Mommy is moving out
April 23, 2014 9:07 AM   Subscribe

What are some of the better ways to tell a young child that Mom and Dad are splitting?

Looking for suggestions for approaches and specific phrasing for talking to a five year old child about their parents splitting, specifically a situation in which one parent is moving to another house nearby and the child will visit there but still primarily live in the original house with the parent who has been the primary caregiver, has more interest in parenting, and has more energy, time, and patience for parenting.

What we have in mind so far is something along the lines of Mom and Dad are not getting along great so they are going to live separately, or Mom wants more time alone so she's going to have another place where she sleeps (just for the record, the latter approach was Mom's idea). We are interested in hearing other possible approaches that might be better.

We will be talking to a qualified therapist soon about these matters but I felt it would also be valuable to get input on AskMeFi.

Personally I'm not a big fan of using the D word with the child because although the child is not familiar with the term "divorce", I feel it risks putting a label on the situation in a way that could possibly convey a negative connotation or feel like a stigma to the child (although inevitably as the child gets a little older the D word will find its way into the child's vocabulary and frame of reference). I prefer an approach that is more along the lines of "there are all kinds of families and this is what ours is going to look like now" so that it feels more like this is just another way of doing things and it's OK and will still be fine and is not a big deal.

By way of background information, it's not a situation where there has been open warfare, but there's certainly been a major lack of open affection and closeness between the parents. The child has lots of attention, is happy, social, bright, mature, confident, and resilient, and is very aware of the love both parents have for the child, and it will be expressed to the child in some way (is direct the best?) that this split is not the child's fault.

Thank you for any suggestions and ideas for dealing in the best way possible with a challenging situation where a young child's well-being is at stake.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have the specific words for you, but it appears your ideas are pretty sound. When very young children are involved (especially those in that pre-abstract thinking period of their lives), I always encourage that difficult situations (death, birth, divorce, injury, illness, sexual issues/questions) be explained with simple, concrete truths, with only enough detail to explain a necessary concept or answer a specific question.

And, let the questions drive the extent of the details... we tend to get WAY too deep into the complicated stuff and just create more confusion and/or concern.

And, lastly (and, I know you didn't ask and probably already know this, but here it is anyway), avoid, at all costs, speaking ill of each other.
posted by HuronBob at 9:16 AM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nix mom's idea of saying that she wants more alone time- there is no way a child could not take that personally.

Sit child down and say that there will be big changes coming up. There are always changes in life. Some are good, some are bad, and some are a mix of both good and bad. The big change coming up next is a mix of good and bad. The good is that the two people that you love the most are making changes so that they can be happier, better people, and more fun to be around. Mommy is going to have another house to live in while we stay here. You will get to have two houses to play at! The bad is that Mommy won't be around as much and I know that you and I will miss her some but, remember, she is only a phone call away and I will always be here. You are loved very much and I am here if you have any questions. One more good thing, we feel terrible about doing this to you so we are going to buy you that really expensive, slightly dangerous toy that you have been begging for. But, after this, know that mom and I will be a team as your parents and we will decide together what is best for you. Because mom is a great mother and a wonderful human being and we are going to love you and care for you no matter what changes are ahead.

And then do everything that you can to maintain a good relationship with your co-parent.
posted by myselfasme at 9:17 AM on April 23, 2014 [50 favorites]

Mom wants more time alone

I would avoid this approach, it implies that Mom doesn't want to be around Kid, which is directly contrary to making sure Kid doesn't think the separation is their fault.

I would go with something more along the lines of your "there are all kinds of families" theme - like "some families have just a dad or just a mom, or two dads, or two moms, and some times there are two parents but they don't all live in the same house. Mom and Dad have decided that they'd like to try being a family where Mom lives in a different house to Dad and Kid, but Mom still comes over a lot and still (does normal family stuff) with Kid".
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:19 AM on April 23, 2014 [12 favorites]

Five is old enough to understand divorce and parents splitting up. I'm sure the kiddo has friends whose parents aren't together, so I'd reference that.

"We have something important to tell you. Mom and Dad are going to be living in different houses. Mom's going down the street to stay with her friend, and Dad's going to stay here with you in this house. We both love you very much and most things will go on, just as they always do. You'll go to your same school, you'll go to the same karate class. Sometimes you'll go and hang out with Mom, or Mom will come over here and hang out with you. What questions do you have?"

