How to tell a 6yr old child that Mom and Dad are splitting up?
May 8, 2016 4:19 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations about what and how to explain to our 6-year old daughter that Dad (me) has moved out and won't be living at home for an extended period (very likely a few months, at least). It's entirely unclear whether I'll be moving back home ever. I'll be with my daughter tomorrow and her mom and I have both agreed that we need to start explaining this to her, and Mom has asked that the conversation happen tomorrow. So I'm trying to get prepared for that - both trying to figure out what to say (or what not to say), and to anticipate what questions my daughter might have.

My wife and I recently split (less than 2 weeks ago) and I moved out of the house (hotel surfing at the moment). It's both been-a-long-time-coming, and also was sudden - a very angry late night fight where things were thrown, glass was broken, and our daughter was awake during the whole thing. It was not the first such fight. I haven't been at home with them since , though I've seen both my wife and daughter (separately) since then.

Fortunately the one thing we seem to be very much aligned on is that we need to each do our best by our daughter (i.e. I have no concerns about her being used as a pawn or any such thing). After one of our counseling sessions since the fight, my wife and I had a *really* good and productive talk, during which she brought of up the question of what and when we tell our daughter. I related to her all my thoughts on the subject, both in terms of the things I think should be said, as well as my take on how those things need to be said (i.e. the presentation, the mood, the approach). My wife seemed very glad and thankful and so I think we're aligned on the general approach. But, I've never done this before, I know jack shit about child psychology, and I don't have any friends to ask about how they've handled this type of situation. I don't know what questions my daughter's going to ask, and I'm wondering about how to answer things that are ambiguous (e.g. not having any idea whether our seperation will be 2 months or 6 months or longer). I'm very comfortable with being calmly truthful with my daughter, and I think she's receptive and resilient. But I am so so far out of my depth here. (Neither my nor my wife's parents divorced. My parents were from an ild where being happy in life, let alone marriage, didn't really register. By today's standards it would be insane for them to stay married as long as they did,.)

My wife and I have been in regular couples' counseling since before we got married. We'll continue this and one or both of us will also attend our own individual counseling. it's entirely unclear what, if anything, the long term future holds, but it's absolutely clear we cannot live under the same roof at the moment. And it seems highly likely it will be at least a few months until there may be progress on the various challenges that need to be resolved in order for us to feel like living together again could be something worth trying.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My only piece of advice: do it together. That's how my parents did it.

I was also six. It was terrible, but it got better. It'll get better for you too.
posted by incessant at 4:26 PM on May 8, 2016 [6 favorites]

talk to a counselor about it, possibly bring your daughter to a session together so someone unbiased is there to help you all walk through it.

Agreed with incessant; you need to be together on it. Neutral as possible and figure out what to say when she asks "why?" because trust me, that question will come up again and again, over and over even as she grows older and more mature. Some kids never stop wondering "why?"

Also, do NOT try to explain your relationship difficulties to her, ever. Your marriage affects your daughter but the intimate details are not for her to know. If you two cannot work as husband as wife, that is a different matter than working as father and mother to her. Too often children are given too much detail into their parents marriage and that's not right.

I'd set up counselling for your daughter to do alone as well. It really helped all my kids to be able to talk about the split as a family AND as individuals.

Let her know that she's safe to express any emotions about the split, including anger at either or both of you. Let her know she's still expected to mind you both and do her chores etc but that she can have any feelings safely and that's normal.
Lastly, emphasize that nothing she has done or could do will affect your marriage or split. She's not the cause of your split nor could she affect the possibility of you getting back together.

Good luck
posted by Smibbo at 4:49 PM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Together, absolutely. Be really straight up. Don't be harsh, but be really clear about exactly what is happening. If relevant, draw a comparison with a friend she has who she doesn't like/see anymore. Bouncing your unified script off the therapist would be a really good idea.

