Helping Kids Deal with Divorce

Parent Q&A

  • Hi all, I need some help calibrating what's appropriate.  I have an only child, one son.  His dad and I split up last year, when he was 6.  I have him 50 percent time.  Since we split up, he's been sleeping with me in my king-sized bed on the nights he is with me.  When his dad and I were together, he would only occasionally sleep with us, usually on the weekends.  I value the extra closeness since I'm only with him half the time, and he finds it comforting.  We read and snuggle a bit, and then he falls asleep.  At his dad's, he sleeps in his own bed.  Our split was amicable, and our son is doing well.  My question is whether I should start encouraging him back into his own bed, or let this continue a bit longer. We would both miss it, but I don't want to be doing something that may not good for him.  Anyone have any experience with something similar?  Thanks!

    My 6 year old daughter and 8 year old son both slept with me for the first month after their dad moved out. Then I transitioned them back to their own rooms. Unless you want your son sleeping with you indefinitely, it would seem wise to shift him back to his own bed. It’s great that you have a close relationship, and it’s also worthwhile to take a step back, as you are doing, to make sure you’re not maintaining a situation that you both find cozy and loving- but which ultimately will become undesirable. Good luck! You can still have a nice bedtime routine with reading together, etc. just establish a new ritual that is also pleasant. 

    I don't personally see any harm. I think it is likely that your son needs the extra closeness, and that this could be contributing to why he is doing so well in the midst of this emotional time. Personally I would just let it be for awhile and see how it goes.

    Speaking from my own personal experience, I have an 8 year old son who still climbs into bed with me and my husband, who is his step dad, half the nights that he is with us (which is most of the time). For me, the split with his bio-father was NOT amicable when I was pregnant (he abused me and it escalated out of control very quickly when I was pregnant), and things have been incredibly difficult since our son was born and was a baby (Still worth it of course, because if I hadn't gone through all that, I wouldn't have our son), and there have been issues and emotional abuse from his father (I have sole legal and physical custody and he only sees his father one night per week and on some holidays, because of the abuse and medical neglect issues recognized by the courts). For us, I am pretty sure that the fact that our 8-year-old needs extra closeness is related to the anxiety and things he has had to grapple with from our situation in general with having a family that feels very split, as well as dealing with his father who is still incredibly angry (unfortunately totally unwilling to recognize it and seek help, though I wish he would, even when our co-parenting therapists have brought it up to him). I remarried when our son was almost 4. My husband is very loving, understanding and supportive, and that definitely helps. Until recently we just took it night by night. Sometimes he would want to sleep in his own bed. Lately, we have started encouraging him to sleep in his own bed sometimes, but we take it night by night and if he is having a hard time we just try to keep it chill. Sometimes I will tell him that he can fall asleep with us, and that when he is asleep I will put him in his bed and that if he wakes up and needs us he knows where to come find us for more snuggles-- that seems to be helping with transitioning him slowly to sleeping in his bed more often. He didn't like it at first but is more accepting of it now and it seems to be helping to find the right balance for our family. Our situation is slightly different from yours I suppose but honestly I still think there are plenty of parallels -- It seems to me that, even with a more quiet and amicable split scenario, kids are still going to feel torn with a family that has separated, and they will need extra support for some time. For me and my husband, we have sought advice from our son's play therapist at times, and she thought there was no harm with the fact that he likes to fall asleep with us or climb into bed with us for extra snuggle time. Sometimes kids just need more closeness and time together with mom or dad if they are experiencing difficult times, even if they seem like they are outwardly doing ok.

    I can't tell you what is right for you, but I thought I would share our experience and hope that it helps. Try talking to a therapist for advice, I have found some great advice from doing my own therapy, from co-parenting therapists, and from my son's play therapist. Feel free to reach out if you want to chat, I have to keep my username hidden here but you can ask the moderator for my email. Take care and I send you warm positive thoughts and energy. 

    I help my child fall asleep in her own room since her dad died, rather than helping her fall asleep in my room. Maybe try that instead?

Archived Q&A and Reviews


What is an appropriate age to start talking about divorce?

