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Helping a Toddler Cope With Divorce

May14

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Hi Amy.

I’m probably one of the many men who reads your advice blog, but never comments (sorry).  I always enjoy seeing the woman’s point of view of the situations you address and now it seems I have my own question I am hoping you can help with.

It pains me to even be in this situation, so forgive me for venting a little, but I was hoping you and your readers might have some advice on how to cope with divorce for both myself and my daughter.  Seven years ago, I met a wonderful person who was artistic, motivated, attractive and someone who I enjoyed spending all of my time with.  Two years later we married.  At the time, certain issues were starting to surface related to hair pulling and significant weight gain.  Signs of depression also began as my wife seemed to lose her motivation to do her art projects, exercise or even go out and be social.  I tried to be supportive of her during this time and she began some therapy sessions and promised she wanted to get back to being the person she was before.  A year later, we were pregnant and had a daughter.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesBut our daughter was a strain on our situation as she had colic for the first 3 months and my wife started suffering from depression again.  We started couples therapy and I took a more predominate role in caring for the baby while she started depression medication.  Things seemed to be going better, but then the hair pulling continued, she was still missing motivation to do anything which required planning, more substantial weight gain followed and our love life was non-existent as a result of the depression medications.  The few times she did go out, it was more as an escape as she would drive after drinking with friends and even ended up with a  DUI at one point.

Now after 3 years of couples therapy, we have reached an inevitable conclusion.  I want back the woman I originally met, meanwhile she wants someone to accept her as she is now.  Because neither of us is happy with the current situation, we are going through the steps to get a divorce.  If it was just me, I would be disappointed, but accepting of this result.  However I am crushed by the impact this will have on our 3 year old.  My ideal of a happy home for her to grow up in feels destroyed.

My wife has not moved out yet, but we have tried to prepare her by telling her that mommy and daddy will be living in separate houses.  We tell her she will be sharing, but she doesn’t like this and wants to know if we can all come to the same house.  She is also becoming very clingy at daycare drop off and doesn’t want me to leave her there.  I have also purchased some toddler books about divorce which we are starting to read to her.  My wife and I will be splitting custody 50-50, so we will each have her half the time once we separate, but I know it will be rough on her to adapt to this new situation.  Do you and your readers have any advice on how to smooth the transition, how long it will take to adapt and anything else I can do to make this situation easier for both of us?

Thank you,

Scott

So, not surprisingly, given all the recent hoopla in the news, the cable networks have been showing a LOT of Sandra Bullock movies lately. And it turns out that Miss Congeniality is one of those movies I am powerless to resist whenever it comes on. I simply MUST watch it, all the way through, even though I scoff at how ridiculous it is but WILLIAM SHATNER, DUDE.

Anyway, there’s this one scene where Gracie comes backstage at the pageant in a panic, because the FBI shut down the investigation and Michael Caine is no longer there to help her and she’s getting blush and lipstick mixed up, and Miss Rhode Island turns to all the other contestants and shouts LADIEEEEES! And they all drop their cutthroat competitiveness and swarm to help poor Gracie get ready for the show.

I am bringing this up because: LADIEEEEEEEES!

I don’t have any answers for you, Scott, as I haven’t been through a divorce or separation and would probably feel just like you do if it happened: crushed, unprepared and kind of flailing when it came to helping my children through it. I’d probably buy some books and do a lot of Googling and finger-chewing before turning to the Good People of the Internet for first-hand advice and support. Which you’ve just done, and I have a hunch you’ve come to the right place.

It sounds like you’ve taken some good first steps, as far as I can tell: the books, the pre-separation talks, the honesty. You probably already know the big divorce no-no’s: Negative talk about her mother, placing blame, failing/forgetting to co-parent, overcompensating for your guilt with toys! and trips! and changes in routine! and MORE TOYS! And you probably already know that no matter what you do, this IS going to be hard on your daughter. And you.

I think it’s really okay to embrace and accept that reality, and let your daughter know that it’s okay to be sad and it’s normal to be a little scared. Daddy’s sad and a little scared too, but he loves you so much and you make him feel happy and safe. What can Daddy do to make you feel happy and safe? Putting on a brave face 24-7 can be really draining, and while obviously we don’t want to freak our kids out with uncontrollable bursts of sobbing or wall-punching, you CAN have honest, controlled talks about how you feel with a three-year-old. She’s probably becoming very aware of her emotions and other people’s emotions, even if she struggles to really understand them or even correctly identify them.