Then answer everything as honestly as possible. You'll be surprised at how mature your little kiddo will be, you may also be surprised at how nonchalant or weird the questions will be. Don't talk about your feelings between parents, or why you guys are doing this. That's too much information, and frankly, your kid is at that stage where the only feelings he cares about are his own. He doesn't grasp that your feelings matter, so there's no point in talking about them.

This is never easy, but if you're honest and forthcoming and never slag the other parent, you'll be surprised at how smoothly this can go.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:20 AM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Small bit of experiential advice...

Went through something similar, and had the same concern about letting the child know that it wasn't his fault. I was admonished for thinking this way (and rightly so) because it likely wouldn't have occurred to him that it could have been his fault unless someone mentioned that it wasn't.

Just be straight with the kid. He's gonna remember this for a long time, one way or another.

Your idea of "there are all kinds of families" and this is just a different way of doing things, I think, is the sound one.
posted by Thistledown at 9:20 AM on April 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

My brother-in-law went through a similar situation with his ex-wife and son, who was almost 7 when she moved out (though they had been sleeping in separate bedrooms for several years prior). They went with something like your "there are all kinds of families" approach, saying that mommy and daddy were going to have separate houses and they love him very much. It's all about keeping it simple and straightforward and letting the kid ask questions as needed. For what it's worth, my nephew took it very well, probably because he knows so many kids who have parents who live separately.
posted by bedhead at 9:22 AM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

The most important principle in telling a kid about divorce is also the most important principle in co-parenting (which will last a LOT longer than the single telling-the-kid conversation): no negativity. Not ever. Even if it kills you. Pretend that saying anything disparaging/hurtful is like squirting acid with a water pistol. DO NOT DO IT.

Little kids will frequently base THEIR reactions to stuff on YOUR reaction (e.g. they fall down and scrape their knee and are fine UNTIL a parent freaks out, at which point the kid collapses in tears). Therefore, I'd keep it as positive as possible, and as NEUTRAL as possible (the "mommy needs alone time" is a horrible idea, BTW: sorry, mom, but it is). Don't bring up the parents' specific needs - that's WAY too high-concept for a little kid.

In terms of a specific message, "Everyone in your life loves you SO much and wants to spend as much time with you as they can! Our family has all lived together for a long time. But sometimes, you have to make a change so everyone can feel happy and comfortable. We're going to make a change in our living arrangement. This doesn't change how your parents feel about YOU, and you can always talk to us about how you feel, and ask us any questions you have. We know it might feel weird or scary, but we promise you that we'll both take the best care of you possible, and that there will be lots of love and lots of fun in BOTH houses."
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:23 AM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Also, a data point that might make you feel a little better: a friend recently left an bad, baaad marriage. The thing she worried about the MOST was telling her kids. When she finally screwed up the courage to tell them, they were... elated. "Never be scared to tell us stuff like this again!" were the exact words they used. They knew she'd be much happier on her own. I'm not saying that this is the reaction YOU will get, or that it's a TYPICAL reaction... just that you shouldn't go into it assuming that you'll get the worst possible reaction. Kids are often very perceptive and wise, and their understanding of these things can surprise you.
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:25 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your approach sounds sensible. My brother and sister-in-law did this last year (except the child in question was a bit younger - 2.5 at the time). One thing my brother and his wife did so well was saying nice things about each other in front of my nephew. If nephew was sulking and said "I wish I was at Mommy's house" my brother would say "I can't blame you for that since you have the best mommy in the world! But we're going to hang out here at Dad's tonight, okay?"

When I asked him if he liked his new homes, he proudly told me "I have TWO rooms and TWO beds." It didn't seem to have any negative effect.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:29 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

My step son was 4 when his parents split. I think their message was more or less "Mommy and daddy love you very very much. Right now we need to live in different houses to be the very best mom and dad to you that we can be. You didn't do anything wrong, this isn't your fault. We are just having trouble being friends for grow-up reasons." Frankly the kid was more or less fine with it because he knew his parents had been fighting and arguing. Even at four years old he felt the tension and knew things weren't happy. He was glad to have that done with. The biggest and most important thing is that you reassure them that isn't their fault, and understand that the kid is probably going to be more clingy.

