Dear Dr Justin,
My little girl turns four in a month. I am about to file for divorce. I am scared about what to tell her. Her father has a personality disorder and has a habit of ‘leaning’ on her emotionally. She is a caring kid and worries about him a lot. She loves him, loves having ‘all her family together’ – especially since I separated and took her with, and have since moved back home due to financial limitations. The home environment is already tense and unpleasant. She started having nightmares a few months ago.
How do I tell her her family will never be the same? That her and me are the family now? How do I help her through this? What does she need from me? How do I teach her resilience and strength – and, most importantly, that this is not her fault? The grown ups screwed up.
Co-parenting will be inconsistent and hard for her to understand – her father does not believe in rules, boundaries or routines – so her two home lives will likely be very very disparate. Please help me help her.
Dr Justin responds:
I wish I had some easy answers for you. Unfortunately there are significant challenges ahead for you, although you are already aware of this. Let’s work through your questions one by one.
Our children need to know the truth. This is challenging because even though separating parents usually disagree on what the facts are, both are convinced they know the truth, and too often they both tell their children their version of the truth. It is even more challenging because what we tell a four year-old about something difficult is different to what we tell a fourteen year-old.
Consider the following general guidelines, but know that you are the one who ultimately determines the best way forward in talking with your daughter:
- In most circumstances we should encourage good relationships between a child and both of her parents, regardless of how those adults have treated one another. Unless you are concerned for her safety, it is (generally) ideal if you can help her maintain a positive view of her father – even when you may not feel that way yourself. She is wired, biologically, to be connected to him. It is usually healthy for that connection to be maintained in a positive manner.
- Honesty matters. Tremendously. But that does not mean we should be 100% explicit in divulging details. With younger children, comments of a general nature are usually best. “We tried to be nice to each other but just didn’t seem to be able to. We’ve decided that our family will be happier if we do not live together anymore, and we have decided that it is best that you stay with mum.” As your daughter gets older, more information may be helpful, but children do not always need to know everything.
- Ensure your daughter knows she can – and should – talk to you about anything that is of concern to her. Don’t burden her with heavy responses, but be honest enough for your little one to comprehend enough to be satisfied.
- Be guided by your daughter’s curiosity. But avoid bringing up more than she needs to hear.
What your ex-husband does is typically out of your control. Your best way of protecting her is to be there to listen, be responsive to her, and make sure she feelings unconditionally cared for and regarded positively.
Some children have nightmares regardless of what is occurring in their lives. Psychological distress – such as the fear and sadness that occurs when parents separate – can also promote nightmares. This will pass with time. In the meantime, patience, compassion, hugs, and a comforting, safe, secure mum is the best remedy for her nightmares.
Many of the questions you have asked do not need to be answered right now. They are questions for you to work through personally over the coming months and years. As she gets older, the questions you have identified may become more relevant and you will be able to discuss them with her then. Regardless of when you do answer them, remember the points above.
Cooperation in co-parenting is a challenge at the very best of times. Once again, there are no simple answers. Seeing your ex in the best possible light, doing what you can to work together and communicate rationally and kindly will be helpful. Many separated couples describe treating their ex like a business client keeps things amicable, clear, and on track. The psychological challenges your husband faces may complicate this somewhat, however, this policy is generally a helpful one. My kidspot article about how to work with your ex for the sake of your children may be helpful here.
Your daughter is most likely to overcome her sadness and fear (and possible anger) as she feels unconditionally loved by you. Listen to her. Ensure she knows you care for her, want her, and love her. This will be the best remedy for the challenging times ahead.