Noah’s teachers noticed that he was having trouble “reading” the emotions and facial cues of other people, and thus unable to predict how his behavior would make them feel, so we made felt faces that allowed you to change eyes and mouths to convey different feelings (happy, sad, angry, scared, etc.). (Nick Jr. has a REALLY cute Ni Hao Kai-lan tiger craft that’s essentially the same idea, though you can make a simpler version on your own.) We used the face while reading books or talking about things that happened during the day — your daughter might really benefit from something like this. At bedtime, when you read her the divorce stories or talk about the separation or even about fun, happy things that you did that day, have her think about her feelings and use the felt face (or just different faces drawn on cards, or whatever) to pick which emotion she experienced. This will give her a tool to tell you guys how she’s feeling so you’re not always guessing or worrying that she’s internalizing a lot of fear, anger, sadness, etc.

And now? LADIEEEEEESSSS. It’s your turn. Any words of advice or comfort you can offer Scott and his daughter?

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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36 Responses to “Helping a Toddler Cope With Divorce”

  1. Daisy May 14 at 5:43 pm Reply Reply

    While my parents are happily married, I can’t say the same for my friends. One “memory” they had that I recall them telling me about was having a small child-sized duffle bag with their name/monogram put on it. While they had lots of “doubles” (a blankie at Mom’s/a blankie at Dad’s) they could put their most valued possessions in THEIR bag and take it back and forth, even if it was just a favorite box of crayons or book. I’d also suggest some sort of “show-and-tell” routine, i.e. every time you pick her up, let her “show” you something out of her bag- even if it is the same thing every time. Good luck!

  2. TK May 14 at 6:12 pm Reply Reply

    My parents divorced when I was 4. I can tell you that one of THE most important things you and your wife can do for your child is to be kind to each other, speak well of each other, hide from her any anger you have at each other, and try to focus on the good things that you loved and still like about each other. (And if you get a new woman in your life down the road, do NOT EVER make your daughter feel like she somehow has to choose between her mom and your new lady.)

    I would not overdo it on telling her about your own feelings, because when my own father did that I wound up feeling like I had to worry about his feelings more than my own.
    Reassure your daughter in every which way you can that you are not going anywhere, you are never going anywhere, you and she will always be together and that while some of the circumstances are changing, your love for each other is NOT changing and never, ever will. Hit that message over and over and over. And mean it.

    Good luck to you all. It’s going to be tough, but you all will get through it and reach a new place of happiness and peace.

  3. Austin May 14 at 6:33 pm Reply Reply

    My step-sister just finalized her divorce and they have a two-year-old. Her ex is very angry and we suspect that he’s not hiding his anger in front of my niece very well, as she comes home pretty upset and clingy (we’re sure there is no abuse, he just has anger mgmt issues and is probably more volatile than usual and of course niece is picking up on it) after her visits with him. My step-sister is an amazing mom, very patient and loving and calm, and I think that it really helps to ground my niece that mom is always the same, always calm. She can count on that no matter what.

    It sounds like there might be potential for your soon-to-be ex’s behavior to be less stable for your daughter since she has a lot of emotional stuff on her own plate. I recommend just trying to be as loving and stable as you can be for your daughter. While I think Amy is right and you can definitely share your feelings in an appropriate way with your her, she doesn’t need to experience the full impact of what either of you are feeling. Consistency really is key for little kids and there are so many intense feelings surrounding a divorce.

    If it’s any consolation, my parents divorced when I was four and I don’t really remember them being together or what it was like when they split up. I don’t feel hurt by the divorce and I’ve always been glad that if it had to happen, it did when I was so little. Good luck; this is a tough situation but it will get better for all of you.

  4. Floyd May 14 at 6:33 pm Reply Reply

    I hope I can help a little. Not only did my parents divorce when I was 8, I have been a practicing divorce attorney for 14 years. By far, I think the best thing you can do for your daughter is to try and work out a good relationship with her mother. The most successful divorced couples communicate regarding the child and are flexible with each other. In the long run, your daughter will get the benefit of your “team parenting”. It sounds like you and your wife are already working like that and I just urge you to keep it up.

    However, regardless of your best efforts, your daughter will understandably go through some difficult times adjusting. I think Amy’s suggestions are great and Daisy’s comment is excellent too. The only thing you can really do is be patient with her and spend time with her. She needs to feel comfortable sharing her emotions about the new situation. I would expect her to keep feeling anxious until the new situation settles into a routine in which she can feel secure.