I was four, my parents were super direct.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:51 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

since you're not sure what the future holds, I would advise against answering that question entirely. Kids don't need slivers of hope that may be dashed later. Focus on the present. Focus on the separateness of the relationships. Focus on "right now, this is what we've chosen to do because its the best way for us to be happy"
posted by Smibbo at 4:51 PM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

at her age (since you asked for specific help about her development level) be sure to be very literal about your explanations. At her age, its easy for kids to get confused by grown-ups symbolic or metaphorical language. Be very direct and plain. Only answer her questions, don't offer extra information - allow her time to soak up what you've told her and ask questions.
posted by Smibbo at 4:53 PM on May 8, 2016 [12 favorites]

For what it's worth from a sociologist and a mom with a child adopted through foster care:

I was six when my parents divorced and when they told me I threw up. I then proceeded to make them each write me a letter promising to take care of me, which they did, which helped me a lot. Try to keep in mind that kids don't know anything about this kind of thing and you want to keep it simple and make sure you aren't leaving any gaping holes of understanding. Like that she thinks she won't see one set of grandparents again or something like that. Or that she can't talk about it. Or that she has to act like it's OK to protect your feelings/guilt.

I would tell her that you're having a hard time getting along. That you love each other but you need to take a break. That nothing will change about how you feel about her and you'll always be there for her. I would acknowledge that it's scary and hard and that you'll be there to talk to her about it. I would apologize for fighting in front of her. That was wrong. Arguing constructively is not inappropriate but fighting is wrong and scary for kids. I would stop doing it. Now and forever.

I would then maybe do a weekly meeting with the three of you to ask her how it's going and to see if she has any questions. Keep her as informed as you can. "I don't know" is an appropriate answer when you don't know. Tell her it's hard to not know and you're sorry. Helping her to label her feelings and manage them is really important. Don't assume because she'd not bringing things up that they aren't impacting her. You bring it up.

The best thing you can do now is treat each other with kindness for her and realize that how you handle things is going to impact the rest of her life. You are going to crack open her world and while it's not the end of the work, it's also a serious, life-altering trauma and should be treated as such. If you guys can stop loving each other like that, why can't you stop loving her like that? She's going to wonder.

I would make sure she has predictability and that both of you act as adults and maintain boundaries with her. This is not the time to give her endless screen time or sugar because you feel bad. She needs to know there is containment. Routine helps.

You can't stop it from being traumatic, but you can stop it from being traumatizing. You really can. Read about childhood trauma and how to help it. Read about developmental stages. Educate yourself about where you daughter is right now. It will help.

Research on divorce shows without a doubt that criticizing the other parent is a shitty, shitty, thing to do. Don't do anything to prevent her from loving you both fully and don't make her pick anyone for anything. You make the decisions. Don't let her make the decisions. She's too little. Tell her what Christmas is going to look like, don't ask her.

I could go on forever...
posted by orsonet at 4:59 PM on May 8, 2016 [43 favorites]

Really all she needs to know is that Daddy will be living separately from Mommy and her for awhile. She may ask questions, but underneath it all what she really wants to know is that you and Mommy will both continue to love her very much and that she will continue to see both of you on a regular basis. You just won't be living together.

Little girls (or boys) don't need details about adult's lives - there's nothing she can do about any of it and she should never be turned into an "ally" of either parent. Your goal should be to have her grow up a happy little girl whose parents both love her very much.
posted by summerstorm at 5:00 PM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Quick! Read the Co-Parenting Handbook's guide to this.
If you guys haven't met with a parenting plan consultant yet, please do so ASAP. I'd actually suggest holding off on telling your daughter until you guys have a solid parenting plan set up so that you can agree on particular things that you may not be thinking of quite yet.
posted by k8t at 5:02 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some of the language you use to describe your situation confused me as to whether you were going to try to reconcile with your wife or want to consider living together in the future. Imagine what a 6 year old who desperately wants her parents to stay rogether will do with seeds of hope like that? Don't talk about your living situation as "for now" or "maybe someday we might live together again." Keep it to absolute facts to avoid false hope that you may have to dash later.
posted by cecic at 5:06 PM on May 8, 2016 [11 favorites]

Be literal, don't coredump, and understand that you'll tell her for the first time tomorrow or in the near future if you wait to get your stuff together a little better, but this is a living conversation that needs to be had over and over as she processes it.

