How to talk to little kids about divorce
March 25, 2022 4:47 AM   Subscribe

I’m in the middle of a divorce and I have a 4 year old. In my efforts to show her that everything is fine, I think I’ve been neglecting to talk to her enough about her feelings. We talk about feelings about literally everything else but I think because I feel so incredibly guilty for instigating the divorce, I have been hesitant to address it as much with her. I also am very very careful to not say anything negative about my ex and find it difficult to explain *why* Mommy and Daddy don’t live together anymore without disparaging him. Please help me with what to say to my kid.

We have 50/50 custody and are both active, engaged parents. We HATE each other at the moment and both have a ton of anger. It is very acrimonious, not in the sense that we are fighting over custody or financials, but just that we are fighting about every single other thing we can think of. We very rarely do this in front of her but it is noticeably tense. Our daughter is perceptive and highly social, so I know she must pick up on this tension and I don’t know how to address it. (My ex and I are both in therapy but he is a raging narcissist.) We talk to her on the phone and FaceTime multiple times a day when she is with the other parent.

I don’t really know how to address any of this. I’ve told her Mommy and Daddy are having a hard time being friends and being nice to each other so we are living apart. I haven’t said the words “we are getting a divorce” or explained to her what that means or the implications for the future and I want to figure out a sensitive and kind way to do so. Last week when she was crying and saying she wanted us all to be together, I reassured her that we both love her so much and want to be with her every day, that it was ok to be sad, that this is really hard and it is sad and it’s ok to cry. But obviously it broke my heart. I also want to prepare her for meeting significant others and how to address that. As of right now she doesn’t even know the word “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” so I also have to figure out how to explain romantic love to a 4 year old.

I welcome any advice, book recommendations for her and me, literal scripts of things for me to say because I don’t know what to say -
posted by tatiana wishbone to Human Relations (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Three books that were incredibly helpful to my then 5-year-old:

Two Homes
Mom and Dad Don't Live Together Anymore
My Family's Changing

The second one is especially good at hitting the range of children's emotions. The child wakes her mom in the night to ask if she'll "one day get married and then get apart", her dad has a girlfriend and she's not sure how to feel about it, she asks her parents to get back together and they tell her that will never happen but she still wishes it would, etc. The third one gets into even more of the weeds, talking about how moms and dads may have arrived at the point of not wanting to live together anymore, how sometimes lawyers or mediators are needed to help parents work through issues, and so on. The first time I read "Two Homes" to my daughter, she sat bolt upright and stared at the page with amazement, then turned to me and said, "That's just like OUR family!"
posted by anderjen at 5:17 AM on March 25, 2022 [6 favorites]


I can't help with the wording, as my parents were pretty terrible about divorcing.
But please let her see a therapist too. It would have made a world of difference to me as a kid, to not be alone with my feelings. To have someone.

Even if you are the best parent in the world, you can't be that disinterested party she needs because you're not disinterested (and shouldn't be).
posted by Omnomnom at 5:40 AM on March 25, 2022 [5 favorites]


Best answer: I think the "no disparagement" rule is more about not venting specific complaints. Don't call him lazy or dishonest or whatever, or tell stories that make him look bad. But you can say "We hurt each other's feelings very badly, and we're still very angry, and sometimes grownups who keep hurting each other's feelings decide not to live together." You can also say "That's a thing we do with other grownups. Kids sometimes hurt our feelings and that's okay. I never want to stop living with you."

(I think generally it's good to be honest with kids about negative emotions. If you don't tell them you're angry, then sooner or later you completely lose your cool and it feels to them like it came out of nowhere, which is scary. And if you don't tell them you're angry at your ex, then the lesson is "people can disappear from each other's lives for no reason.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:00 AM on March 25, 2022 [18 favorites]


I also want to prepare her for meeting significant others and how to address that.

She shouldn't have to meet anyone new right now. At all. Absolutely not. Deal with the heartache of her parents splitting first.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:05 AM on March 25, 2022 [36 favorites]


Best answer: I’ve told her Mommy and Daddy are having a hard time being friends and being nice to each other so we are living apart.

That's all she needs right now - she doesn't need to know the legal terms or think about what that means for her future, or step-people, or anything else outside of her current universe, which is the three of you. Stick to the here and now and stay open to her questions, and she'll ask about the other stuff when it enters her universe (such as when she learns about step-parents through a friend who has one).