Kids are adaptable. They'll be okay
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 9:33 AM on April 23, 2014

Said by a five year old, processing the news of his parents splitting up " you mean, between adults, love is like magnets, but between parents and kids, it's like glue?"
posted by vitabellosi at 9:47 AM on April 23, 2014 [38 favorites]

So, I had to do precisely this about 6 months ago. My child is 5 and sounds a lot like yours—bright, well-adjusted, much loved—and the situation was similar in that there was no drama around the house, but very little affection or closeness between the parents. It all happened rather suddenly, so we didn't have time to prepare, but what we did seems to have worked well. We simply told my son that Mama and Papa have decided that Papa is going to go get his own house, and now my son would have two houses, two bedrooms, two of everything. We told him that we were still a family, but just that the form of our family was going to change a little. We kept everything very matter-of-fact and positive—not happy happy joy joy positive, but no display of anger or bad feelings or anything else. We also stressed, and have continued to stress, that this is in no way his fault, that it is not due to anything he has done, but that Mama and Papa had been having a hard time with each other. We did not use the word divorce. It's since come up, and I've explained it, but we aren't really talking about things in those terms at all. So far, he's doing pretty well. Sometimes he's been a trifle clingy, but mostly he seems ok. What's been really important, I think, is that both my ex and I have agreed and have followed through on the cardinal rule of never, ever talking bad about each other or using my son to as any kind of intermediary or pumping him for information about each other. Never "Tell your father that..." or "Does your father have a girlfriend?" or "Your father, that two-timing snake", etc. We've also been very, very clear and scheduled about the custody agreement. Small children thrive on routine, so we've been very scrupulous about maintaining routine as much as possible, and about informing my son about the when and why of changes in the routine when they are necessary. It's never going to be over—I know that there will be unforeseen bumps and problems down the road, and maybe some of the strain will come out later. My own parents had one of those horrible, acrimonious 70s divorces, so I know a bit about what it's like to be the kid in this situation. But so far, so good. I found reading the pertinent parts of some of those books about kids and divorce to be very helpful. Good on you for thinking so carefully about this—I wish my parents had done the same.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 9:54 AM on April 23, 2014 [5 favorites] parent is moving to another house nearby and the child will visit there but still primarily live in the original house with the parent who has been the primary caregiver, has more interest in parenting, and has more energy, time, and patience for parenting.

Whoa, sounds pretty darned biased. You want to to make sure your kid doesn't get a whiff of your feeling that mommy has less interest in being their parent.

Do not say mommy needs her space. A five-year old is of course going to connect the dots and realize, "Oh, mommy needs her space from dad and me." No.

According to my kids who heard this when they were 4, 9 and 10, do NOT say there's nothing the kid did. My kids said they of course knew they never did anything and always wondered why their dad told them that, because over the years, they thought it actually might have been something they did to make dad so angry that he left them. Don't plant that seed.

Emphasize different types of families, emphasize the kid will get to have an awesome bedroom (or whatever awesome things they will have) at the new home, and emphasize that things may feel weird and you're always there to listen if the kid has questions. The kids will have questions.

Definitely keep it under three minutes, focus that they can ask you anything (kids will surprise you), and do NOT immediately get the kid into therapy.

And back off on "Mommy has less interest in parenting and less patience than Daddy."
posted by kinetic at 9:56 AM on April 23, 2014 [22 favorites]

I agree with those who say that telling the kid it's not their fault is actually a great way of conveying to the kid that it might have been their fault. I think it's preferable to give the kid a reason that obviously has nothing to do him or her, and then let the kid ask more questions if he or she wants more information on that topic.

The child will probably have, in addition to any conceptual questions, a lot of practical questions about where toys will be, where pets (if you have any) will live, when things will happen. Some of these may be good opportunities to give the child some input into the process. This is a major upheaval in the kid's life, and giving him or her some control over the small but important to kids aspects of it (toys, bedroom decor, etc.), so it is not purely something happening to the kid, but something they can contribute to and be involved in.

On the topic of not using the word divorce - while the terminology is not important, I do think it is important to not mislead the child about the reality of what is happening and what to expect. So if this is a permanent and not trial separation, don't give the kid the expectation that Mom might move back home sometime.
posted by unsub at 10:22 AM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

So if this is a permanent and not trial separation, don't give the kid the expectation that Mom might move back home sometime.

Shoot, I forgot this. Yes, make it clear to your kid that mommy and daddy are friends and always will work together to be happy, and mommy and daddy will do that living apart.

Don't give your kid any hope of reconciliation.
posted by kinetic at 10:29 AM on April 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

We told our kids that mom and dad needed to be better friends and that the way to do this was for us to not live together and for Dad to move to another apartment and you can visit him there. I wish we hadn't said it that way as it really upset the kids. I wish we'd say, "And the way we will do this is that we will have two apartments and you will spend time at each one. You will go to Daddy's apartment on these days and Mommy's on these days." My kids were so upset to hear their dad was leaving and I think that, despite us trying to word it the best way possible, it sounded like they were losing their dad.