November 2005

At what age should you start talking to your children about divorce? Should you wait until they ask? J

Having had parents who divorced when I was 7 (I am now 37), and having gone through a ''divorce'' of sorts with my son's father (we were never married, but stopped trying to make things work out with us when my son was 3 - he is now 4), my advice to you is it's never too early to talk to your children about divorce and separation. However, with that said, there are ways to talk about it so that you are talking with your children in ways that they understand and not in ''adult'' ways. To qoute Dr. Phil, children should not have to deal with adult issues. That includes non-disclosure of things that obviously affect them. My parents did not discuss anything regarding their divorce with me, and any questions I had at the time were met with silence or a wave of the hand with a ''don't worry about that, it's between your dad and me''. I have spent much of my life angry and resentful of the way my parents handled it because I felt I had a right to know what was going on with my family and a right to be heard in regards to how I felt about it. I felt I was never given that chance. With my son, I explained to him early on when he was 3 that the family dynamic was changing and constantly offer reassurance that we are okay, that we love him and that we still love each other (hard to say sometimes even as it's true). I also give him every opportunity for him to voice his feelings about it (he misses his dad, he misses us together, etc) to show him that I respect his feelings and that he has a right to them. Although our separation has been painful and sad, it has been very smooth compared to my experiences as a child. My son seems to be well- adjusted and accepting that families come in different packages and we are still a family, we just operate our own way. I also sought the advice of a family therapist specializing in divorce and separation to understand what my son may have be going through during that transition.

Divorce: What to tell 4 year-old?

December 2004

My husband and I are currently separated, and I've filed for divorce. I discovered that he'd been having an affair after the birth of our second child this summer. My trust in him is irrevocably shattered. This, combined with other issues in our relationship, has led me to wanting the divorce.

He's in denial about getting a divorce, and is convinced that I've made a snap decision out of anger and he'll be able to change my mind. I am quite firm in how I feel. He's been adamant about not telling our older child, who's 4, about what's really going on. He's told her he's staying at his parents' house because of his father's ill health, that they need him there. I see her getting increasingly anxious about his absence (she is spending a few nights a week with him at his parents' house), and feel we're doing the wrong thing by lying to her. She told my mother- in-law recently that she wanted to grow up to be a doctor so she could make her grandfather well enough that her dad could come home. This breaks my heart, and tell me that she's struggling to figure what SHE can do about this.

I've agreed not to take any further action on divorce proceedings until after the holidays, but I'm starting to doubt the wisdom of waiting to tell her what's going on. I think it's important that we let her know that this is a decision between mommy and daddy, and there's nothing she can do about it. I'd like, if I can, to relieve her of this burden she thinks she must shoulder.

My husband thinks I'm being selfish for wanting to tell her, so I can push through with this ''wrong'' (in his eyes) decision. I think he's being selfish, and doesn't want to tell her because that would mean admitting to himself that he's getting divorced. I think she deserves the truth, or a version of it that her 4 year-old self can handle.

So, my question(s): What to say to her, beyond the basics -- that it's not her fault, that we love her very much and neither of us are going away, even if we don't live in the same house, that this is a decision between us, etc. Can anyone well versed in child development tell me what is appropriate to tell a 4 and half year-old?

Also, at her age, will she feel even more betrayed that we've been lying to her? I don't know if she's this advanced cognitively, or if this aspect of it will pale in comparison to the trauma of finding this out.

Also, would it be better to wait until after Christmas? Either way, the timing is hard, but I don't know if it's necessarily better to wait. She's still going to have a disrupted Christmas, even if we keep up with our current cover story.

Thanks for any advice and insight. Anonymous

I seperated from my daughter's father (that's how I refer to him-not my''ex-'') when our daughter was 4. We slept seperately for a while (he in the living room me in the bed). My daughter has always been very attached to me so it didn't really matter to her. We told her we were seperating when we were absoltely sure and when he was to begin looking for another place to live. We told her all the things you mentioned (not her fault, she is still loved as much by both of us, she will spend a lot of time with him, etc.). Her reaction was to launch into a game of follow-the-leader, where she was the leader! We played along. I think she has done really well with it. Her big thing now (she's 13) is that she leaves clothes and stuff at one parents house and then needs it at the other. I'm sure she has more feelings about it, but hasn't told me. When we first seperated we went through a program called ''Kids Turn''. We actually did it twice at her request. It's an independant organization started by a family court judge. It's helps the parents to put the kids first and not their power struggles with eachother when making decisions or talking about eachother, etc. The kids go also and are working with two faciltators doing drawings, stories, talking about divorce. It was very helpful. I would look them up. If you are sure you want the divorce you should start talking about it now. As far as your ''lie'', I'm not sure...maybe make sure she knows that her grandfather is alright! good luck. anon

Considering divorce - how have your kids fared?