    Overall, I think you’re a great Dad to be reaching out and trying to do the best you can for her. Good luck!

  5. DCEmily May 14 at 6:47 pm Reply Reply

    I too have never been divorced, and my parents were divorced after I went away to college, so this may well qualify as assvice, as Amalah so accurately describes it… but here goes. My brother-in-law and his wife were divorced when their little boy was under two – so most of my thoughts are reflections on that situation.

    For him, the most important thing that was lost -and the thing that’s had the greatest negative impact in his life – has been the lack of routine. When parents have joint custody – and especially when they don’t get along or communicate well – they each have their own schedules (mom gets up early, dad sleeps in, etc), which the child has to follow, and it can wreak havoc on a very young child’s psyche. If only for the health and well-being of your daughter – communicate with each other and to the best of your ability maintain some similarity of schedule and routine.

    The other biggest thing I’ve observed is parenting out of guilt – kids really like structure and discipline, and that’s already thrown out the window when parents divorce. It just makes it worse to then let the child get away with behaviors that wouldn’t have been tolerated before. Though they can’t express it, they need parents to actually parent – and will appreciate it.

  6. VAgirl May 14 at 8:38 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve never been divorced, but my parents divorced when I was 4 (and then my mom divorced again when I was 11.) I just want to echo the idea that your relationship with your soon to be ex wife should be as civil as possible. Of all the mistakes my parents made, they never said a bad thing about each other in front of me or my brother and never made us choose one or the other. They also worked together to try and get us in a routine (every other weekend and specific holiday routines with each parent) to try and make it as normal as possible. I don’t have any memories of my parents together, and I think that’s helped in the long run. If you don’t remember anything different than your parents being apart there’s less trauma than if you have those memories. From what I remember and talking to my mother about it, it took about 2 years for us all to get on a set schedule and for the “new normal” to fully set in and be comfortable. Good luck and just remember to love your daughter and you’ll do great in a bad situation.

  7. Me May 14 at 8:45 pm Reply Reply

    I will try to add something that others have not because I am in agreement with the other comments.

    My parents divorced when I was 12, and my sister was 5. In my opinion, we grew up with two different sets of parents. My sister’s set of parents were better parents. Let me describe her set:

    They partnered on driving, taking her to friend’s homes and school activities. They were civil to each other and sat next to each other at school functions. One year when my father didn’t have anywhere to go, he came over for Thanksgiving dinner. We sat around that night and laughed about old funny stories about my sister and I when we were kids.

    My father filled in the areas my mother could or cared not to. He remembered for us times when they were happy and would tell us stories about when they dated. He took us to things my mother had no interest in – he even took my sister to the ballet once.

    My mother never dated (which as an adult now I appreciate). My father did date. We only meet his girlfriend if they were dating exclusively. In fact, he moved in with her and they ended up breaking up a few years later. He is now married to another woman who my sister, my mother and I like. If I could have told him what to do (looking back) I would have preferred that he never moved in with his girlfriend until they were married, or didn’t introduce us to his girlfriend at all until we were adults.

    Your daughter will look at a serious girlfriend of yours as a big sister type. Do not treat that relationship lightly. I would be very cautious as to when and who you introduce your daughter too.

    Good Luck!

  8. M May 14 at 9:23 pm Reply Reply

    My parents divorced when I was a toddler. Growing up I HATED shuttling between their houses. It’s a pain in the ass, and when I was very little it got to the point where I was scared and depressed to go to my dad’s because it was so unfamiliar. You guys should seriously consider being the ones to swap houses instead of making your daughter do it. I knew a couple that did that once and I thought it was a brilliant way to help a child feel comfortable through such a scary process.

  9. Jamie May 14 at 10:35 pm Reply Reply

    My parents got divorced when I was 7 yo so hopefully I can give you some insight.  I agree with DCEmily on the routines and schedules.  It is MUCH easier if the rules are consistent between households and that your custody arrangement is a schedule not some arbitrary 50-50 who knows where I will be today situation.  My father had us every Wednesday night and every other weekend.  We knew where we were going to be, we knew what time we were being picked up, we knew who would drop us off, period.  Was there a little wiggle room?  Of course, but consistency is key.  If possible your soon to be ex-wife and you need to agree on the big rules and most of the small ones too.  Your child can adapt to small differences but the big differences are going to confuse them and make them insecure.  Just my experience.  Hope it helps.  Good luck.

