2005

If you tell her "Daddy and my relationship has changed," make it very clear that the parent-child relationship hasn't changed and won't change because dads and moms love each other in a different way than dads and kids and moms and kids. You don't want her to think that you guys are going to get divorced with her next.
posted by Anonymous at 7:05 PM on March 9, 2005

I'd think that bonheur makes a very important point (in a thread of good points): make sure that she knows she can talk to you about this, that she can ask you anything at all, at any time. It will probably take a while for her to absorb this, and doing a regular sociable thing together (like making cookies or doing some kind of art or craft) and having that be an extra-special "no holds barred" chat time as well might be an idea. Having something else to do can take the immediate pressure off trying to talk about something upsetting, and it might make her feel better to know that even though she can always talk to you, there is a special time every week when she has your undivided time and attention, without the focus of that time being her directly.

I'd also keep in mind that sometimes kids perceive things extremely differently than we think, so it's a good idea to try different approaches, explore different depths (no need to try and get her to talk about her feelings of loss if all she really wants to know right now is where her toys will live, for example), that sort of thing. Also, don't forget about rules, I'm not a fan of being overly strict, but I'd think that keeping the house rules the same between your house and your ex's house if at all possible will provide a lot of stability for her, that way she will always know where she stands and what is expected of her (someone close to me is going through a messy break-up with kids involved and the chasm of difference between the rules in one house and the rules in the other is really messing up the kids far more than they'd be messed up otherwise). Good luck, I think you're approaching this the right way, and remember that kids are really resilient, as long as you don't lie to her, and she knows you love her, odds are she'll be fine.
posted by biscotti at 7:16 PM on March 9, 2005

as long as you don't lie to her, and she knows you love her, odds are she'll be fine.


You are about to rearrange the world of a certain shy, sensitive 5-year old. Give her something to hold on to: the truth. You can offer yourself but if she feels you're part of the false, adult world, that's not going to help much. The consequence? She will grow up with some sadness (who doesn't?) and without romantic disillusions (and that's a good thing.)

Oh, one other thing. Try to not be too serious about it, at least after the shock has set in. Do not go into permanent soap opera mode. Joke and let her know that you're going to be fine, the world's going to be fine, and she's going to be fine. And she will be fine.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 7:34 PM on March 9, 2005

You're giving her only *9 days* to prepare for this massive disruption in her life?

That seems *very*abrupt and almost guaranteed to make things more difficult than if you'd started preparing her a month ago. If there's any way to postpone the actual move/split in the living situation, please consider that. As someone who was also completely surprised by a sudden divorce announcement when I was 9, I strongly urge to you consider the position that any parent interested in being conscientious about how this is going to affect an unusually sensitive and serious child would give the child more than 9 days' notice of such a massive, wrenching disruption of their day-to-day life.

posted by mediareport at 8:03 PM on March 9, 2005

Er, "strongly urge you to," but you knew that.
posted by mediareport at 8:05 PM on March 9, 2005

Response by poster: Mediareport: You're giving her only *9 days* to prepare for this massive disruption in her life?

We've delayed telling her on the advice of our marriage councellor. Her advice was actually to wait until the move was just around the corner. Looking back, it was contrary to my instincts, but I think she thought we would reconcile or that my daughter needed the tangibility of seeing her new room, her new house so that the talk could be about the tangible changes, rather than our grown-up emotional BS.

I think if my husband and I stay in the pressure cooker of the same house together for too much longer, it would have a worse effect on my daughter. She is the most important person in all this, but there's just so long we can hold together without letting the tension show before bedtime.

We had talked early on about family outings and family dinner nights to ease the transition, but this might send a confusing signal?

No worries about sugar coating. My ego is far less important than that little girl's heart.
posted by Gucky at 8:19 PM on March 9, 2005

Well, maybe the difference between 5 and 9 makes the warning time more appropriate, but I find that hard to believe. Judging from my own heart, I'd say tell her immediately and show her the new place as soon as possible, but work your way up to substantial shifts in her daily living situation (including furniture changes, e.g.) over the next 9 days.

Good luck with this; it's tough. From what I've read and experienced and the info you've given us, you should pretty much reconcile yourself to the fact that she's going to feel hurt and confused for a while.
posted by mediareport at 8:41 PM on March 9, 2005

Gucky, the thought about tangible changes is a good one. The day after my parents told me they were separating, my dad took my sister (4) and me (7) to see his new house, and it helped a lot to know right away what that aspect of my life would be like. I even told myself I was lucky because I would have two houses, two bedrooms, two backyards--it sounds strange to me now, but at seven it was an effective coping mechanism. Try to come up with ways your daughter can make the house *hers* right away--her drawings on the fridge, maybe her father can take her along when he's looking for furniture. See if there are kids her age in the new neighborhood (anybody she already knows?).

