Advice

Carolyn Hax: Kids don’t know dad is moving out

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I have a 4- and 5-year-old and we are getting divorced, but are still living together for several months. My soon-to-be ex and I are both reading [on the topic] and doing co-parenting sessions with a therapist on and off. The kids can see that we don’t get along, although we (mostly I) have really tried to keep the peace in their presence, but they don’t know about the pending separation and divorce.

My husband has asked that the kids and I be away while he moves out. So my question is, when to tell the kids?

They’ll be going on vacation for a large chunk of the summer and at first I just thought we would tell them when they get back, but now I’m thinking it will be too much of a shock because their dad will have already moved out. The alternative is to tell them together before we go away, and continue to talk to them throughout the summer and as they come home. What do you think?

When to Tell

You want to tell when you’ll be around to help them process it. Certainly don’t tell them and send them off for the summer — it’s not clear whether they’re traveling with you or, say, going off to see Grandma — but having them come home to a daddy-less home isn’t the answer either.

Kids don’t just have conversations, change their world views on the spot and carry on from there. They turn things over in their minds, imagine scenarios, ask questions, (mis)understand the answers, go silent on the subject for hours or days or weeks, ask new questions that reveal how far their imaginations have run, etc.

So make your plan to be there to listen and give reassuring but truthful answers, and repeat as needed.

Be ready for the therapy to be more on than off, too. Give your kids a safe place to talk.

Re: When to Tell: I think mom is going on vacation with them. She says “before we go away.”

Anonymous

The pronouns are weird: “They'll be going on vacation” then “before we go away” then “as they come home.”

More thoughts from readers:

No, no, no! Do not do it while they’re away! This is setting them up to fear being away from home, that something like this will happen whenever they leave.

Anonymous 2

My son had just turned 6 when my wife moved out. He was there when the movers came by — afterward he walked around the house, then sat down in front of the empty TV cabinet and said, “We need new appliances.” We had a great weekend shopping together and talking about how we wanted the “guys’ house” to be. This need not be traumatic!

Anonymous 3

My (grown) son still brings up the fact that we got rid of his toddler bed while he was visiting grandma. I can’t imagine what the trauma of all signs of dad disappearing would’ve been.

–Anonymous 4

Right. Adults think they are cushioning kids, but kids think the world has all the power and they have none. Giving kids age-appropriate ways to take part in family transitions, even sad ones, is so important.

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