If you and her mother want to present a non-confusing united front, you need to agree on your talking points like y'all are members of the same party running for re-election. It doesn't actually sound like you're ready and have this in place. She's six, so do not answer the hard questions before she asks them, but you need to hash out what the party line is going to be on where she's going to live, go to school, sleep*, what happens if one of you remarries, what happens if one of you dies, if she's going to have to choose one of you, where her pets will live, what happens at Christmas. Be ready for the weirdest questions as well as the expected ones.

*You may not know this yet. For questions like this, keep in mind she's six and has no cultural understanding of divorce and also doesn't understand money or how housing works. Make sure you boil your answers down to a six-year-old level, which means it's about her and not about either of you. She's going to want to know what her life will look like. I don't think you should be having this conversation with her until you can do better than "daddy's going to live who-knows-where for a while", and her mother may just have to be uncomfortable a little while longer until you have some kind of permanence, and a custody plan, to offer.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:44 PM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Does your daughter have friends, do you guys have family members, with co-parenting divorcees or other non-nuclear families? Happy ones? Mention them.

It's hard feeling like an oddball, but if you can draw on a lot of "like Linus has a bedroom at his mom's house and his dad's house, like at Lucy's place it's just Lucy and her father, like Patty lives with her mum and her mum's girlfriend, like Charlie lives with his grandparents...there are lots of families that love each other but don't live together with mom, dad, and kid(s) -- it can be hard at first but Linus, Lucy, Patty and Charlie are all happy and have good families even though theirs are different from some other families. We're all going to be okay and there will be good parts about this, not just bad ones." Divorced/separated families are still families (sometimes for younger ones this is not 100% clear).

Since you don't know that reconciliation will happen, do not bring it up. Mom and Dad are going to be living separately, full stop.

Talk openly about how it was scary for everybody to have those fights and that the most important thing in the whole world for mom and dad is [child] and mom and dad are sorry (very! model good behaviour...) they could not not fight, and this is the next best thing.

Any questions that don't have an answer or don't have an answer yet can get a variation of "I don't know, but whatever it is, it will be the thing that is best for you because you are the most important person here."

(And that works really well, too. I have a daughter pushing nine. For almost a decade the answer to many, many serious life questions has been relatively easily sorted with "What is in my child's best interests?" The objectively correct answer to that is pretty much always the correct answer for me, too.)

You will be given conflicting advice on how much information to offer. I am in favour of openness and honesty; others feel that kids shouldn't be told anything they don't need to know -- you've already been told "Little girls (or boys) don't need details about adult's lives." ("Don't coredump" is sound, though...) Go with your gut -- you know your child better than anybody, therapists included. (If you're really unsure whether or not to discuss a certain thing, run it by a number of divorced parents and see what sort of answers and experiences you hear back from them.) Here, certain details about adult lives have filled in blanks that caused anxiety as blanks but which were a relief to know about. I was told by a professional that I was offering too much info in some cases -- a fair opinion -- but I was confident in my ability to gauge her maturity level, and when an explanation would be a source of relief rather than stress. There's a big difference between criticizing the other parent and just saying "We could not agree on X."

Best of luck, and if you keep your kid your first priority, you will both get through this.
posted by kmennie at 5:57 PM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think the basics that she needs to know are

1. Daddy and Mommy are going to live in different houses.
2. Neither of you will ever stop being her mom or dad.

Have some discussion with your wife beforehand about when and where you'll be participating in your child's life for, say, the first six months you're split up, so that you can tell her things like, "you and mommy will stay here at home, and daddy will see you every morning to take you to school and call you every night before you go to bed," or whatever. That age wants to know the concrete specifics of how her life will change and when you will be there.
posted by MsMolly at 5:59 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I was five when my parents divorced and I am now a stepmother myself :-)

One thing I remember when my parents told me was a fear that this was somehow my fault. This is very common. I remember saying that if my dad stayed, I would promise to clean my room and never fight with my sister again. Be prepared for some of this type of bargaining and don't take it personally. This is apparently a very common reaction.