If you can give her an age-appropriate reason for your split, go for it--but only if you and her father can give the same account and avoid showing any anger or resentment. This may be more personal than is relevant, but just as an example of how kids can understand things differently: I hadn't realized anything was wrong before getting the big talk, and was shocked because my mother had once told me (when I was worried about a friend's parents divorcing, I think) that she and my father would never get divorced because they loved each other too much. A simple "Daddy used to be in love with Mommy, and now he's in love with somebody else, and nobody knew this was going to happen" would have gone a long way. As it was, I felt lied to until I was old enough to understand the situation on my own.

Take your clues from your daughter. If she doesn't seem worried about it being her fault, don't make it an issue. Don't heap on the professional counselling unless she really seems to need it after a while. If it looks like she can handle family outings without getting confused (and if you can do it without visible tension), go for it--my family did birthdays and Christmas together, and that worked well.
posted by hippugeek at 9:48 PM on March 9, 2005

I know you asked for personal experience, Gucky, and I don't mean to presume you haven't done your own reading, but thought a few links might be worthwhile as well. From Activities for helping children deal with divorce, I like this one:

Creating two comfortable homes

Your child should feel comfortable both in your home and in the home of your former spouse. Making sure that each home contains familiar items will help your child feel secure and at home in both places. If possible, work with your child's other parent and include the following items in both households:

* Favorite toys and games
* Basic school supplies (paper, pencils, scissors, etc.)
* Clothing (underwear, socks, pajamas, jeans, etc.)
* Toiletries (toothbrush, hair brush, deodorant, etc.)
* Favorite foods
* Photos of all family members

This seems like it might be relevant as well, and contrasts somewhat with hippugeek's claim that you should rely on cues from your daughter:

Don't take comfort that your child seems to be adjusting to your divorce without anger. Many children who portray a calm, even cheerful demeanor through divorce are seething inside, and they may later express their anger in destructive ways, like depression (the mental health professionals call this "anger turned inward"), substance abuse, and/or delinquency. In addition, repressed anger often shows up disguised as sickness, for example, headaches, sleeplessness, nausea, and diarrhea.

Finally, a doctor/author is quoted in After Divorce: Minimizing Toddler Trauma saying, "Direct parent-to-parent handoffs create turmoil...Pick up and leave kids at a neutral location (daycare, friend's house). Minimize transitions and short visits. Longer visits (e.g. overnight and whole weekends) work better." The site claims on another page that toddlers "have little ability to anticipate the future so you can't prepare them for divorce," which may be where your therapist was coming from as well. That still seems like it minimizes the usefulness of giving a 5-year-old more than a week's notice of an impending divorce, but again, that might be my inner 9-year-old talking.
posted by mediareport at 9:57 PM on March 9, 2005

I don't think mediareport's advice (in the block quotation) and mine are necessarily at odds. Absolutely be aware of non-obvious ways that emotional trauma can manifest itself! At the same time, I think it's important not to see pathology where it may not exist. You know your child best--pay close attention to both what she says and does and what she doesn't say and doesn't do in the coming months, and respond accordingly. Be ready to change your approach as needed, while maintaining consistency (tall order, I know!).

I disagree strongly with this, however: "Direct parent-to-parent handoffs create turmoil...Pick up and leave kids at a neutral location...Minimize transitions..." If you and your ex can't be civil to each other, then by all means avoid exposing your daughter to that. But otherwise, it can be very helpful to have face-to-face time to communicate directly as long as you don't discuss contentious issues in front of your daughter. Face-to-face transitions can provide continuity between different parts of her life. For years, my father would pick us up from our mother's house and spend half an hour talking to her. I found it comforting that they could get along, and as a kid who was stressed by switching activities and locations (ah, the joys of ADD!), I really needed that transition time. Again, pay attention to whether face-to-face hand-offs reassure your daughter or make her anxious.
posted by hippugeek at 11:30 PM on March 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd also keep in mind that sometimes kids perceive things extremely differently than we think

Good point. Sometimes it takes a while to realize how big the misperception has been. Give her plenty of openings to ask questions. As you explain the news to her, stop frequently and try to get some recap from her of the key points. That way you can fix any big misunderstandings immediately.

I don't remember my parents' separation. I do, however, have vivid memories of their custody arrangement, because it often felt like a Property Arrangement. Every other weekend, I was dad's property whether or not that fit either my kid activities or his social calendar. The thing is, I would have given a right arm to have more time to just hang out with him, but it was the inflexibility of the arrangement that made the situation stressful. All the birthday parties, outings, special events, summer camps, etc. that had to be missed because those weekends were by golly his to plan and control. Sometimes the plans turned out to be better than what I was missing, sometimes it utterly sucked; but either way, it was two separate adults making two separate schedules that frequently collided badly and too often were more oriented toward adult needs than either child or parent-child. It's a really easy trap to fall into, especially where there's a power struggle happpening elsewhere in the couple's relationship (e.g. the divorce settlement).

