How do you explain divorce to an eight-year-old?
November 4, 2007 5:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm at University and far removed from home geographically. My parents are planning on getting divorced soon and anyone semi-observant would've seen this coming years and years ago. Both wonderful people, both wholly incompatible. So what can I/they do for my adorably clueless, naive, 8-year old sister who still has no idea?

I've skimmed through the old posts tagged with 'divorce' on AskMe, and this one was useful. However, there are less resources than I thought there would be on how to break the news of a divorce to someone old enough to understand what it is, but not old enough to understand why or how to accept and deal with it.

Any advice re: breaking the news, continual support, custody arrangement would be appreciated. My parents both much more agreeable now that they see an end in sight, which is both tragic and relieving. They are much better friends than life partners, and I (perhaps naively) expect things to remain more or less friendly. The "Mommy and Daddy hate each other" scenario doesn't apply as much, though advice on that front is welcome as well. I've told them to keep the hostility against/to each other to an absolute minimum around her, whether or not the other one is present, now and after the divorce, but that's about as much as my AskMe reading has garnered me.

Caveat: I can travel back maybe once a month, tops. No relatives in the country, few if any close friends of the family in existence.

My sister's potential reaction is stressing me out much more than my parents' decision is, so thank you, AskMe.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total)
I am not getting why it is your job to break the news to your sibling. My guess is if she is still living with the parents-about-to-be-divorced, she is painfully aware of the circumstances and tension that is defining her current living situation. Kids are perceptive and I think you are worrying about something that isn't going to be news to her.
posted by 45moore45 at 6:55 AM on November 4, 2007

You sound like an island of stability in an otherwise fairly tumultous family. Just keep that up for your sister - always be her rock of familiarity. Mommy and Daddy don't hate each other, but they just want to live separately. Good luck to all.
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:17 AM on November 4, 2007

Seconding DenOfSizer: you are the rock. Or, if you prefer, the bank. I've been the bank before, and it's rather unsettling to be the person where everyone in your family comes to deposit their troubles, as if you won't mind accommodating the latest frustrations and problems and arguments, as they recount them to you blow by blow. It gets better over time, because those who are closest to them go through the processes of dealing with their issues faster.

But don't expect to be on the same page as they are when you go home, either. Perhaps your parents and sister will have progressed to their respective stage X, while you're still back at stage X minus 5. That's not wrong or bad - of course you'll be experiencing things on a different timescale than they will given your distance, both physical and temporal - but do be prepared for flare-ups between you and your parents as you deal with the reality of the fallout.

Keep a solid head on your shoulders, and make sure both you and your sibling are connected with school, friends, and all the other things which make life rich and fulfilling. Good luck.
posted by mdonley at 7:43 AM on November 4, 2007

My parents seperated when I was eight. I remember at the time they were fighting a lot so it was rather obvious to me, even at eight, that they should not be together.

You asked about custody. The advice you need to give your parents: Do not allow your sister to pick the custody arrangements or have any say in that matter. An eight year old should not have to choose between parents. On the other hand one of her first questions will be which parent will I live with? You should already have the answer by the time you break the news to her.
posted by aetg at 7:43 AM on November 4, 2007

posted by aetg at 7:48 AM on November 4, 2007

Good advice from aetg, which reminds me of my situation. My parents divorced when I was 7, and for the most part things were amicable, but because of the custody situation, I was changing schools every year. After a year in high school, I put my foot down and refused to change schools again, which my father saw as my "choice" to live with my mother. It wasn't, I just didn't want to change schools again. It took him 20 years and countless tears for us to reconcile over that. Please try to make sure your parents don't do that to your sister! STability, stability stability.
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:16 AM on November 4, 2007

THE most important thing is to strongly reassure your sister that it isn't her fault. Kids that age often come to the conclusion that the parents split because of something the kid did, and carry a load of guilt because of it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:31 AM on November 4, 2007

Don't overlook the effect on you either. My parents divorced when I was in college, so that when I left one year they were together, and when I came back they were apart, which sounds very much like your situation. Your concern for your little sister is wonderful, but however much this is for the best, it will also affect you. (aside: see how I used both "affect" and "effect" pats self on back)

Anyway, this utter derail of my home base I think still has profound influence on my life nearly 35 years later. Taking care of your own emotional needs at this time will also help your sister.

Good luck.
posted by nax at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2007

Be there for your sister. Go home as often as you can, and invite her to visit you for weekends if that's at all possible. When you see her, take her places and play with her. Listen to whatever she has to say about the divorce but don't try to manufacture such conversations. When you can't see her, send her emails and letters, call her, send her little treats and presents - seriously, at that age, kids are overjoyed to get a package of fancy pencils.

Even in the best case scenario, this will be unsettling for her, and you can give her things to look forward to and be happy about. A friend of mine got divorced a few years ago, and one of the best things she did was to take her two children to England for Christmas to visit her sister. Things like this remind kids that life goes on despite crappy situations or events, that there's still fun to be had, and that they are still cared about.
posted by orange swan at 9:17 AM on November 4, 2007

Your family should HAVE A PLAN that they have already AGREED TO STICK TO before your sister is told. The "we're getting divorced but we can't actually tell you what the structure of your life will look like" thing is reprehensible.

I'm not talking about a fully fledged legal agreement, mind. I mean "You'll live here at home with Mommy. Daddy will pick you up from school every Wednesday and you can sleep over at Dad's new house every other weekend. We will all be together for Christmas this year. It will be different but we will still be a family."

