Divorce: Helping a young child understand

How can I explain to my four-year-old that mommy and daddy are not living together anymore? She has been through a lot with the divorce. Her father lives about nine hours from us and only comes to visit her once every four months. What can I do to help her understand that her daddy still loves her but we can't live together as a family anymore?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Four is a very tender age and your concern for your daughter shows that you are taking her needs seriously. A divorce is a dissolution of a marriage, but it is not a dissolution of family. Family relationships change, but you and your daughter's father are still her parents.

Following divorce about 50 percent of couples are able to work out an amicable relationship which promotes the job of co-parenting, even though the marriage relationship is over. It is not necessary, however, to be friends with your ex-spouse in order to sustain and support relationships with both parents that are in the best interests of the child.

The initial period of separation is the most difficult because you are reeling from the abrupt transition from nuclear family to some form of a "binuclear" family. The equilibrium has not yet been established. It is important for a child to know that though Mommy and Daddy's feelings have changed for one another, they both continue to love her and remain committed to taking care of her. She will need to hear this many times. And she will need to hear it from both of you. She will need to be able to repeat the story of the divorce to others. So it is important that you and her father together agree on an explanation that is non-blaming of the other and simple enough for a four year old to understand and repeat to others. Telling the story about the change is one way children work through the grief and adjustment to this separation.

Talk with your "ex" about your daughter's needs. Let him know that she needs him. If he has trouble listening to you about this, arrange for mediation to work out parenting in the best interests of your child. He may be unaware that he is so important to her. Particularly if he did not develop a separate relationship with her when he lived in the home. Communicate this in a non-blaming manner. He is divorcing you, not his daughter. It is necessary for him to initiate extra effort at this time to create a separate relationship with his child. It may be that when you lived together, he depended on you to feel connected to his daughter. Now he must do this for himself. If this is the case, doing so may make him a better father to his daughter, living separately, than he was when living in the home.

Arrange a meeting with your daughter's father to talk with him about how often he will visit, how he will be available to his daughter, and how you can support their ongoing relationship even if he is not living with her any longer. If necessary, get the support of a good mediator for establishing a working relationship between the two of you from the beginning. Meeting once a week or once a month at first may help ease the two of you through this transition and benefit your child. Do your best to put aside your own hurt feelings or anger in your relationship with your "ex" in order to negotiate your continuing parental responsibilities. Ask for his best efforts to do the same. Your child deserves this effort for full cooperation. Raising your child continues to be both of your responsibilities and is one of the most important processes to be worked out in divorce.

Once you set up a schedule, let your daughter know when she will be seeing her Dad. Give her a calendar with the dates circled. Also support phone and letter contact, email and sending him pictures or stories about her day if at all possible. Find out who of her friends have parents who have divorced or separated and talk about their adjustments to Mommy and Daddy living separately. It would be good for her hear about other children going through this process. It would also be helpful if she has a place or room for her things at Daddy's house. Getting this place together for her visits can help her feel more secure with the changes. It would be helpful for Dad to buy her a special gift to help her through his absence. Pictures or other objects that remind her of their connection and that he loves her will also be soothing to her during this transition.

Accept her tears, sadness, rage and anger at this change, as it is one of the most significant changes in her life and one she has not asked for! She has no control over a major life event that is happening to her. Give her as much say in things as is possible and appropriate in the situation, such as being able to contact Daddy at particular times of the day when he will be available to her. Keep other schedules and relationships in her life as stable as possible as she adapts to this transition. Do not change daycare, schools or the house or apartment you live in unless it is absolutely unavoidable. Wait until she has stabilized to the separation to make any needed changes in these areas.

Establish new rituals for yourselves. Going out for pizza every Friday, or with friends to the movies once a week may help normalize your routine together. Check for local groups for children going through this transition and for single mother support groups for yourself. Taking care of your needs right now will benefit her, too. C.R. Ahrons book, "The Good Divorce" (1994, Harper and Collins) may provide useful guidance to you and your daughter's father in raising your child in separate living situations.

Children do adjust and they are truly resilient. However they do need special attention to feel secure through such a major life transition. Be sure she has opportunity to express her feelings through play, as this is a child's avenue for adaptation. Your daughter is mourning the loss of the family unit as she has known it since birth. Be patient with any tantrums or anger at this time. Be sure you have some art supplies available in your home and offer her ways to draw, to paint and to hear and tell stories about the changes she is experiencing.

Absorbing her anger and pain will also require that you have someone to talk to as well! Mourning is a process of letting go before you can take things in again. Be sure you are caring for yourself through this period of family transformation. Spending time with friends, eating well, socializing and getting exercise are some activities that can become fragmented.

The dissolution of a relationship is also an opportunity for personal transformation and healing if we can understand the meaning of the divorce to our personal histories and take responsibility for what we may have contributed to the failure in the marriage. Education, counseling or psychotherapy can be powerful tools at uncovering what happened and help us heal through understanding our own needs and being better able to successfully address them the next time around. This kind of parental self reflection (for both mothers and fathers!) is the best insurance for a child that history will not repeat itself, as about 50 percent of remarriages end in divorce.

Recovering yourself from the relationship and helping your daughter adjust and maintain relationships with her biological parents is the first order of business. Doing what you can to insure that she does not suffer further loss in family cohesion in the future however begins with deep reflection on the past by both parents individually. This perspective on the future in caring for children is often missed during this transition. But it is one I want to take this opportunity to bring forward for immediate consideration, as it impacts our children's future.

Whether divorce is used as a tool for learning or becomes a legacy of aborted attempts at creating family, will become a part of your child's history. Divorce can be an opportunity for growth and healing if we reflect deeply enough so that history is unlikely to repeat itself.

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