When a mother and father separate, it can be hard for children to wrap their heads around. Even if they know you and their father (or mother) are splitting apart, they may not fully comprehend what that means for some time. You may expect older children to harbor anger, resentment, or guilt. Younger children may just want to know why. No matter what their age, it’s important to address their feelings about the situation and answer their questions about divorce.
“Why aren’t you and Daddy together?”
My first marriage ended in divorce when my oldest daughter was not yet 5 years old. I remember her asking why Mommy and Daddy didn’t live together anymore, even after all the conversations we had about our family splitting apart. She just didn’t understand why Mommy and Daddy couldn’t be together anymore.
“But why are you getting divorced?”
Be careful how you answer the “why” question and refrain from saying “we don’t love each other anymore”. If you do, be sure to clarify that while that love went away, a love Mommy or Daddy has for their child never goes away, no matter what.
“Sometimes Mommies and Daddies don’t work out and can’t stay married. But while Daddy and I might not love each other, we will always love you. The love between a parent and child never goes away. Ever.”
K would then ask me why Mommy and Daddy can’t just live together again. It was heartbreaking. I knew she didn’t understand what it meant to be in a relationship or be married; she just wanted her mommy and daddy to live in the same house – with her.
Children like my daughter K, who love both of their parents (as most children do), don’t like choosing between mom and dad. They want to see both parents equally, as often as possible. And if that option is taken away, it can make them frustrated and upset.
“Where is Daddy? Doesn’t he want to see me anymore?”
“Why can’t you and Mommy be together?”
“Don’t you love Daddy? Don’t you love me?”
“Why do other kids have two parents but I only have you?”
“Are you and Mommy going to get back together?”
“Why do I spend more time with you than Daddy?”
Answering Your Child’s Questions About Divorce
#1. Be appropriately honest.
Your child’s age will determine how much you can share about divorce and ending a marriage, but don’t overshare. Be honest, but be appropriate. Keep your answer simple and to the point. “I’m sorry Mommy and Daddy aren’t getting back together. To be the best parents we can be, we have to live apart.”
#2. Do not use their questions as means to bad mouth.
While it’s important to be honest with your child, it’s not an excuse to start talking badly about your ex. No matter how much your ex hurt you, your child does not need to hear that the other parent is selfish, a liar, or a manipulator, etc. Don’t address the parent’s character when explaining why the marriage ended. “Mommy and I tried to fix our problems, but we couldn’t.”
#3. Ask questions about how they are feeling.
Be aware of your children’s feelings by asking them how they are handling the situation. If they start asking if they did something wrong, they may be feeling guilty or concerned about their part in the separation. Put them at ease and explain that the split is between you and their other parent, that they did nothing wrong. Remind him how much you both love them and how that will never change.
#4. Do not weigh them down emotionally.
While we all love our children more than we ever thought was possible, they are not meant to be partners. Do not lean on them emotionally to help lift you up or make you happy – that is not their job. Instead of saying things like “I don’t need a man – all I need is you!” say “I sure do love spending time with you.” Refrain from diving into a discussion about why you’re sad – keep them happily innocent. They don’t need to feel like fixing you is their job.
#5. Calendars allow younger children a better idea of time.
When they are small, children have a hard time understanding length of time and number of days they are going to be at one house or the other. Use a calendar to help put it into perspective. K’s father did this with her when she was 5. Each night, they would tick off a day. This helped her better understand how long she was at his house and when she would see Mommy again.
#6. Children’s books about divorce can help.
Books can help children connect to new events in their lives, on top of nurturing their love for reading. In Kristen’s Books for Every Occasion post, she shares 4 excellent children’s books that help illustrate divorce in a child’s life.
#7. Continue to reassure your child.
Never stop letting your children know how much you and their father (or mother) will always love them. No matter what. Reassure them that none of this was their fault, and that Mommy and Daddy are doing their best to love and care for them.
Addressing your child’s questions about divorce can be difficult, but it is necessary to help your child cope with their emotions over the situation. Be honest and clear, and speak appropriately without bad mouthing your ex. Make sure to take their feelings into account, and be thoughtful about what you say on the subject.
And let your children have a childhood – don’t make them grow up too fast. Let littles be little as long as they can. They’ll grow up soon enough.
PS: Now that you know how to discuss divorce with your child, take then next step in raising them the best you can after divorce. Learn how to co-parent with your ex, for your child’s sake. Read I have a Dream… of Co-parenting Success to learn more.