How do we tell our toddler that we're breaking up?

June 20 2013 | Guest post by J. May
I'm sure the kids will be fine card by Etsy seller Sareytales

My partner of nine years and I recently made the amicable decision to end our relationship. Though the split hasn't been easy on either one of us, we are devoted to our almost-three-year-old daughter and are adamant on cultivating a healthy environment moving forward so that she may continue to thrive as we continue to co-parent her in separate homes.

He'll be moving out of the house into his own apartment by the end of the month, and we can already tell that she's beginning to pick up on everything that's going on through our actions.

How do we address what's about to happen with our family to her, honestly and directly without it going over her head entirely? How do you explain divorce to a kid?

Has anyone navigated this successfully in their own life with positive results that can share their experience?

  1. I have no experience of families splitting up, but I do have some experiences with play therapy to help young children understand new changes in routine.
    Maybe you could use doll houses (cardboard boxes would work) and 3 dolls (you, your ex and the kid)

    Role play the ex moving into the new house, (make it happy role play, mum and dad cheerfully saying goodbye etc) and role play the kid spending time at each house having fun with each parent.

    Obviously not as life changing an experience, but this kind of role play helped the young children I nanny for understand our new daily routines when one started preschool going on a bus each day, and the other went in the car to nursery.

  2. My daughter was 3.5 when my ex-husband and I split up. We also moved, and so it was a big upheval in her life. I found that if I explained things in the simplest way possible (don't tell more than needs to be told) She would ask the age-appropriate questions she needed to figure out what was going on.

    I think sometimes as adults we project our own needs and feelings onto our children and worry that they won't feel secure, or they will be confused. But I have found with my daughter that she was pretty blunt about things that she didn't understand, and I let her guide me in what I told her.

    I guess the point of my rambling comment is to let your child be your guide. Answer his questions with age-appropriate and honest answers (and make sure your ex is on the same page. Discuss questions and answers that were given during your parent time so you guys will be in agreement. Less confusion that way!)

  3. We told our girls that before they were born we had different houses and now we wanted different houses again. Then we talked about how they will have a new bedroom they get to decorate themselves. My daughters were four and two at the time. This helped a lot and the pediatrician thought it was a perfect way to handle that.

  4. I was 2 or 3 when my parents split, and I honestly don't remember much of it at all. I think I was just glad that they weren't going to fight so much anymore. The first year, they would get together with me for holidays, until my dad moved further away, but I can't say if that was reassuring or more confusing. Just remember that at that age, children are both very smart and very accepting. As long as you respect her enough to explain to her what's going on and she knows she'll still get to see both of you on a regular basis, she'll be okay in the long run.

  5. My parents separated when I was 4, and since my mom was getting a new job as part of relocating, that's how the transition was framed for us. We talked about how mommy was getting a new job, and that it meant that my sister and I would be living with her most of the time and visiting Dad on weekends. It felt pretty non-traumatic at the time, but it was definitely important, as we got older, to be open to talking about how their marriage ended and why, especially when I started dating.

  6. My daughter was nearly 3 when her father and I split. The breakup was not a happy one, filled with a lot of fighting and hurt, and turned into her father not wanting to be a part of her life. My experience seems different from yours (which is always a wonderful thing when adults can go their separate ways and maintain maturity) so I can't give you perfect advice. I know I tried to hide the fighting from her, and like someone mentioned above, I answered all of her questions with honesty as she asked them, but kept the answers simple. And it really did seem that she wasn't very phased by the whole ordeal. I agree that, as adults, we may be more concerned with their emotions than the children themselves are. I explained that sometimes parents live apart, sometimes children have parents that never lived together in the first place and some with parents that decide to live apart well after the children are here. But I stressed that she still has a family no matter what and is loved…and that seemed to be all she needed.

    Eventually her dad came back in her life, and we have both since settled with new partners and married. She is now almost 8 and doesn't even remember a time when we were together. She found a photo of her dad and I and asked why we had a picture together and seemed confused when I told her that we used to live together and be a couple like we each are with our spouses now. So even in just a span of a few years, any problems she may have had with the situation have escaped her memory. Maybe this will give you some reassurance that it isn't always life-altering and traumatic for kids. They are pretty resilient. Good luck!

  7. We are just reaching our first anniversary of separating. Our daughter was two and a half when we separated and we too had an amicable split. Once the decision was made the tension was gone for us and we have been working together ever since to do the best by our daughter and she seems to be a very happy, well adjusted three year old now. I started by reading her the book 'Two Homes' by Claire Masurel and Kady MacDonald Denton. I found it such a simple child centred approach to what was about to happen and then it gave us the language to talk about the fact that she was going to have two homes as well. My approach has been to keep it simple and honest and positive while obviously allowing and ackowledging any sadness and grief that comes up. She will occassionally say she wishes we all lived together and I say I know and I am sorry she will never have that and it's sad and then she is on to the next thing.