April 2003

I've been back and forth about separating from my husband but worry about how it will affect our child. The biggest reason for separating has to do with my husband's mood disorder (bipolar, depression, hyperchondria and more) and his refusal to help himself. Won't take medication or seek some alternative treatment. Just finds some satsifaction in his misery and makes life so difficult for me and our son. I have given up although sometimes there is a glimmer of hope when he is having a good moment (never a good day though.) I'd like to hear from those divorced parents how their kids have faired. Seems like a no brainer that if the relationship is not good it can't be doing the child good but part of me feels it's so nice for a child to have both father and mother in the household (and maybe particularly a father if the child is a boy.) anon

I want to say first of all that I'm really sorry that you're going through this, and second that it's a tough decision to make, and your decision to make, taking into account what is best for your child. All I can do is tell you what I've gone through, and of course I don't have time for the whole story.

I was in a very similar situation two years ago, and my omotoa; feeling when my now ex-husband started to go downhilll emotionally/psychologically was to try to keep the family together for the kids' sake. However, after a cup was thrown at my daughter by her dad, after he began to throw and break the children's things in anger and run roaring and screaming into our bedroom, threatening suicide, it began to seem clear to me that the kids were not well served by being around dad full-time. Now, I'm in a somewhat uncomfortable joint-custody situation, but at least my kids are more emotionally and physically safe and healthy, at least during the days and times they're with me. My divorce has been much, much happier for me and the children than the marriage was. anon

You'll obviously need to sort out all this yourself but I just thought that I would give the prespective of a child of divorce (s). A single parent raising a child can do it- is it harder sure- but totally doable. My mom and I have an incrediably close relationship as I do with all of my dads. The separation of parents, I feel, is far less painful than either living in a bad situation or having a bad divorce. Kids need good role models not just a male and female model. Kids adjust, frankly, faster than most adults do. So don't stay together for the kids- you may have other compelling reasons to stay but I don't think the kids should THE reason. The one piece of advice I would give is to NOT bad mouth the spouse no matter what they might be doing. This is damaging to the child who may feel in some way that they are responsible for the parent's bad behaviour and that it reflects on them because its their parent. I think kids are happiest when their parents are happy, when their environment is steady and loving and that can be acheived in either a single parent home or a two parent home. Good luck to you. Juliette

April 1999

I have a friend that will be separating from the father of her son after seven years together (they were never married). She will be moving out in June and the parents have agreed to a 50/50 time share of their six year old son. On her behalf, I am seeking advice from the best source I know: parents who have gone through this before. How did you tell your child? When did you tell them (right away or shortly before leaving)? Are there other issues to consider?

There are a number of books on the subject. I suggest connecting with the single parent support group in Lafayette, which addresses all sorts of issues about divorce and what follows in families. The leaders are therapists, former single parents now married to one another. You can get more information by calling Liz Hannigan at 925-855-1745. The group is drop-in, meets at 6 pm on Mondays at a church in Lafayette, costs $3, and has great, FREE childcare during the meetings. Also has occasional groups for kids of divorcing parents, led by a child therapist. A great resource. Re cat and litter: You don't have to train the cat. Just make sure he knows where the box is, and he'll use it. Be sure to clean it out every day, or he might not use it, however. I recommend the clumping litter, which forms a ball with the urine and is easy to scoop out. Re giftedness: My son is also gifted, which, as you are finding out, is not always a gift. I've done some reading, and I concluded that the best thing is to let the child direct himself toward whatever area he/she is propelled toward. My son read like mad for years (starting at 4), and now he's heavily into math. Drawing has been there all the time, too. He's way, way ahead of his class in every subject. Thankfully, the teachers have recognized this and added extra challenge for him. I have a LOT of interaction with his teachers around how to do this. I also found, however, that he doesn't get bored because he tends to interpret school work in ways that keep him interested. He extends assignments. When he's bored in class, he generally resorts to reading or drawing. I don't plan a lot of extra-curricular activities for him, as he REALLY likes coming home and pursuing his own interests in his own way. I'm taking this giftedness situation a day at a time, really feeling my way with my son. If anyone knows of a newsletter or good website, I'd love to know about it. By the way, I don't know the point of having a kid assessed for giftedness. In fact, I heard of one kid who was looked at skeptically by a private school because the parents had had an assessment. Although it concluded the kid was gifted, the school thought there might have been something wrong with him to have impelled his parents into having him assessed! Anyway, from what I've read, kids tend to be gifted in one or more areas or domains and will show an eagerness to work there hours on end. I've heard of two schools for gifted kids, Nueva in Burlingame, and a new one in Marin. Too far for me to commute, but I would like to hear from anyone about either school, experience there, etc. Anyone wanting to talk about this general area can give me a call: Linda, 510-339-8247.