Putting the kid first does not mean you have to stay married to someone you can't stay married to. But it does mean you have to suck it up sometimes. This can be a difficult thing but it can make a huge difference in everyone's stress levels. For example I had a student once whose mother, on the first day dad did pickup by himself, did not tell the dad to come 15 minutes early so he wouldn't get stuck in traffic getting the second kid at the other school. She proved her point, that she knew better. But when he got to the other school, his kid was in tears that he had forgotten he. So, who wins? Don't be those parents.
posted by JoannaC at 6:38 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]

a very angry late night fight where things were thrown, glass was broken, and our daughter was awake during the whole thing

This is an oddly passive voice sentence. I agree with orsonet. Apologize to her for fighting as if it's a bad thing you (both?) did and is generally speaking Against the Rules and shouldn't happen again. Say you are moving out. Say you will both always be her parents and will love her very much. Explain how things will work in the immediate future "You'll be staying with mommy and going to school here and then you will come visit daddy when he has a place for you which will be soon." Don't get too in deep. Don't be wishy-washy about your own wishy-washy stuff, that's your own baggage and has nothing to do with her. She is six.

you need to agree on your talking points like y'all are members of the same party running for re-election.

Yep. You BOTH tell her, you BOTH stay on message and you BOTH work out all the rest of your relationship shit somewhere far away from her.
posted by jessamyn at 6:40 PM on May 8, 2016 [8 favorites]

a very angry late night fight where things were thrown, glass was broken, and our daughter was awake during the whole thing. It was not the first such fight

Bear in mind this was probably the most terrifying thing your daughter has experienced, ever. I was a few years older than she is when my parents were fighting like that and I just can't even, it was so, so awful. Maybe she's less anxious and more resilient than I was, but the opportunity to chat about it with a child psychologist might be good. I couldn't have discussed it with my parents because it was too confusing: they were the ones who had terrified me, them talking about just made it worse. But internalising it didn't help, a calm adult (who didn't yell and scream and throw shit) but could explain things, would have helped.
posted by kitten magic at 6:58 PM on May 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

One thing I remember when my parents told me was a fear that this was somehow my fault.

Keep this in mind as you formulate your talking points. Up until somewhere in about the fourth year, children don't know they don't control the universe. For their entire lives and scope of experience, their every desire has magically been met simply by desiring: food comes when you're hungry, clean comes when you're dirty, interaction comes when you want it, sleep when you must. Everything is exciting and you manifested it.

So, a year and a half on from your first identity crisis (the realization that you are you and other people are not you), you're not entirely sure still which things you control and which you don't. Clearly, some bullshit has presented itself at this point (broccoli, people with hats on, the kid at school that bites) that you can't change, but still pretty much a lot of stuff seems to be happening because you made it so. You still aren't 100% sure whether a lie is a lie or if a lie changes reality. You're kind of thinking this power you have has to be wielded carefully, when suddenly a thing you DO NOT WANT happens and what else could have caused it, in this universe that is still mostly driven by you according to all available evidence, except you? It must be you that did this, you have made some horrible mistake, and obviously you can fix it if you can just figure it out.

You can't really talk a kid out of this belief, but you can address it head on: this is not your fault, this is not because of anything you did, this is mommy and daddy's responsibility. Repeat for the next 10 years. Your daughter may be at an age where she's kind of blowing your mind with her developmental leaps, but that's no excuse to *coughcough* over the hard shit and hope she works it out on her own.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:17 PM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

When she asks you why, may I recommend not telling her that mommy and daddy stopped loving each other. She may then begin to believe you can/will stop loving her unless she does things to prevent or change that. Instead, say that you want to find a way to not be so angry with each other, and that to do that you need to not live with each other. Also I completely agree that "I don't know" and "It's frustrating that I don't know" is a reasonable answer. Be honest, be loving and tell her that while things will change, she will always be loved by both of you.

