Best practices for talking to a child about separation
March 16, 2015 6:38 AM   Subscribe

I need help figuring out the best ways to explain separation/divorce to my extremely precocious 6 year old. I'm hoping that this process can be as compassionate as possible all around, but the idea that I'm "ruining her life" by considering ending our marriage is plaguing me. Books, anecdotes, what you told your kids, etc - anything would be helpful.

I want to note that MY parents divorced when I was around the same age and I don't feel like they ruined my life, but it's different when it's your kid. And this is not a situation of abuse or violence or anything. Just a marriage that has grown apart past the point of fixing. There is no fighting in front of her - we're pretty much just passive coparenting housemates. I think this is part of why it's hard to explain to her - her dad is an excellent father and good person. We just haven't worked for many years now. Thanks for any thoughts you all have.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just tell her the truth. I would highly recommend that. If "we're not in love anymore" doesn't make sense to her, say, "mommy and daddy have different opinions on a lot of things. Mommy and daddy don't want to argue all the time in front of you, but it is hard for us to agree."

There is no way to make this not suck. I'm sorry.
posted by quincunx at 6:43 AM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

My parents told me together, at home, and then explained the visitation plan and immediately took me to see the place where my father would be living. I'm sure they said a bunch of stuff like "we both still love you", but the main questions in my mind were practical, so it was good to be able to understand that situation. I was 8 and not at ALL surprised by the divorce, so YMMV.
posted by ecsh at 6:46 AM on March 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Anecdata: I am both a child of divorce and now a stepmom to my partner's son from a previous marriage. He really struggled with the idea of ruining his son's life. What I explained to him, and he later learned through his own experience with my family, was that ALL of my issues with my dad were because of who my dad is as a person, not because of the mere fact of the divorce. It turned out I was a lot like my mother, and the things which bothered her about my dad are the same things which bother me. And I told my guy that regardless of where or with whom kid lives, HE has the choice not to be that guy. I see how much he loves his son and treasures every moment with him, and I wish I had a dad that cared half as much!
posted by JoannaC at 6:50 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Erica Jong wrote Megan's Two Houses for her daughter when she and Jonathan Fast split up.
posted by brujita at 6:54 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

"mommy and daddy have different opinions on a lot of things. Mommy and daddy don't want to argue all the time in front of you, but it is hard for us to agree."


Whatever you do, please do NOT come up with an answer that puts her in the middle of it.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:59 AM on March 16, 2015 [32 favorites]

I would recommend not saying something like "we're not in love anymore" regardless of whether you think she can conceptualize that. When we had this conversation with my (then) 12 year old, without us ever dropping that line, her first question was, "Did you guys EVER love each other?" I think it's important to reinforce that your child came from a place of love.

We approached it by saying that we still really cared for each other, but in a different way than people who want to live together. We then just waited for her questions.

I'm sorry you have to go through this part, it was really one of the most anxiety provoking parts of our separation. You will feel much better having this behind you. Good luck.
posted by lilnublet at 7:17 AM on March 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Divorcing and co-parenting with kids hinges on three ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL principles, from which everything else springs: 1. Never, ever, EVER, under any circumstances, bad-mouth or disparage your partner OR the marriage itself in front of the child (even if the OTHER parent does so), 2. Do not TELL the child how they feel... e.g. don't say, "Now, this might be scary" or, "I'm sure you're feeling sad right now...", aaaaand, 3. Every decision that is made should be made FIRST with an eye towards what is easiest/healthiest/least-disruptive to the kid.

It may SEEM easy to do these things now, at the outset. However, doing them for the REST OF YOUR LIFE can be astoundingly difficult at times (not, like, ALL the time, thank god). Think of it like meditation or yoga... a lifelong, occasionally-challenging, perpetually-evolving commitment.