I also wish we had said, "We need to tell you something and it may be upsetting for you" before we started talking. When we sat down to talk to my kids, I think they were expecting something fun or exciting was going to happen. They never expected that their entire world was going to be turned upside down.

I thought we'd done everything right, but I wish now that I'd tried those things. It's possible that anything would have still caused a huge amount of upset, though. But maybe try those ponts.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:34 AM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

1. Absolutely use the "divorce" word if you are getting a divorce. Your concern about "labels" is secondary to the need for honesty in this situation. Eventually, someone is going to say that word to the child; it should come from you first.

2. Secondly, you are getting good advice about nixing the stuff about parenting. Your child doesn't need to know this right now, even if it's 100% true. While a young kid can handle the idea of "divorce", they will have difficulty with hearing the stuff about parenting and not conclude that they are somehow to blame. The truth is that the two of you have differences that you can't work out, and that the two of you believe that a divorce is the right option for your family. That or something close to it should be sufficient.

3. Divorce is a negative thing; it's the end of a marriage. Your child will likely encounter other people who have been affected by divorce, and most other folks perceive divorce as a negative outcome. Don't put them at a disadvantage by trying to create a false idea of what divorce is.

My parents were rarely honest with me about their divorce and it was the source of years of resentment.
posted by DWRoelands at 12:19 PM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Five year old me wanders out to the driveway and notices that Mom's Toyota Station Wagon is filled with all of her stuff, including her bicycle and her potter's wheel tied to the roof. Filled. Every window rolled up and her things pressing to get back out, like when you cram a suitcase for a long trip.

"Mom what are you doing?"

"I'm going to visit your aunt."

"Why are you taking your bicycle and your wheel?"

"I said I'm going to visit your aunt."

I've wished she'd figured something else out, but cripes, I have no idea what it could be. There is no easy way to do this. It sucks for everybody involved and the only way through it is through it. And by that I mean the words you use during the talk are maybe not so important to get right as long as the actions you take afterward are.

Good luck.
posted by notyou at 12:20 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Little kids will frequently base THEIR reactions to stuff on YOUR reaction (e.g. they fall down and scrape their knee and are fine UNTIL a parent freaks out, at which point the kid collapses in tears).

QFT. The two most important things you need to convey are that Mommy is moving to a new house nearby and Mommy and Daddy love you like crazy. After that, you can get into things like there are all kinds of families. I'd also say, maybe not now but in a few weeks, it's okay to feel however you feel about Mommy living in a different house. It's okay to feel sad or angry or to miss Mommy but even when you feel sad or angry, it's important to remember that Mommy and Daddy love you like crazy.

Also, in the interests of doing something positive, what if you and Mom having dinner once a week with kid at a restaurant kid likes? Or getting ice cream or going bowling? That might be good to drive home the point that Mommy lives in a different house but she and daddy still love kid like crazy. Just a thought. Good luck.
posted by kat518 at 12:24 PM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

My parents split up when I was six. They chickened out and had a third party bring up the subject with me for the first time. I don't recommend you follow their example. My parents really should have talked to me themselves . . .


The woman who brought the subject up with me for the first time was an adult with whom I was very close; almost a third parent. And she handled it very well. I don't remember what she said exactly, although I remember being allowed to ask questions and I remember that she didn't provide any information about the problems my parents were having together. The discussion was about my world and my experiences.

I remember a distinct feeling of immediate relief when I understood that my parents would be living in separate homes. Even though my parents didn't fight around me a lot, I was very aware and very stressed out by the turmoil in their relationship. I never felt like their separation was my fault. And my parents made every effort to co parent well following the separation. I think that they basically did a decent job of it.

The feeling of relief didn't last. I remember the day my dad actually packed and moved out, I was heartbroken and I remember being heartbroken again on my next birthday that my family wasn't whole. But I still never blamed it on myself.
posted by dchrssyr at 12:51 PM on April 23, 2014

This may or may not be useful parents divorced when I was five. I have exactly zero memories of what I was told about it. It was just a thing that was happening and we all just kind of rolled with it. I do know that nobody said anything about alone time because that is something that I would have taken super personally at that age.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:53 PM on April 23, 2014

I was 5 when my parents told me, and my first response was apparently "if I promise to keep my room clean and never fight with my brother again, will Daddy stay?'