Last week when she was crying and saying she wanted us all to be together, I reassured her that we both love her so much and want to be with her every day, that it was ok to be sad, that this is really hard and it is sad and it’s ok to cry.

This is perfect. You are teaching her that you are a safe person to ask scary, confusing questions of. That is vital in an acrimonious situation - keep doing that consistently, and when new step-people enter the picture, or you/the other parent have to relocate (or she wants to quit piano lessons or get a tattoo or try certain substances or activities), she will know it's safe to come to you.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. And with a less-than-ideal coparenting situation, it's a really, really exhausting marathon. Pace yourself.
posted by headnsouth at 6:41 AM on March 25, 2022 [6 favorites]


Response by poster: Just want to clarify she will definitely not be meeting any new significant others for at least several months - that was more about how to navigate this when it does eventually come up. We’ve now been separated for 5 months.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 6:47 AM on March 25, 2022


My friends are divorcing right now and their 6 year old is going to therapy. She's a totally happy kid, not showing any particular signs of stress or upset, it's just a support for her (her mom has two therapists at the moment lol).

You are getting good advice here, and wow you sound like you are being great about it already - not rushing your kid into or out of feelings is so good.

My parents split before I was aware of it - I have no memories of it - and my stepdad was in the picture soon after. It was totally my normal. However when my mom and stepdad started having trouble, later, I haaaaated all attempts to introduce potential new partners - I know that my mom dumped one person because I was so vocally opposed. I still think it was the right thing for her to do.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:53 AM on March 25, 2022


Just want to clarify she will definitely not be meeting any new significant others for at least several months - that was more about how to navigate this when it does eventually come up.

It shouldn't come up in a few months. She's four. Keep any dating prospects away from her. She shouldn't know about them at all, and certainly shouldn't meet them.
posted by tiny frying pan at 6:55 AM on March 25, 2022 [27 favorites]


Best answer: This is so important:
sometimes grownups who keep hurting each other's feelings decide not to live together." You can also say "That's a thing we do with other grownups. Kids sometimes hurt our feelings and that's okay. I never want to stop living with you."
When i separated from son's father, two years ago, the boy was 11.
In my efforts not to disparage or Talk Bad about his father, apparently he got the idea that i would leave him too, if we had an argument. Be clear this an adults only thing.
Also, i would explain the word divorce, it i sufficient to say this is a grown up word for when adults separate, or similar. Sooner or later she will overhear you or other adults (or children) using it, and it will help her to know what it means directly from you.
I also
posted by 15L06 at 7:20 AM on March 25, 2022 [12 favorites]


>We talk to her on the phone and FaceTime multiple times a day when she is with the other parent.

But why? Does she call you or are you checking in on the other parent? If she calls, maybe you need to agree as parents to limit her so she spends good uninterrupted time with each parent, and if you're adults doing the calling, knock it off. Don't do it to the other party and don't answer when they do it to you.
posted by k3ninho at 7:43 AM on March 25, 2022 [8 favorites]


Best answer: I actually wouldn't talk to her, I'd ask her questions. Here are a few:
1. You know mommy and daddy don't live together anymore, do you know why?
2. How do you feel about that?
3. Do you have any questions for me about it?
4. Is there anything we could do to make you feel better about it?
5. How is being at mommy's house different than being at daddy's house?
6. Is there anything you worry about?

It's ok in these conversations to share your own feelings, as in, "yeah, I'm really bummed about this too" or "yeah, that would stress me out too." As to the why you don't live together anymore: "we don't get along with each other and it's better if we aren't in the same house annoying each other all the time" or something along those lines.

A four year old might only get through 1-2 of these before moving on, but they are something that you can weave into your week at moments that are quiet (in the car, taking a walk etc.) Also this has to be a judgement-free conversation, you can't learn that she gets ice cream every night at daddy's house and freak out - that will shut down all future conversations. This is an opening for a lifetime of these conversations, start easy and light - but start now.
posted by Toddles at 8:30 AM on March 25, 2022 [9 favorites]


