How do I tell my 7 year-old son that his daddy and mommy will never live together as one happy family again? I’m only a few weeks into the process of a painful separation from my husband and I don’t know what to say to our little boy. His dad moved out less than a month ago. Up until now I’ve just told my son that daddy’s on a trip. But I can’t continue to use that as an excuse. I’m so scared of wounding my little boy. What do I say?
Telling a child that his mommy and daddy are no longer together is never an easy task. It may feel heartbreaking or almost impossible to do. There never seems to be a good time, and the words don’t flow. Realize that while it’s a difficult talk to have, it’s very, very important to do so in a heartfelt, loving, and timely way.
First, be mindful of the age of your child and gear your talk accordingly. A 15 year old has a greater ability to understand and digest certain information than does a five year old. So the chronological and emotional age of your child needs to be taken into account.
Also, recognize that kids are often quite a bit more aware of what’s going on and savvy about adult relationships than we may acknowledge and give them credit for. Ultimately, this very painful piece of information that one parent is leaving the marital home needs to be shared for children old enough to understand. It’s important that this critical information not be sidestepped in your effort to insulate your child from emotional scarring.
While it’s often not necessary and can indeed be harmful to relay many of the details leading to the split up, it is important that a child who is old enough to understand be honored by being told the truth in terms he or she can understand. Indicating, for example, that mommy and daddy are happier living separately may suffice.
What’s most crucial is that it be emphasized that both parents love the child deeply and that this will never change. The child needs to know that ‘daddy’ will always be his daddy and ‘mommy’ will always be his mommy. So often children feel erroneously responsible for their parents separating. This is a very common psychological dynamic. It is not unlike the propensity of humans to unconsciously find a way to feel painfully guilty following the death of a close relative. Where a child expresses any hint that he or she might be partly to blame for the split-up, it is of the utmost importance firstly, that, such feelings be allowed to be heard, and secondly, that the child be assured that he or she is not at all responsible for the breakup, without invalidating his or her feelings themselves.
Certainly, issues pertaining to the spouses’ relative culpability leading to the separation need not be shared with children caught in the middle. It is also most important that, regardless of any anger or bitterness that each parent may have towards their estranged or former spouse, that such negativity not be relayed to the child in substance or in tone. Remember that your child is and will always be a blood relation to your spouse though you are not.
Don’t leave him with toxic and unnecessary information or perceptions that can only hurt and not be constructive. For more guidance, visit the Self Help section of your bookstore. There are a number of books on the market written specifically to guide parents through this very difficult and trying process. One such book, It’s Not Your Fault, KoKo Bear by Vicky Lansky and Jane Prince comes to mind.