Helping 7-year-old deal with parents' separation

After many years of attempting to live a happy family life, my husband and I have arrived at the conclusion that it just isn't doable. We have tried myriad therapies, but it seems there are too many entrenched personality issues to overcome. Our short-lived periods of happiness have been punctuated by lots of anger and some abuse (mostly verbal) and recurring conflict. We have a seven year old together whom we both love dearly. She has witnessed quite a bit of the conflict and tension (though not much of the abuse), despite our (my) desperate efforts to spare her. Even so, she has been extremely and vehemently opposed to our trying to separate. She has become not just sad but desperate, begging, threatening anything (even to kill herself and wishing to die!) to get us back together, (This has been going on for the past three weeks, since my husband- at my insistence- has started staying outside the home.) This, in turn, has made us feel very desperate, finding her pain unbearable, though I know, in the long run, the separation is better for her.

It is just so horrible to see this little sensitive being suffer so, when all our lives we have naturally strived to prevent her from suffering, from not letting her cry herself to sleep as a baby, to shielding her from violent or overly emotional TV programs. She has always been very, very sensitive and now we get the impression that we have to tough it out and only comfort her and try to reassure her to the extent that things will feel more tolerable as time passes. It just doesn't seem right. It feels akin to sitting by her bedside as she suffers from a broken leg and just offering her aspirin.

I know about programs like Kids Turn, and getting books. I know they say when my husband gets his own place and things get more structured, she'll cope better. (We're afraid she'll just fall apart from the finality that that will represent. She'll see right through this two homes are better than one B.S.)

She's started seeing a therapist. We're all in therapy, but I'm just wondering if anyone's personal experience can help us see our way through this. Our child's pain is too much to bare. There just has to be a better way...

Please help.

This is a difficult time for all of you and my heart reaches out. It is now three years after my separation and I have learned some things through this period. The pain you know you are causing your child is the hardest burden to bear in this situation, despite knowing it will ultimately be better for her. As you mentioned Kids Turn and books have benefits and should definitely be taken advantage of. Right now, I believe the most important thing to do is let your daughter know you both love her very much. You both will always take care of her and be there for her.

Because she is experiencing a great deal of insecurity about what's going on it is important to help her feel as secure as possible. Kids need to know the love and caring will never change even if her parents aren't married anymore. She will still have a mother and a father. Kids always want their parents to get back together. It is better to acknowledge her fantasies/wants. Saying things like I know how much you would like Mommy and Daddy to stay married or It's scary to have such a big change in our lives helps reinforce that her feelings are okay and it is okay to express them.

Best of luck to you. Things do smooth out over time.

This may not be what you want to hear but I strongly believe that your daughter is giving you a very clear message. She wants the two of you to be together. There was a reason that brought you together. You had a daughter together and that daughter needs the two of you to be together. It gives her a sense of family of home and of love. Divorce or separation is an extremely tragic event second to the death of a parent. It may not be a better alternative for your daughter unless there has been some real physical abuse. Otherwise pretend for a moment that divorce isn't an option, that you have to work it out. If you really had to, I'm sure you would. Think of what it would take and do it. I'm sure you would agree that your daughter and her well-being are worth it. I know you feel then that you may not be as happy but parenting is all about sacrifice. For the love you have for your child stay together and make it work. Liza

My heart goes out to your daughter and to you. It may help to get clear about what specifically she's grieving: does she think that she'll completely lose her father, since he moved out? Does she mourn the loss of the happy home dream that you all clearly yearned for for so long? Is she frantic that she can't make it all right herself?

I'm the daughter of divorce, and I'm also recently divorced. My son is younger, and didn't have nearly the extent of grief that your daughter is expressing. I think we did a good job of protecting him from conflict, but I have to say that the fact that he's doing Ok is mostly a function of his personality, age and coping style. So, above all, don't start blaming yourself for her pain.

It's really important that you take care of yourself. When I don't sleep enough, small or medium-sized problems just bowl me over. Sleep, eat, exercise, find beauty and something to laugh about every day. It will keep you sane, it will give you hope, and it will be a good model for her. Good luck. Sandy

I really understand exactly what you mean. I've been there, and my kids were about the same age as your child. My older son has always been very perceptive and sensitive like your daughter, and it was very hard on him. Everyone suffers from a break-up, the parents and the children. But I believed the suffering would have been greater if I stayed with my husband. I have no doubt I was right about that, and I have not regretted the decision to divorce. You're doing this so your life will be better, and so your child's life will be better. So just keep going forward on the new path and remember that it would be worse now if you were still on that old path.