...or whatever is an accurate depiction of her new reality, at least for the next few months.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:20 AM on November 4, 2007

As much as possible, wherever she goes, you go. If she's in your mother's custody, you spend a lot of time there, and when she goes to see your father, you try to go along. As long as you're around, things will be that much closer to normal for her and you'll be able answer all the questions she might come up with. And if you can't be there, write letters and call especially for her (not your parents). Make sure she knows how to write to you without your parents knowing about it (give her stationery, stamps, and address), so she feels like she can tell you anything without getting into trouble. If you have trustworthy hometown friends that your sister also knows and likes from visits to your place, maybe see if they can do things for her in your place, like take her out for an
ice cream from you.

And she'll take cues from you, so be careful how you react to things. If you cry, she'll cry. If you laugh, she'll laugh. If you say something negative, maybe that's what she'll start to think.
posted by pracowity at 10:10 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

My parents divorced when I was nine. Luckily it was a pretty drama-free, amicable split for them, but not for me. At least not at first. My parents are both wonderful, thoughtful people however, and I quickly got over it and adjusted to my new life. Honestly, looking back now it's almost hard for me to imagine a more ideal living arrangement during my childhood because everything went so smoothly after the initial blow. Here is some of my advice to your parents...

1. Each parent should avoid saying anything negative about the other parent when the other is absent. Slamming the other parent in any way puts your sister in the position of defending the absent one, whom she most likely still loves. This was one of the rougher spots of the divorce for me, even though neither of my parents were bitter people. Still, little comments would occassionally creep in, and I would always jump to the defense of the other. Growing up I was always convinced that each parent must think I loved the other more. There are possibly exceptions to my advice here, perhaps if one of the parents is destructive or abusive in some way, but I have no experience with that.

2. I am of the opinion that through this whole situation your parents should have your sister's best interests in mind in regard to her home life until she turns 18. In my mind this means that both parents, while separated, should remain living in the same city, and for god's sake, at the very least the same state, please. She should be a priority over their careers. My parents stayed in the same city and had joint custody. I stayed with each every other night and every other weekend, religiously. Mondays and Wednesdays were mom, Tuesdays and Thursdays were dad. One parent would drop me off at school in the morning and the other would pick me up. We stuck to this schedule so strictly that even when I turned 16, got a car, and had the freedom to go wherever, whenever, I still stuck to the arrangement that had been decided upon when they first split. I liked this setup, even looking back now. I'm not saying that your parents should do the same, but I encourage them to work out a rough schedule like this before having The Talk with your sister. Let her offer input to the plan. Once a schedule is decided upon by all parties involved my advice is to stick with it at all costs, so it becomes as routine as waking up every morning and brushing your teeth.

3. My biggest piece of advice to your parents is this. Please do NOT introduce any new girlfriends or boyfriends into their daughter's life until she is 17 or 18. I know they are probably not thinking about this right now, but I think it is one of the most important pieces of advice for divorcing parents that are both planning on being equally involved in their child's life. I'm not saying that they can't date, they can when they are ready, but please encourage them to not introduce any new sweethearts into their child's life. They can date on the nights when the child is with the other parent. They can re-marry when she turns 18. This is exactly what my father did. He dated one woman for five years and I never met her until I was 18. They married a year after that. I cannot tell you how much respect I have for my father because of this. My mother, whom I do have a lot of respect for, did the opposite however. She started dating someone when I was 11. I met him around that time, and while he was not a bad person I had the most confusing love-hate relationship with this guy than I've ever had with another person. Like I said, he was a cool guy, I wanted to like him but always felt obligated to hate him. And when he up and left my mother abruptly four years later, without ever saying another word to me either, well let me just say that that experience is what makes me firmly support my father's decision to keep his love life completely out of mine.

Okay, now to actually answer your question. I don't know how your sister will react; maybe she will have seen it coming and it won't be such a shock. But regardless, however she initially feels, she will get through it and adjust to her new life. The best thing I think your parents can do is be both as honest and positive as they possibly can when first telling your sister. Have as much of the scheduling and routine parts of her new life thought out and ready to present as they can, and make sure that she gets a say in this, or at least a chance to express how she feels.

I don't think they'd want to include this at first but I'm throwing it out anyway, because hey, there are some perks to being a child of a divorce. Two birthdays, two of every holiday, two rooms to decorate, and two sets of pets. And if I upset one parent on some day, their anger usually blew over by the next time I saw them.

Anyway, I wish you and your family the best of luck with this. Have faith that as long as everyone is as loving and supportive and levelheaded as possible, everything should work out just fine.
posted by Squee at 10:27 AM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with Squee almost completely except the part about getting remarried. While you obviously shouldn't introduce brand-new boyfriends or girlfriends I don't think cutting them out entirely for the next ten years is a feasible alternative.

I have had crazy stepmoms (note the plural) so bad step parents can be bad, but good stepparents (i.e. my stepdad) are AWESOME! I can easily equate my happiness in my own marriage to seeing my mom find happiness in her relationship with my stepdad and seeing how marriage can work.
posted by aetg at 1:11 PM on November 4, 2007

Counterpoint to Squee:

Had my mother not married my stepfather, I would have no model for what a healthy, happy adult romantic relationship with good communication and positive conflict resolution looked like.

When I grew up, I looked for a relationship that mirrored what they have - and I got it. My stepfather is the bomb, but my husband is the bombiest.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:11 PM on November 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

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