My ex and I separated when our daughter was a baby and now she is five years old, splitting her time 50/50 between our houses. We have focused on consistency for her while also normalizing the idea that there are lots of different family structures. She has friends with two moms, two dads and a mom, two houses, one mom, one dad, a mom and a dad, and friends who have moved multiple times. None of these family structures or living situations - including her own - seem to ever phase her in the least. She lets me know that she misses her mom sometimes when she is at my house and I try to help comfort her through that and also tell her that I miss people who I love when I am not with them. Also, she has recently started seeing a therapist in-person. So far therapy is mostly just fun and games and building rapport. I think it will be good for her to have this relationship established if and when things get harder for her. My ex and I could not have more animosity toward one another (and that is an understatement), but I am proud of the way I've shielded our daughter from my feelings about her mom. Sometimes she will ask why we don't all live together. I am not always sure how to best answer that question, but I talk about it with my own therapist. Usually I land on some version of the truth like, "we tried really hard to make that work and it just didn't work ... It is not ever going to happen ... this is what we decided would be the best way." I chose not to introduce my current girlfriend to her until we had been solid for a year and I made not at all a big deal out of it when we started spending time together. For months, my girlfriend would come over only every week or two for dinner only and then we slowly started spending more time together. I never used the word "girlfriend" just her first name. I didn't make any effort to explain romantic love. She just sees us hang and I think it's perfectly clear to her that this is a special person to me.
posted by TurkishGolds at 8:35 AM on March 25, 2022 [2 favorites]


Best answer: My parents divorced, starting when I was 5, and they went about it really poorly. Congrats to being in therapy. Have you thought about therapy for your kiddo? Someone recently mentioned play therapy on AskMe, and it sounded like a very cool modality for young kids. All of the points I make below are based on my own experience of my parents' divorce: they both did shitty, shitty things to each other, but to my knowledge there was not one partner who could claim the other was worse, so I don't mean to be insensitive to the particulars of your situation.

Reasearch on kids' emotional reslience suggests strongly that the single most important predictor of child emotional health is parent emotional health. Working with your therapist to process feelings of hate, bitterness, and anger, supporting that work with a strong network around you and stress-relieving exercise/creative/self-affirming or spiritual practices, and committing to communicating with your ex about anything that involves him/parenting - without using your child as an intermediary - are some of the most important things you can do. Whatever kind-hearted or incisive script you use to speak to your kiddo about divorce, if you're hating your ex while delivering it, your kid will pick up on it, even if they can't put it in words.

I cannot agree more with k3ninho: there is nothing good that I can imagine coming of FaceTiming multiple times a day while your child is in the custody of the other parent, when both parents actively hate each other. Your kid will see the emotions that seeing/hearing each other brings up in you and your ex, and will be learning from even the most subtle reactions. Send your kiddo with a card to open up, or pick a toy or trinket for kiddo to carry to be reminded of your love, and let them go to develop a healthy and independent relationship with someone who you do not love.

In the same kind of way, I would recommend strongly NOT asking your child questions about how your house is different than dad's house, without some soul-searching about why you need to know anything about it, and then professional therapeutic guidance on how best to find it out. (For example, even if this question is based on wanting to help kiddo identify positive things - "what do you like about daddy's new place?" - kiddo may only like daddy, and hate the place, and being asked this question will not help.) Please do everything you can to avoid using your child as a source of information about your ex. My mother did this to me for twenty years, and it was traumatizing.

I'd also consider avoiding language in which you and your ex *keep hurting each other* and *are* angry, because those sound much more scary than alternatives which can get the point across but focus on the repair that you're making by splitting up. "We were having arguments a lot, and it hurt. It was hard to be happy living together. We still feel angry and confused sometimes, but we're figuring out how to feel better and work together as a family" (or something along those lines) feels very different to the five-year-old-me imagining my parents saying, "We hurt each other's feelings very badly, and we're still very angry, and sometimes grownups who keep hurting each other's feelings decide not to live together."

Hearing that my parents hurt and kept hurting each other would have been frightening, and the reassurance that this only happens between grown-ups would not have been reassuring: the proof is in the pudding that one cannot hurt or be hurt without everything going to shit. I *did* know that my parents were angry, and knowing that they were angry made it unsafe to talk about anything involving the other parent.

On the value of your own and your ex's own personal therapy: My parents' anger and hate for each other was the searing focus of every recital, every performance, every graduation, every shared celebration my sister and I have ever had that involved both of them, even though they haven't spoken in thirty-five years outside of a courtroom. My sister did not have a wedding because she didn't want those feelings anywhere near her and her spouse - I might not invite them to mine for the same reason. I'm sorry you're all going through this hard time, and wish you and your kiddo the best.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:00 AM on March 25, 2022 [3 favorites]


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