You'll get lots of different advice from lots of different people. Take what works for you, leave what doesn't. But before implementing ANY of it, re-read those three principles. I'm serious. And MeMail me at any point for venting/advice/sympathy... I've been walking this particular path (as has my boyfriend) for close to a decade.
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:18 AM on March 16, 2015 [18 favorites]

(Also, one more-recent data point: a friend agonized about telling her kids about HER separation for months. When she finally told them, they were like, "Oh, that's cool, we think we'll ALL be happier this way!" So... you may not get THAT reaction, but kids can sometimes surprise you. Like Principle #2 above says... don't TELL them how they feel. Just be a warm, accepting, loving "safe place" where they can feel whatever they ARE gonna feel.)
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:21 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

We went for "Daddy wants Mummy to be a different kind of wife, and Mummy wants Daddy to be a different kind of husband, and we've tried to be different for each other but it's making us very unhappy together, and so we are going to be a family that lives in two houses. Mummy and Daddy are always and forever your parents, and we love you very much and our problems are about grown-up things between us, not about our family which is wonderful."

Make sure your partner is fully on-board with sticking to the plan. Mine decided to be "totally honest" with the kids, i.e.: "Mummy doesn't love Daddy and that's why you can't have Daddy at home anymore, and Daddy is very sad about this." It helped to get the counsellors involved to remind my partner that this was horrible for the kids.

It will be stressful. Try to save a financial cushion ahead or to trim what you can now, so that you do not have to cut anything the kid will notice during the separation and do the shared visitation schedule or whatever away from the kid's hearing. Ask them for their schedule and suggestions, but at six, giving them an established routine of "Okay, every Saturday you'll go to art class with Dad and Thursday is sleepover" is kinder I think than asking them to decide which feels like too much responsibility and possible emotional pressure from the parents for the kid to handle.

If you're the one leaving, you may be very happy which can be hard for the kid to understand. Reign in all your emotions, not just the sadness and anger. You want to be calm and stable Mom now, so save the big happiness/grief for your adult friends, family and therapist.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:31 AM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

If it helps any, the way my 8 year old explained the entire concept of divorce to a 7 year old friend was "Divorce is, like, when two people who are married figure out that they are bad at being married to each other, so they decide to live in two separate houses and not be married any more. But they're still your mom and dad, so it's kind of like they're still partly married, it's just a different kind of family." (Me and my kids' dad are still married, but her best friend's parents are divorced.) Her friend asked "What do you mean, bad at being married to each other?" and she said "Just, you know -- they can't solve problems together, they can't make decisions together, they don't like the same things or want the same kind of life, and it makes them grumpy all the time." So that's a kid's perspective on her BFF's parents' divorce.
posted by KathrynT at 7:44 AM on March 16, 2015 [83 favorites]

Tell her the truth - even a not-precocious child will see through the lies on some level, conscious or subconscious. (And the less honest everyone is, the more likely issues will present themselves through behavior, because that's a child's way of "hiding" their feelings.

And the other hugely important thing is that the parents act like adults, not brats, in the separation and divorce. Modeling positive behavior is an absolute necessity; it's necessary to show a child sadness that the relationship is ending, but it's not ok to be destructive or petty.

And if the other parent decides to flake about parenting or visitation, honest to God, be straight with the child about it, don't lie or make excuses for their behavior, just be matter of fact (NOT angry), and move on.
posted by stormyteal at 7:46 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Since you are just asking about how to tell your daughter, I'll focus on that component. First, we had a divorce counselor (yes, such a thing exists) and we utilized his advice about how and when to tell our son (who was your daughter's age when we told him). Second, we had a script that we came up with together with the counselor's help. It wasn't something that we read verbatim but we both had it in mind when we talked to our son. I can't recall what was the in script other than assuring our son he was loved, explaining he would see us both regularly and that we would still do things together but that we would no longer all be living in the same house. As someone said up thread, we'd already worked out custody and his dad already had a place to live when we talked to him. I know we asked during that initial conversation if he wanted to go visit his dad's house and he did; so we all went to look at the new place right then. His dad did not move out that day but we had all the practicalities worked out before we explained the separation to our son.
posted by youdontmakefriendswithsalad at 7:49 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Friends of mine broke it to their first grader by referencing a friend of hers whose parents were already divorced, who she knew. They said something like, "We have decided that we are going to be the kind of family that lives in two houses, like Casey's family. Would you like to go see where the other house is, and what your room will look like there? Mommy will stay in this house, and Daddy will live in the other house, but you will have a room of your own in both houses." The whole not-in-love thing is probably too heady even for a precocious six year old, but the practical stuff weighs on their minds, the safety/security stuff. When my friends told their kid, the second house had already been procured and a room set aside.
posted by juniperesque at 8:12 AM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

There is no fighting in front of her - we're pretty much just passive coparenting housemates. I think this is part of why it's hard to explain to her - her dad is an excellent father and good person. We just haven't worked for many years now.

