A mistake many parents make during a separation or divorce is to think a child younger than two years old, too young to ask questions, is not much affected. Your baby does not, of course, understand much of what is going on, but she realizes the situation is different, is upset, and needs special attention at a time when it is hard for you to give it.
Breaking the News
Even very young children should be told the parents are separating before the departing spouse moves out, if possible. You should tell them the truth -- the parent who is leaving will not come back to live. However young they are, they should not be told Daddy is going on a business trip or Mommy is going to visit Grandma. Divorce is somewhat similar to death in that it is final; euphemisms and lies or half-truths do more harm than good and ultimately have to be corrected.
It's best for both spouses to be present to tell children old enough to understand of the coming separation. (Children almost never do really understand divorce -- how can the two people they love the most not love each other?) Parents should share this responsibility, and each can answer the questions pertaining most directly to him or her. If there are two or more children, it's also best to tell them at the same time, however widely separated they are in age. They supply a base of familiarity for each other, and an older child may be able to help a younger one deal with the confusion. Those old enough to handle additional information can receive it at another time.
Dealing With Guilt
Probably the first question a child of any age will ask is "Why?" Your answer may be something like this: "Because we aren't happy living together, and we think it would be best for all of us if we lived apart." The second question may be unasked, but don't doubt that it is in your child's mind: "If you can stop being happy together, can you stop being happy with me?" To attempt to dispel this fear, it is very important for you to say to your child, "We will both always love you; that will never change." Another question most children ask is, "What will happen to me?" It's normal for children to be concerned primarily about themselves. Be as specific in your answer as you possibly can.
The next question children ask may concern the departing parent. Tell them where this parent will live, and how and when they will see him or her. Postpone giving information about changes in financial conditions that may cause a change in your lifestyle or news that one or both parents will remarry soon. Do encourage your child to ask questions about any other aspect of the separation, however, even if they are painful.
You may find your child goes through a process similar to grieving before he accepts the reality of your separation. You may be surprised, and perhaps even hurt, if your child appears to take your announcement very lightly and not to care. In reality, the child may deny what he must accept later, operating on the principle that if he ignores the problem, it will go away. Anger is common among children whose parents separate or divorce -- they are angry at their parents and at a world in which such an unbelievable disaster can occur. Children are apt to look upon one parent as the victim and the other as the villain. If anger is directed at one parent, it is up to the other to discourage it.
Guilt is an almost universal problem for children whose parents separate or divorce. They think that if they had behaved better, had done what they were told, one parent would not be leaving. They need constant reassurance this is not so. Grieving is natural when a marriage dies and a family breaks up, and your child should not be prevented from sharing your sadness and disappointment with the mistaken notion he is being spared.
Your child may ask you a hundred questions a day, and most of them will have simple, easy answers. However, when your child does hit upon a topic that seems a little too advanced or upsetting for them, remember what you've learned in this article. Honesty is always the best policy with your child, but they don't necessarily have to know everything up front.
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