  10. Jaymee May 15 at 1:31 am Reply Reply

    Although I am not divorced, my parents are and they just so happened to have gotten divorced when I was 3. I hope if you or anyone else reads my sotry it can help.

    To be perfectly honest, I don’t really remember a whole lot from when they were married because I was so young. I remember they would shout at eachother alot and I remember the day my Mom packed all three of us up in the car and told my Dad that he needed to pack his things and be out of the house by the time we got home. I don’t have any idea where we went that day or how long we were gone. I just remember seeing my Dad standing on the porch crying as we pulled away. In the end we moved to another town and my Dad moved in with a friend(he eventually got his own place, but I’m not sure when). He got to have us every other weekend and it was kind of like getting to go on a trip. I remember my parents being so much more fun to be around after all of this happened. There was no longer any shouting(except for maybe when one of my brothers was bad, I of course was always good *wink*) and they were both less stressed out. To this day I am very thankful for my parents getting divorced, because I know if they hadn’t my life would have been drastically different and not for the better. It really will be ok, and your daughter will get through it. Kids are stronger than parents sometimes give them credit for.
    Just please try not to do some of the things that my Dad did to make up for not getting to see us very often(it might not be an issue since ya’ll are splitting 50/50). Anytime we went to his house we would always eat out at nice places and get to watch tv shows that our Mom wouldn’t let us watch. If there was a toy that she said we couldn’t have, he would buy it for us. If she told us not to say or do something he said it was ok. When I got older I started spending every weekend with my Dad because I knew my Mom wouldn’t let me go to a party or stay out late but he would. I got very good at playing them against eachother and it was totally my fault for doing it, but I never would have done it if they hadn’t given me the opportunity and communicated with eachother and respected the others rules. I to this day have a wonderful relationship with both of my parents, so it all worked out.
    I hope all turn out for the best for you, I’m sure your daughter will be fine. Like I said, kids are stronger than parents sometimes give them credit for.

  11. Lise May 15 at 6:02 am Reply Reply

    My marriage ended when my youngest child was five. My kids adjusted really well, probably because my ex and I had an amicable relationship. I had to work hard to avoid saying negative things about him – I sometimes felt that I was going to bite my tongue in two and I’m sure he felt the same way. But it’s been worth it in the long run.

    I also think it’s important to recognize that your daughter is going to miss whichever parent she is not with. Maybe she could call the other parent at the same time every day to say hello, so that she doesn’t feel that she’s losing contact with each of you for half of the time.

  12. J May 15 at 5:36 pm Reply Reply

    Wow, all I kept seeing was how her weight gain keeps getting referenced. I’d stay depressed too if I spent years fighting through depression only to find my husband couldn’t accept me as I now was. Sounds like she’ll be better off with another support system (one that doesn’t have to have a therapist tell him to help out).

  13. Christen May 15 at 10:29 pm Reply Reply

    I am likely the dissenting voice here on the “be consistent with the house rules!” idea, but please hear me out. I know this may not be as big of an issue since you are splitting 50-50, but since your ex sounds like she trends toward the, uh, unbalanced, YOU may need to be The Strict One. And that’s OK. My parents split when I was 5 and while there were basic rules that applied at both homes, my mom’s place was ALWAYS more consistent, slightly more strict (but certainly not abusive or unreasonable) and to this day I am grateful that she never gave in to my “But Dad lets me stay up until 2am!” pleas. If Mom decides to go against the rules, check in with her but stick to your guns when it comes to your daughter’s overall well-being. Yeah, treats and fun and some wiggle room have their place but if it were up to my dad school would have been optional and Gummi Bears made the perfect dinner. That said, speak kindly of her mom and reiterate that at “Dad’s house” the bedtime is blahblah and don’t comment on Mom’s decision.

    Not sure if playdates are part of her life now, but I would make an effort to know her friends and their parents and allow/encourage her to have friends over as appropriate. It will make it feel like HER home too and it will help you be involved in her life outside of the two of you.

    As far as dating… I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy to wait until your daughter is married before you dare venture back out there, but if your time with her is 50-50, use the time away from her to date. Be careful as to who she meets, when they meet, and know that this isn’t like dating before you were married. A bummer, but that’s reality.