It seems like your child won't have any experiences/memories of you two in conflict, and this can help with the "you still have a loving family, but there will be two homes" kind of idea. I feel I can safely assume neither of you will be bad-mouthing the other in front of her, and this is amazing. My parents had a messy divorce where I knew too much and my parents did not get along at all. The difference between me and my friends whose parents solved the divorce maturely and created a safe space for the children to feel loved at all times by both parents seemed to make all the difference. I never wished my parents would get back together- I wished for a divorce like my friends' parents had! Also, 6 year olds are very resilient. As long as they are loved, supported, and get to do fun things with mom and dad, and don't pick up on anger/resentment/stress... there is a good chance you will absolutely NOT be ruining her life. It's more important the child pick up healthy relationships between the loving adults in her life (i.e. her parents), than any kind of tension at home. Best of luck to all three of you.
posted by stumblingthroughitall at 9:18 AM on March 16, 2015

6 year olds are very resilient

I'm really sad to say you shouldn't rely on this. My 6-year old son developed acid reflux around the time his father was moving overseas for good. He ate nothing but yoghurt for several months and got very skinny. He had trouble at school, complaining he was being bullied, that he had no friends, that he was stupid. He started slapping himself, hitting his head against the wall. It was heartbreaking to watch this from a formerly fun, confident, popular and smart kid. He saw a psychologist once a week, and it took a couple of years for him to stabilize, for the random night-time crying to subside.

I believe what exacerbated the trauma was anxiety, not knowing if or when he would see his father again. His father left all options open, made no firm promises except to say he would try to visit for all school holidays, and then didn't show up until a year later, for just two weeks.

If at all possible, try to have a firm arrangement on custody and visitation for the first year or two. Certainty at this uncertain time is so critical to the child.

I wish you luck but please don't expect this to be less than hard.
posted by Dragonness at 10:06 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

2nding what juniperesque said, which is basically how my ex and I explained things to our (then) 7 and 10 year old kids. We said "we would always be a family" and talked about how the family might change in the future. Don't talk about your changing relationship--focus on the details that pertain directly to their lives.
posted by she's not there at 10:59 AM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Keep this in your back pocket, and pull it out if needed - from a 5 year old, processing the news of his parent's divorce, in the context of "we don't love each other any,ore, but will always love you" (not suggesting that wording, but if your child has a similar concern):

"Oh, you mean parents are in love like magnets, but with kids love is like glue?"
posted by vitabellosi at 11:28 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm in the end stages of a divorce, and I have an 8-year-old daughter. I have the same concerns as you do.

I strongly recommend Mom's House, Dad's House: Making two homes for your child. It was unbelievably helpful for me during this difficult time, and I'm grateful I read it when I did. It is full of clearly written information and advice for the emotional, physical, and logistical challenges you're bound to encounter.
posted by the matching mole at 9:24 AM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

My parents divorced when I was about the same age, as well, and my Mom again when I was about 13. I agree with a lot of the other posters here who are recommending just telling her the truth! Kids are amazingly perceptive, so on some level she maybe already knows something's up. My response to my Mom and step-dad telling me they were divorcing was "It's about time" - granted I was 13, but still. Since she is precocious (as was I), I definitely don't recommend telling her how she feels or might feel (as has been mentioned above), that "everything will be OK", or anything like that - you run the risk of upsetting her to the point where she may stop listening and start to argue. My parents handled it badly, but what would have worked for me would have been if they had both told me calmly and truthfully what's happening, explained why it was happening (some of the examples above are how I would have liked to have been told as a child - dorothyisunderwood's and KarenT's in particular), explained a bit how things were going to be (and how they'll be better/happier for everyone - just be careful not to say "better" or "happier", describing happy situations will do the same, without creating a "this is worse than that" statement she might not be ready to hear), and reassured me that it had nothing to do with me and they they both still loved me. Please please DON'T EVER put your child in the middle of anything between you and your husband in this (or any other) situation. I don't mean hide what's going on, but any blame, wishes, regrets, or otherwise you can bet she'll remember, and it may come back to haunt you. Best of luck.
posted by anoncanuck at 1:51 PM on March 21, 2015

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