    We are trully all so much happier and her dad and I both now have new partners and her dad's partner has two daughters so our girl has all these people in her life who love her and her life has trully expanded. Just to show that it can work and can stay amicable – we are having her dad's girlfriend's kids over tomorrow night for a sleepover at our house to give her Dad and his girlfriend some kid free time. I feel like all of our hearts have expanded over the past year and I have no doubt that my daughter's life is richer and more positive and she now has great role models for what positive relationships should look like in her life.

    I also like 'The Invisible String' by Patrice Karst and Geoff Stevenson as a book to talk about how we are connected even when we aren't together. I avoided all of the 'it's not your fault' stuff because I just didn't want to put the idea in her head!

    Take care of yourself and give yourself lots of time to grieve too. Good Luck!

    • Totally agree on not bothering with "it's not your fault." I was 6 when my dad moved out, and my memory of The Talk is quite clear. The way my parents framed it, I was going to have two houses and get to celebrate my birthday twice and things like that. That sounded awesome, so it just confused me that my mom seemed really upset and nervous and kept saying they both still love us and it wasn't our fault. In my 6-year-old mind (when I only cared about how it would affect me), we were still living with Mom and going to have sleepovers with Dad a couple times a week, so "it's not your fault" just didn't fit.

      I also have vague memories of a support group my mom brought me to while she had an adult-geared one. Since I didn't really have issues with the divorce at the time, it was incredibly weird to have to fill out worksheets and role-play about my sad feelings. It may even have caused some bad feelings that otherwise wouldn't have happened, since it made it seem like it was something I should be sad about–kind of like how a small child will cry if they fall down and their parents get upset about it, instead of just getting up.

      I also agree with letting your kids guide what you tell them. At that age, most will just care about how it affects them, and you can save the relationship stuff for later unless they actually do ask about it (and then keep it age-appropriate). Even at 6 with some clear memories of what it was like "before," I adjusted just fine, and it will seem even more normal for your daughter. By the time I realized divorce wasn't that common (at least among my classmates' parents early on), and that some people thought it was something to be ashamed of, I already knew it was the better option for my parents.

  8. Don't lie. I was 3 when my parents split and was told he was "going to sea." He was in the Navy. This was while we were moving to NY. I knew she was lying and was upset.

  9. While we are on the topic of telling children that their parents are no longer together….anyone have any advice on how to deal with a situation where the mother and father are not together from the birth? Expecting a baby in the fall and the the father and I are on the same page that we are unable to be a couple but both want to have a good friendship and make sure that child feels loved and secure. Any tips on language to use/not use?

    • It may not seem obvious but if you think about it, your child will have no expectations about what an "intact family" looks like. If you raise him/her as coparents who aren't together romantically, that will be their normal. You could mention when appropriate that there are all kinds of families – some with a mom and dad who are together, some with two moms or two dads, some with just a mom or a dad or a grandparent, etc.

    • Me and my daughters father went our separate ways before she was born. It was a long time before she asked anything about it because to her it was normal having two parents living apart. She did ask if we had been married and was confused at first when I said no. I worked out that she had thought you had to be married to make a baby, so I explained that sometimes two people have a baby when they are not married and at the time that was all she needed. Just answer questions openly as they come and make sure you and her father remember to speak about each other respectfully to her. I think that much of the pain children feel when their parents are separated comes from feeling that their parents dislike or even hate each other. I make sure that if I need to vent I do it when she is not there to hear it.

      • That's great thoughtful advice, thank you! The father and I are working on building up that friendship and respect and at the moment it looks like we are on the same page about creating a positive environment wherein the child knows that both mom and dad love and respect each other. We've even committed to each other to put our respective families on (loving) lockdown when it comes to comments or verbal options about either one of us. Which has actually helped considerably towards the goal of peace. I can't tell you how grateful I am for the few years lead time before having to field the questions!!

  10. I know it's a very different situation than parents splitting up, but when we moved out of state with our two and a half year old, she missed her grandpa (who we previously lived with) a lot. She had to adjust to not seeing him every day. She cried a lot in the beginning, so we would just talk about the facts ("Papa lives in California, and we live somewhere else now."). We also reassured her that we would see each other for Halloween (or in your case, let them know what day they will see their other patent next.). Calendars and a map were really helpful as visual aids to help her understand a little more.

  11. My parents divorced when I was about 5 and my brother was 3. I have very, very few memories of them being together. I remember that by the time I was around 10, I already believed that the divorce was the best thing for them because they were happier apart. By that point, having separated parents just felt normal.

    Toddlers are really adaptable. So long as you're both committed to loving your daughter and keeping what's best for her at the forefront of your discussions about it, I think you'll be fine.

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