And best of luck. It's good that you're thinking this through ahead of time and that you are doing it together. I think doing this with a lot of love for her and a lot of willingness to keep coming back and talking openly about this will be helpful.
posted by mulkey at 7:30 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your use of the passive voice (things were thrown, glass was broken), distracts from the fact that somebody has anger issues. It would be worth addressing that with your daughter too. Someone probably needs anger management and she might reasonably be worried about how this change will effect her parents' anger issues. The parent(s) should apologize for losing control of their tempers, and reassure her that she can trust them to not ever do that again, and take steps to
ensure that this is true.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:59 PM on May 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

"We don't want to fight any more, and the best way for us to keep from fighting is to live in different houses. You will have two homes instead of one. We have worked out a schedule for when you get to stay in each house & how you get to school, etc. We are doing this because we love you most of all & we know you want the fighting to stop."
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:24 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

Here's a past similar post that might also have some useful information for you.

And here's another one.
posted by OCDan at 10:09 PM on May 8, 2016

You can't really talk a kid out of this belief, but you can address it head on: this is not your fault, this is not because of anything you did, this is mommy and daddy's responsibility. Repeat for the next 10 years.

This. Every kid thinks it's their fault because they can't really think outside their own cause/effect relationship with the world. My dad got me the Dinosaur Divorce book which helped normalize my feelings (and I reread when I felt sad about their divorce). I don't recall if it's terribly dated but it's something your daughter could look at a later point in time.
posted by toomanycurls at 10:29 PM on May 8, 2016

Also, get a good home, quickly, so that you can establish a new relationship with your daughter. If you don't have a place you can have her with you, you'll likely be seen as abandoning the family, and your presence in her life will definitely diminish in quantity and quality. It will be replaced with awkward visits, where you don't know each other. Hotel surfing is also not good for your mental health. You need a home. You probably can't be a decent father when you're feeling so unsettled, and that's going to be something that colors your relationship with your daughter for years to come.

My ex did this -- moved out after infidelity and awful fights, and then didn't have a place he could have our daughter -- still doesn't 1.5 years later. She considers him to have abandoned the family and doesn't like or trust him at all. She sees him only because she is worried about the legal consequences of refusing. Because he still doesn't have a place where they can be together, she never spends any extended time with him. She won't even consider letting him take care of our cats because she doesn't trust him enough to leave someone she loves in his care. She says, "You don't leave your family."

Moving out of the family home triggers that kind of thought in a child, and the best you can do to mitigate that is to have a place she can stay and make her own. My ex briefly had a place with a room for our daughter, but never furnished or decorated it, and it looked like a room in a flop house. She was a total stranger in that house and on the two occasions she stayed there, she spent the whole time on the phone with me, crying and begging for me to come and get her. Please don't do this to your girl.

And please find a place that's a decent home for your own sake. Being so unsettled will totally interfere with making any progress.
posted by Capri at 11:10 AM on May 9, 2016

Lots of good advice here.

My mother told me it was because "mommy and daddy don't love each other anymore". That was a horrifying idea to a child (and not totally true either). And that was all the explanation I got.

We are doing this because we love you most of all & we know you want the fighting to stop.

Please for the love of all that's holy don't imply that this has anything AT ALL to do with her. These are adult matters between adults, full stop.

I will always be grateful to the elementary school counselor who, upon learning about my parents' divorce, immediately told me it wasn't my fault. Nobody else had, as all the adults were either busy justifying or busy being stoically silent.
posted by zennie at 3:40 PM on May 15, 2016

Please for the love of all that's holy don't imply that this has anything AT ALL to do with her. These are adult matters between adults, full sto

You know, you're right. I really didn't phrase that last sentence well because there's not a good way to phrase it other than "the fighting is going to stop." I can see how that could lead a child to feel responsible & it wasn't well-consudered.

What I did do when I found a new place was to make sure it was a good place for a kid to live, that my kiddo had the best bedroom, asked her decorating input & let her help make that room just how she wanted it so that she felt like it was really hers. I think that helped settle her in to the new routine fairly quickly. And the fighting did stop, which was the goal. I don't think we had a "family sit-down" because things were bad enough that one was not possible, so my script wasn't based on a thing that actually worked for me or her.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:52 AM on May 16, 2016

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