Even though you as a couple have agreed to this arrangement now, do your daughter a favor by promising between yourselves now to coordinate between the *three* of you when setting her schedule. Even when a "my day" activities doesn't seem to have anything to do with a "your day". Ballet lessons on Mondy and Wednesday can lead to Sunday afternoon recitals. Afternoon swimming lessons can lead to Saturday morning meets. Etc. Let flexibility be more important than possession. Don't be get lured into viewing days on/off as a scorecard for either of your relationships with your daughter. An "I love you" call before bedtime, showing up at important events like the school play or soccer playoff...there are so many meaningful of ways you can maintain the continuity of that relationship regardless of whose house she's sleeping in that night.

And decide now what you as parents agree are most important for your daughter's continued development and well-being. Keep that list at hand, and be willing to throw out the custody plan when it interferes with those things you both had wanted for your daughter. It's so easy to lose track of that big picture at the everyday level, especially when there's tension between you.

My mom's breakup with my stepdad was later, and did make a big impression. He'd been a huge influence in my life, very much a father. Then we just up and moved into a new place one day, and I never saw him again for over twenty years. Mom did the speech about it being their own issues, nothing to do with me, blah blah, but it was still a huge jolt that I never did really comprehend. Because they'd done such a good job of shielding me from their relationship woes and working out all those breakup logistics without my knowledge. So I didn't see it coming AT ALL. It wasn't until I reconnected with my former stepfather a few years ago that I finally understood that the bombshell dropped over my head had in fact been lovingly, carefully crafted with every intention of protecting my tender 7 year old psyche. If the clock could be turned back, I'd say: above all be honest, be clear, and respect your instincts about what your child can reaslitically handle.

Ditto to what others have said about giving her more time to adjust. Any sudden change is jarring, and this one is several BIG changes. Who wouldn't be overwhelmed? Look for ways to make it more like an incremental transition than a single dramatic life change. And can any of those be a pleasant change? Not just "spun" with phony platitudes or bribery attempts, but some genuinely nice side-effects that temper so much chaotic newness?
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:26 AM on March 10, 2005

Late to the dance with an anecdote about "family night" after the separation: My parents divorced when I was three. Mom and I moved from Detroit to Baltimore (their hometown) and shortly thereafter, my father came to town on divorce business and took the two of us out to dinner. It's one of my earliest memories and one of my least pleasant. Even at that age, things felt tense and very uncomfortable and to this day, I remember that awful feeling. Beyond my big downer of a story, I also think your daughter might harbor dreams of reconciliation if you spend too much "pleasant" time with your STBX.
posted by SashaPT at 11:50 AM on March 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. This is a tremendous help in so many ways.
posted by Gucky at 12:04 PM on March 10, 2005

My mom also said the standard "it's not your fault" line, which actually only served to further confuse me because I hadn't thought it was my fault... until she said that.

Same here.

And here...

Personally I was relieved when my folks did get divorced. No more worries about their fights keeping me up, no more having to explain to friends why there was bedding in the living room.

But, on the other hand, I was something of a mess in my teen years up until quite recently, so I don't think I'm in any position to offer advice (other than the what not to do variety).
posted by Kellydamnit at 1:18 PM on March 10, 2005

I remember from my own childhood that the biggest source of pain was my parents maintaining the pretense that theirs was a trial separation, and there was a chance that they might get back together. There wasn't, of course, but they somehow thought that saying so would make it easier from me and my siblings to accept.

The end result was that we did not accept the separation as emotionally "real," which only prolonged the period of pain and confusion.

Also, if there is any bitterness in your separation, it's going to be damned tempting to be the "blameless" party in your child's eyes. Please don't have any emotional investment (or, at the very least, don't reveal any emotional investment) in making the other partner less right than yourself. Concentrate on making sure the child feels the unconditional love of both of you.
posted by curtm at 3:16 PM on March 10, 2005

My daughter was 5 when her Mother and I divorced. She is now 18.

The single thing I can add is "open lines of communication." It was difficult, but I convinced my (then) wife that my daughter be allowed to call me anytime she wanted.

I would get calls at bedtime just to say goodnight. Sometimes a call just to check if I was out there and available. I told her over and over that she was my daughter. She would always be my daughter. We told her mom and dad would not live together anymore, but that she would live with us both.

One thing my daughter tells me now is that she appreciated that I would simply tell her that her mother and I would never get back together. She had friends who worked to get their parents back together. She said she never had that particular stress.
posted by ?! at 10:15 PM on March 11, 2005

I very, very strongly recommend you read the book Learned Optimism. I am about done with it, and it addresses in sections how a divorce can change a child's "explanatory style," making them a much more pessimistic person for the remainder of their life -- and how to avoid that. This man is a cognitive scientist that's been working in the field since the '60s, and, I assure you, not a quack. As I've been reading it, I've often been nodding and saying, "Yes, that makes a great deal of common sense."
posted by WCityMike at 8:46 AM on March 13, 2005

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