Here are some of the things that helped us. Most important was friends and family. It's so important to not feel like you are the only one who has ever been through this. You have lots and lots of company. It helped my son to have a friend whose parents were divorced. Even though the boys didn't talk about it much together, it was comforting to my son that one of his friends was like he was. And in my case, a casual acquaintance made me feel so much better one day when she told me she had been married twice before! I was feeling like such a loser, and such a bad mother, and just to hear that from someone I admired really gave me a boost.

Second most helpful thing for the kids was structure, and plenty of it. A daily routine, predictable schedule, same vacation spot as before, same school, same friends coming over, same homework rules, same chores, same visits with the relatives in the summer. You may be dealing with joint custody, and that can get very confusing for a child, but on the other hand, dramatically-reduced contact with the other parent is bad too. Some amount of structure will be lost, so I found it important to firm up the structure in other ways.

One other piece of advice I have is to not explain it to death to your daughter. Settle on a simple explanation about the break-up, and then stick with it, repeating as necessary. I thought that I should give my son as much information as I could about what was happening. He was so perceptive that I thought wrongly that he could understand some of the adult emotions involved. No way. It is impossible to explain to a child what it takes us adults years to figure out, and I think it was upsetting for him to have too much information.

It's hard now, but it will be OK. The first 6 months are the roughest part. It will be easier after that. Don't be too hard on yourself, and try to make sure that you have a little fun for yourself. I know you will be doing that for your daughter, but take care of yourself too. Before you know it you will be saying to yourself THANK GOD I AM NOT LIVING WITH THAT GUY ANYMORE!! HOW LUCKY I AM THAT I WAS ABLE TO DO THAT!! :-)

I totally empathize with you. My daughter's father and I separated when she was 3 and she will be 6 this December. It was torture for me seeing my daughter suffer going back and forth from his home to mine when she had never been away from me before. I feel it was the right thing because I am in a much better place and she sees me happy instead of fighting or crying all the time. I do wish I had waited until she was a little older, but who knows if it would have been easier. The best thing for your child is to know you both love her and what helped us is to be friendly with each other and all spend time together as we still do. She stills wants us back together and draws pictures of us getting married again, etc. It's a tough thing no matter how you cut it. If you want to talk please email your address or email me and I would be happy to share my thoughts and be supportive.

If there is anything I learned from my first, unwanted, childless, divorce, it's that once your partner checks out, put a fork in it, your marriage is DONE. That's why I knew what I had to do in my Second, unwanted, with child (then 2), divorce.

Here's what worked for me and my son; his mom (who also posts her, perhaps she'll add her experience) may have a different view;

1) reduce conflict. Everything I read (which was everything an adept, diligent, but heartbroken and scared researcher could find) said this is the best indicator for psychological and spritual health of the children of divorce. In my case, it meant getting clear that we WERE getting divorced, and doing it as cleanly and with as little bloodshed as possible. I figured out what my irreducible minimum requirement was, and was willing to sacrifice all else in negotiation if need be to get the divorce done quickly, cleanly, and sustainably, I.E. with agreements we both could keep over the long term.

This also means never saying anything cruel, mean, belittling, or dismissive about the other parent in the presence of the child.

And it means seperating, cleanly, and as completely as practical, from your former partner, as long as...

2) Both Parents Keep Contact. We have split custody. For the early part of our seperation, we still lived at the same address, and we both saw our son every day. At first, we even switched care every day, later we went to the basic 4/3 schedule we still use with seperate households. We call a lot. This is probably the second best indicator for psychological and spritual health of the children of divorce, again, from my research gleaning.

3) Tell the Truth. I firmly believe kids, even as young as mine, have pretty accurate BS detectors. I've been pretty up front with my son; Mommy and Daddy don't live together, We're Divorced, We're Not Married Anymore, and so on. I don't go into any great detail, but I don't equivocate either. Sometimes I had to say Daddy's Sad. Less so as time goes on, and I heal.

Indications are we have a happy, well adjusted, NORMAL kid, who just happens to spend time in two different homes, with two different parents, who share very little but their love for their son. It's too early for Happy Endings, but I think we're enjoying a Happy Outcome, even if it's not what anybody wanted at the outset of the adventures of Marriage and Parenting. Both of those endeavors are big bets on the future; sometimes you roll Snake Eyes. One measure of a person's character is how well they cope with setbacks such as these.