  14. BH May 15 at 11:01 pm Reply Reply

    Haven’t you heard of “for better or worse”? YOU decided to have a child with your wife. You married her. Be a man and suck it up and work it out. So she has issues now with depression and weight gain — heck it took me about 5 years after having kids to feel halfway normal again! If my husband would have bailed back when I needed him the most — to help me through a tough time after having kids — he would have missed out on the many years later when I finally got back to my “normal” self. Quit being a baby just because your wife “isn’t the woman you married.” I’ll bet, based on your letter, that you aren’t a big prize either. Be grateful for what you have –

  15. Kate May 16 at 1:53 am Reply Reply

    I’m also in agreement with the don’t say anything negative about your ex comments, no matter how hard it is. My parents divorced when I was 7 and I’m still grateful to them for recognizing how important that was. Everything else helped, the consistent visit times, similar discipline, carting a HUGE garbage bag of stuffed animals back and forth so my bed would feel like home, but the part I remember the most is the fact that neither one had a bad thing to say about the other. Though now that I’m a grown-up (31), my mom’s definitely not censoring herself anymore. I remember being shocked the first time she said anything negative about my dad, just because I had NO IDEA that she felt that way, based on her demeanor while I was growing up. That said, you don’t have to be Chirpy McPositive all the time- it’s unrealistic to expect that. You don’t have to make super glowing comments all the time- staying neutral is fine, negative is not. This is going to be hard for everyone involved, but in a fairly short amount of time it will be the new normal and both you and your daughter will be fine.

  16. sarah May 16 at 3:04 am Reply Reply

    I haven’t been divorced, but my parents got divorced when I was under 3 and shared custody. And while of course I don’t remember the early years of the arrangement very well, I think it was mostly fine with me. My folks were careful to be neutral to positive about each other, and keep my routine as stable as possible. I don’t remember being particularly upset about moving back and forth, and I really liked double birthdays and holidays.

    My advice would be to hang in there, take care of yourself, and wait the worst of it out. Your daughter will love both of your regardless, and as log as you do your best I bet she’ll be okay in time.

  17. A divorced adult kid May 16 at 5:42 am Reply Reply

    Sweet Jaysus don’t bad mouth one another. My parents ALWAYS do that and you’ve got no idea the emotional problems is causes. I hate my fiance’s exwife but as far as my stepkids know why we’re best buddies! Don’t try to compensate for the divorce with trips, toys, or anything else you wouldn’t normally give her like staying up late. If your exwife tries to argue with you in front of your child, it is imperative that you remove her from the childs hearing and sight. His ex tried to scream at him for something in front of the kids, and we promptly ushered them inside and away from the chaos.

    Also, if you DO end up meeting someone new & moving in with her, I’d ease her into any type of “parenting” type stuff. Such as, “I don’t think you’re allowed to do X.” if you’re not there. You’d be amazed at how quickly thatll turn into a “you’re not my Mother!” situation. And that WILL breed resentment on ALL sides and FAST. That being said, if you end up marrying this woman go over with everyone boundaries. I.E- she’s got just as much authority as you do OR the discipline is entirely up to you. This will be a tremendous help.

    I’ve been the kid in the divorce, and I’ve got 2 young step kids. I can (hopefully) give advice for both sides.

  18. D May 16 at 8:48 pm Reply Reply

    My parents split when I was five and it was a long long drawn out divorce with a lot of rancor on both sides.
    1. Make sure your child knows and is always reassured that it is not her fault, at all.
    2. Let her know she is the best thing that came our of your marriage, and that you both love her even if you are not in love with one another any more.
    3. Put her in therapy, it helps to have a safe place and people to speak with that are uninvolved. For little kids they do a lot of play therapy which seems like a waste of time but it is unbelievably helpful.
    4. Put on a united front and make sure that you and your ex are at events together, school functions, sports, etc, you don’t have to sit together if it is that bad but at least be there.
    5. Don’t speak ill of each other as much as possible, but also make it okay for your child to be able to say if something is bothering them, if they are upset with one of you, etc.
    6. One of the hardest parts for me was when my dad remarried and there was a new family that was with him all the time while he only saw me a few days a month. If you get remarried or are seeing someone seriously make sure your daughter is reassured of her place in your life and her equality in her heart. My step-mom and mom got along wonderfully, much better than my mom and dad, and my step-mom never tried to mother me, which has been the key to our relationship.
    7. Communication is key.
    8. Common rules, and common expectations.

