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Talking to Young Children About Divorce
Divorce is rarely easy or pleasant, even when both adults are eager to dissolve the union and proceed with a new life. When there are no children involved, obviously the situation is less complicated than when children are factored into the situation. Divorce may occur when the children are old enough to understand at least some of the legal complexities involved. In that situation a parent doesn’t have to worry too much about what to tell them. And if the divorce follows a long history of abuse by one parent against the other (usually, but not always, the father against the mother) or against the children, the feeling of relief may be so great as to make an explanation unnecessary.

But what does the custodial parent say to young children when, to all outward appearances, both parents loved and cared for the children and one another, and then abruptly one of them leaves the scene? I have personally known of several families in which that happened recently. In one of these situations, the young mother’s questions to me about what to say to her 5-year-old prompted this article.

You might think that abrupt changes like that never occur, and that there are always advance signals. Undoubtedly there are, but sometimes they are too subtle to be perceived by young children. I am going to write the rest of this article as though the children remain with the mother, and that she is the one explaining the situation to the children. I do this merely for ease of exposition (to avoid having to write “his or her” or “the mother or the father”) and with full awareness that, not infrequently, the father obtains custody or joint custody is arranged – and that sometimes it is the mother who leaves, with or without the children.

That said, I have four recommendations to offer.

1. If possible, give the children some advance information. Even though outsiders might not know that family trouble is brewing, chances are, you know it. Certainly there are situations in which a parent comes home one day and announces, “I’m leaving tomorrow.” These, however, are fairly rare. So, if you and your husband are discussing divorce, and you are fairly certain you will both follow through, tell your preschooler, “Soon daddy is going to move out of the house. I’ll still be here with you, though, and you’ll see daddy from time to time.” Remember that young children have little awareness of time intervals, so avoid specifying periods like “a week,” “a month” or any other definite period. You’ll probably, but not necessarily, get a few questions, which you’ll want to answer as casually as you can. “Where is he going?” is fairly easy. “Why is he moving?” is harder. Encourage your child to talk to dad about the situation and ask him questions that you might not be able to answer.

2. What you say will depend on the ages of your children. In trying to do the right thing, some parents tend to say too much to children far too young to understand either what is going on or the explanation offered. To a baby you might say nothing more than, “Daddy’s going bye-bye.” To a 2-year-old you might say, “Daddy’s going away for a long time, but you will see him.” A 4- or 5-year-old needs more of an explanation and can handle words like “separation” and “divorce” if they’re defined simply.

3. Don’t try to say everything at one time. Avoid that temptation by offering a little bit of basic information and then waiting for questions. Answer them forthrightly when they appear. Make certain you never say, “Don’t ask so many questions!” The situation will invariably create anxiety in your young children, and they will need a lot of reassurance that their lives are not going to be completely disrupted. You don’t want to make them afraid to ask questions.

4. As soon as they are arranged, explain custody patterns—a little at a time. Even when the family situation has been stressful, young children are going to want to know that they will still see the missing parent. “Oh, you’re going to see daddy every weekend (or once a month, or whatever).” Be prepared for a host of questions: Will I have any toys there? Where will you be? Who will take me to school? Will I still see Grandma and Granddaddy? Answer these questions as candidly as possible, but don’t promise too much closure. You may need to say, “Well, right now daddy doesn’t know where he is going to stay, but there will be a room for you there.” And, as income for the mother and the children generally drops after a divorce, you might want to prepare your older preschoolers for the possibility that you might also move but that, wherever you move, there will be a room for them.

So here we have four simple suggestions that may help you get through a difficult situation. As so much has been written about the importance of reassuring children that both parents will continue to love them, I have not even mentioned this. But don’t forget it – and don’t choke on the words, even though, in the case of your ex-spouse, you might not believe them at that moment.

And let me offer one final reminder. Maybe you won’t get divorced. Perhaps the situation is remediable, and the separation will be followed by reconciliation. As you talk to your young children, don’t rule out that possibility. There’s nothing wrong with them learning that grown-ups sometimes change their minds!
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education