Now, as an adult, I am engaged to a divorced guy with a kid and seeing it from the other side. The best advice I can give you is to be a grown-up even if that means sucking it up sometimes. Sucking it up does not mean you have to stay married to someone you can't stay married to. But it does mean you have to work with your co-parent. For example, if the kid is not spending a holiday with you, try to reframe it not as 'my ex is taking the child and that is sad for me' but rather 'my child is getting to build memories of a holiday spent with his other parent and that is positive for him.'

It can suck to be the bigger person, but it has to be done. One memory that sticks out in my mind was the time we drove five hours in winter to be with his child, and got into an accident on an unplowed highway en route. The car seat looked okay, but we could not use it after it had been in an accident and so we asked the child's mother to loan us hers just for the visit. She refused and made a big stink about how can you believe it he did not even arrive for the visit with a proper car seat! That sort of pettiness drives me crazy. Be nice. It has to be about the kid...
posted by JoannaC at 1:03 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like fluffy battle kitten, I was five when my parents divorced and I have no memory of the conversation whatsoever. There are lots of other things that my parents did wrong in the ensuing years, but the initial conversation need not scar your child for life. (But yeah, don't say that Mommy wants more alone time!)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 2:25 PM on April 23, 2014

My father used to tel me that he and my mom stopped loving each other but they still loved me. I don't know if that was such a good idea. I wonder what a therapist would think. It screwed me up some I think. This idea that people could just randomly stop loving each other. It's true I guess but it still kind of screwed up the way I think about relationships.
posted by bananafish at 3:10 PM on April 23, 2014

the parent who has been the primary caregiver, has more interest in parenting, and has more energy, time, and patience for parenting.

Just one thing, coming from a child of divorced parents -I'm sure you wouldn't but - never, ever, ever let your child ever get even an inkling that you might think this way. It is deeply confusing, hurtful, awkward, frustrating, sad etc etc when one parent bags out your other parent as a child, even when they do it subtly or unconsciously. My dad was vigilant in never saying a bad word about my mother even at the most acrimonious of times, my mother did not show the same restraint, and it both tarnished her in my eyes and upset me/put me in a place I wasn't equipped to deal with/was unfair to a child.

I know it's not really an answer to your question but was of the worst things about divorce, to me, so do be careful. You need to be other parents biggest fan, going forward now, however much it might stick in your craw.
posted by smoke at 4:26 PM on April 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

Be direct, be straightforward, do it together, then provide tons of comfort or let them be upset as they need to, then answer their questions (including saying "we don't know yet, but we will figure it out together" if that's a true answer.) Don't try to tell them how to feel, or that it won't be so bad, except in response to questions that are clearly factually wrong, and be sure to make a clear delineation between marriages (which can end) and parenting (which never ends): "does this mean I will never see daddy again?" "absolutely not. your father and I are separating/getting divorced, lots of people get married and stop being married later, but we are your parents, nothing can or will change that, and you can't make us stop being your parents even if you wanted to."

Also: there is nothing you can do to make it easy, on you or them, just avoid making it worse: do it as a team, work out your strategy beforehand, and remember they will remember this moment so don't do it in a beloved play space or during a beloved activity. Also not on a school night or right before bed; they need time to process when they're not too tired.

Good luck. It sucks no matter what, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
posted by davejay at 7:58 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh yes, and from this moment forward, your partner (soon to be ex) is awesome and terrific, but you and they simply have issues that aren't about the kids, are none of the kids' business, and you're glad they were the ones you had kids with, period. In my case that's actually true, but even if you don't feel that way you'd better find a way to change your mind so you can say that for the rest of your life with sincerity.
posted by davejay at 8:01 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

There have been interesting studies done where even in homes where there is no "open warfare," the child(ren) are acutely aware that something is Wrong, regardless of their age. I moved out when our child was 3 and he actually was excited about helping me set up my new apartment, help decorate it, etc because it made him feel like he knew exactly where I was going to be and what the set-up was going to be like.

Even little kids can understand that grown-ups are having grown-up problems that weren't caused by them and that it's not their fault (If you're looking for books, It's Not Your Fault Koko Bear does a really good job, I think, of both parents showing the child that they love them dearly despite what is happening with grown-ups. I also like that Koko is never referred to by a gender, so it works for every kid).

I slept on the couch for six months because I couldn't afford to move out but the best I could come up with at the time is "Dad snores," but in hindsight I think our kid knew it wasn't true and I wish I could have come up with something better. Good luck to you guys.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 4:25 AM on April 24, 2014

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