    Divorce is really hard on kids (and adults), but if handled well can really be okay. I often say that my parents getting divorced was the best thing that could have happened as a kid, despite all the heartbreak.

  19. Ariella May 16 at 9:03 pm Reply Reply

    I think the advice given by the above posters is right on, the most important being “don’t badmouth her mother.” I see from the way you wrote this letter to Amy that you’re still feeling very emotional about your divorce, which is to be expected. I will say that I see some hostility toward your soon-to-be-ex in the writing. If you have not yet begun therapy, my second recommendation is for you to get into a therapist’s office and start dealing with your own issues.

    Hopefully no one sees the recommendation as harsh, but I feel it needs to be said. As a child of divorce, who is now married and who has issues of her own, I can 100% say that if my parents would have gone into therapy to help them handle their own issues, I would not have some of MY issues today. So if your real concern is your child, then you AND your wife will both get into personal therapy to help deal with the repercussions from your divorce. And since you can only control your own behavior, I say: get thee to a therapist pronto.

  20. christina May 16 at 11:01 pm Reply Reply

    Don’t badmouth her mom.
    Get into therapy pronto. Don’t overcompensate by spoiling yoru daughter. Don’t introduce her to ANYONE you’re dating for the first several years, and then only if it is very very serious. And my opinion is to NOT move in with anyone you’re not marreid to once you have kids. Every single situation I have seen where a divorced parent has done that (especially in the early years), has added so so so much stress to the chil(ren) involved.

  21. z May 17 at 12:33 am Reply Reply

    Be ready for the fact that the pain and loss of divorced parents does not necessarily go away for the child.  Instead, in each stage of life, the divorce affects the child differently, usually in a negative way.  It’s very inconvenient and expensive to be an adult child of divorced parents, and disappointing because it cuts into the time spent with each parent.  There’s a lot more travel, horribly awkward family events, a lot of split-up vacations, your grandchildren won’t get as much time with you, etc.  In particular, it’s very difficult to care for two elderly parents in two separate nursing homes far apart, especially as an only child.  It’s really very unpleasant and difficult, and in each stage of life your child may become aware of new ways in which it sucks, so be prepared for ongoing discussion about that topic as she gets older and becomes newly aware of what a pain it’s going to be in all these different ways.  My advice would be to look after your own financial stability so as not to exacerbate these types of problems, and to admit to your child that it does in fact negatively impact her life in various serious practical ways, well into late adulthood.  My parents tend to view their divorce as “all in the past,” which is hardly the case from my perspective as I waste yet another vacation day schlepping back and forth between their houses, and wonder how I’ll possibly cope when they get old and actually need my help.  Don’t underestimate it.

  22. France May 17 at 10:17 am Reply Reply

    I am also a child of divorced parents, and was 3 when my parents split, so fall into that category of those who don’t actually remember their parents ever being together.
    I would second many of the things said above, especially by D and TK, with maybe extra stress on the following points:
    (1) No bad-mouthing the other parent, even if you have reason to (unless we’re talking child abuse, obviously). My parents were NOT even civil to each other, and I really blame them for not making that effor in my presence.
    (2) I very much agree that, while telling her that it’s ok to be sad, and that you are sad too, you should be the strong one. It’s bad enough being a child of divorced parents, but the sense of responsibility and guilt when one of your parents isn’t doing well, is hard to deal with (especially when you’re your parents’ only child and cannot share the burden with siblings). She shouldn’t become the parent.
    (3) Continue to maintain rules, even if you are the only parent doing so, and looking like the “bad guy”. Sure, this may put some strain on your relationship for a short while, but this will be essential to her construction as a person, and something she will be grateful for in the long run. Not saying it will be easy!
    (4) Regarding the phone calls, by all means, if she wants to call her mom when she’s with you (or vice versa), she should be allowed and encouraged to! But I also wanted to say that she shouldn’t be forced to speak on the phone with the other parent if she doesn’t want to. Sometimes, it’s just easier, while you’re in “mommy’s world”, not to be interrupted by Daddy, and vice versa. Try not to feel hurt if that happens, and accept that this may be an easier way of dealing with things by keeping them separate.
    Good luck to all three of you!

