Should we tell our preschooler we’re separating?

Q – “My husband and I are separating. Is it okay to hide our plans from our preschooler until we are ready to move, or should we let her know what’s going on?”

A – If you already have a plan in place for separating, you need to bite the bullet and have a talk with your daughter. While you may be under the impression you’re being discreet, children often are very aware of tension between parents, even when they don’t understand what’s happening.

Although it’s important to shield young children from adult worries, hiding your plans won’t help her.  Just as with any other major transition (like moving to a new school or day care center) she’ll need time to adjust. By keeping quiet you also run the risk of her misinterpreting the situation and assuming she’s to blame for problems between Mom and Dad.

To help you plan your first talk, here’s some beginning steps.

Before talking with your daughter plan what you want to say and how.
Ideally it’s best for kids when parents can deliver the news together.  However, that’s only a good idea if you both agree on what to say and are committed to keeping the conversation tension free. Be sure you’ve thought through how you are handle your emotions about the split in front of your daughter. She will be taking her cues from the two of you.

Keep explanations for your little one straightforward and simple.
Consider saying something like:

“Mom and Dad are getting a divorce.  That means that we won’t be a husband and a wife anymore but we will always be your Mom and Dad.
“Our family is changing. Mom and Dad are going to be living in two homes instead of one.”
“Divorce is one way some families change, but you will always have a family with Mom and a family with Dad.

Address issues that will be important to your child such as:
When will I see Dad when will I see Mom?
Where will I live?
What else will change?
Will you ever stop loving me?

Prepare for follow-up talks
Instead of one big talk, your young one will need to have a series of ongoing conversations and discussions.  Be sure to let them know it’s okay to talk about the divorce and ask questions.

While you are still in one home, do your best minimize conflict between the two of you.  If you have already agreed on a parenting schedule consider trying it out before you move into separate residences. This will give your daughter a chance to transition into spending time with each of you differently. Young children tend to associate concepts with things that are concrete and tangible. When appropriate involve her in the physical aspects of change (i.e. seeing a parent’s new home, talking about where her things will be in each home, having conversations about how things will look in each place.)

For more information on how to help your daughter, refer to Chapter 10 in Parenting Apart: How separated and divorced parents can raise happy and secure kids