  23. D May 17 at 11:39 am Reply Reply

    Sorry, one last thing. Never ever mention your ex wife’s weight to your daughter. Even if she loses weight and you notice, don’t say anything. Don’t say anything if she gains more weight. I get that the weight gain can be an easy way to illustrate a number of on-going problems, but your daughter won’t be able to see that. Honestly, if you want to take one step towards avoiding eating disorders for your daughter, let it go. A message that men will leave you if you gain weight is not a good message for little girls.

  24. Natalie May 17 at 3:14 pm Reply Reply

    I want to second D on her advice to never mention your wife’s weight to your daughter. Ever. My father left my mother when I was younger after several years of my mother dealing with depression and weight gain. I see now that the depression was a bigger reason and there were other underlying issues. However as a child I saw that daddy left mommy because she got fat and daddy married (my step mother) because she is thin and pretty. Even if that is a child’s WAY OVER SIMPLIFICATION of the truth I rarely speak to my father 20 years later and have battled buliema because of it. I am sure the other reasons for the divorce are more important but that you have picked the weight gain as an easy example colors my advice (and even my acceptence of your sincerity, that’s how deep those issues will run)…but if you talk about the weight gain in front of your daughter you will forever damager her self esteem and self acceptance because to a little kid her age, being fat means daddy won’t love her anymore. I say that from expeirnece so be aware Which really this falls into the talk speak ill catagory

  25. pb May 17 at 3:26 pm Reply Reply

    It is incredibly hard to recognize when you can’t be part of a relationship anymore, especially when it is something as amorphous as mental illness. People will often wonder why you couldn’t just “stick it out” or save the “sick person”, but there is a point where you must recognize that your own – and your daughter’s – mental health must come first. Emotional illness of one’s partner can be as detrimental as addiction or abuse (and sometimes swings in that direction), but is often harder to explain to others. A therapist can help you, both with your own issues about the dissolution of the marriage and with how to talk about it to your daughter. My condolences to you.

    Along with all the other stuff (don’t badmouth the co-parent, stick to similar rules, schedules) there is one thing I hadn’t seen anyone mention – kid space. As someone who grew up in two houses, I can say that it is VITAL for your child to have their own space in your new place. When I was little, every time I went from one house to the other, checking my space was a huge priority. Once I had validated it was still there, and still mine, I felt better with all the other changes that were going on, because my space was safe and consistent.
    So whether it is a basket or a whole bedroom, make sure little one has the space to claim, and that you don’t disturb it while she’s away.

    That type of space often is a representation of their space in your life/heart to the child. Your identification and respect of the space can reassure (along with you saying it) that your little one will always be a part of your life. Which is a present fear for many kids whose parents split – “If they can leave each other – they could leave me”.

  26. lisa marie May 17 at 3:29 pm Reply Reply

    I want to applaud Amy & the overwhelming majority of commenters for refusing to engage in demonizing Scott for his decision to divorce.
    I am bipolar, and while I enjoy the love, friendship, and comfort of my partner, I am also Very Medicated. I am high-functioning, but I do have times when I employ avoidance techniques such as sleeping, overeating, and spending.
    I want to point out that in my experience, the weight gain is a symptom of the overarching disease. Were I to lose weight, becoming anorexic or bulemic, a lover’s gaze would likely focus still on the symptom. I agree with everyone’s supportive advice, and I want to echo D’s caution about eating disorders and self-worth based on weight. I wish all of you the best of luck, and bravo! on working to become a healthy parent for your baby girl.

  27. Susan May 17 at 5:37 pm Reply Reply

    I can’t help but worry about your daughter when she is with your wife and you are in your new home. You all are splitting custody, which means your daughter will be spending half her time with her mother. I’m sure her mother loves her, but can she care for her? You mention that there have been times when you’ve done the bulk of childcare. Is your wife going to be able to keep your daughter safe, well-fed, and happy while she’s in her care? Before I became a parent, I would have been quick to dismiss a “stay married for the kids’ sake” type of idea. And I know that the research says that kids are happier coming from a broken home than a home full of fighting. But…this case makes me wonder–is your wife up to the challenge of taking care of your daughter all by herself when it’s her turn to have her?

  28. Suzy Q May 17 at 7:35 pm Reply Reply

    Hi, there. My parents divorced when I was 3. I agree with TK above. I have no real “trauma” from having had divorced parents. It was only in my late teens that I began to wish that I had come from an intact family, in a wishful-thinking kind of way. I also knew my sister and I were better off that they didn’t stay together “for the kids,” when I was able to view them as individuals. I don’t agree with everyone who says to put your child in therapy right away. She really may not need it, and why introduce a new adult into her life? If both of you present the new situation as a fait accompli, i.e., “This is where Mommy lives now, and this is where Daddy lives. We both love you,” she could be okay with that. Don’t over-explain things. Don’t apologize. The more emotional trauma she sees in you, the more trauma she will absorb. Kids are resilient!

  29. Bethany May 18 at 5:05 am Reply Reply

    My parents divorced when I was 23. They had been unhappy for most of my childhood but stayed married because of us kids. I wish they would have divorced much earlier than they did. Yeah, it would have been hard, but in the long run, we all could have been happier sooner. Now, 4 years later, my parents have both remarried. My sisters and I are emotionally scarred and are all terrified of being in bad marriages that end in divorce. That said, your daughter will likely not remember the family dynamic pre-divorce. If you know it’s inevitable, better to do it now than later. If you wait, she will certainly remember. Good luck! You sound like a great dad!

  30. Denise May 18 at 9:42 pm Reply Reply

    It seems like today everyone is getting divorced, so I’m not surprised that most of the comments are all hoo-rah divorce is fine. I liked the above comment about the parents needing to be the ones that go back and forth and the kid can stay in the house. Going by the description, I don’t understand how you think you can live with yourself to leave your daughter alone with the wife. The way the divorce seems to work out is that 50% of the time the kid has to deal with mom’s issues but you get to run away. And people today call that being fair to yourself and all other kinds of rationalizations…letting yourself live the life that you deserve. Does your daughter deserve to be alone with mom 50% of the time? And…will it really be mom, or will it be aunts/uncles, grandparents, neighbors, babysitters? When you don’t have custody can you control who is watching your child? creepy uncle, unbalanced babysitter, senile grandma? I hope you will take full responsibility for whatever happens to your daughter after you are no longer there to protect her. Why not get full custody if the situation is as bad as you describe? Or, if it really isn’t that bad, then don’t get divorced.

  31. Ann May 19 at 4:45 am Reply Reply

    I am going to disagree with those folks who say not to get divorced, based on my experience as a 40-something woman whose parents stayed together until the kids were grown up. I was in my late 20′s when they finally divorced. All through my teens I wished they would divorce. They never fought, though. Everything was quiet and behind closed doors. Things I never learned as a child: how to disagree, how married people who loved each other behaved, how parents worked together (every birthday and Christmas I got gifts from him and gifts from her and didn’t realize that some kids got gifts from Mom AND Dad). And, yet, because of the great theatrical performance they gave as parents, I figured that their dysfunctional mess was how happily married people lived. It made my adult relationships very challenging. And, yes, there was serious depression in one of my parents. If they had divorced, I might not have known what a great marriage was, but I wouldn’t have believed I did and been wrong, either. For what it’s worth, their marriage was annulled after the divorce because of the odd circumstances of the original marriage and the depression was considered as a factor.

  32. Sarah May 19 at 4:23 pm Reply Reply

    My first husband and I split up when my children were 1 and 3. I have always had primary custody, so my experience is a little different from what you are going through. When we first split up, we made every effort to be civil in front of the kids, even though there was a lot of anger on both sides. We didn’t bad mouth each other and we put a stop to it when our families did. I know consistency is important for small children, but you can have consistent routines at both homes without those routines being the same. The other big rule I had to follow, was that I don’t make the rules at Daddy’s house. Just like the routine is different at school, it will be different at each parent’s home, even if only slightly.
    My ex had stability issues, and his homes were sometimes sketchy. We had open discussions about what was an appropriate environment for the kids, without cutting down on his time with them. If he couldn’t guarantee his roommate would not bring home a stripper, then he and the kids would stay at his parents’ house on the weekends until he found a better place to live. I tried not to make judgments on his lifestyle, we just discussed what would be best for the kids. Because no matter how we felt about each other, we both loved the kids the best we could.
    When I remarried, my kids called my husband by his name, out of respect for the fact that they have a Dad already. It’s been 14 years since my divorce and we all get along really well now, because of our efforts to be open, but not sweat the small stuff, or hold grudges. Good luck!

  33. Heidi May 19 at 7:50 pm Reply Reply

    For the comments that demonized you for divorcing…I *wish* vehemently that my parents would’ve divorced. They have both told me they wanted to when my sister and I were 5 but “stuck it out.” More like “fought it out”. They were HORRIBLY passive aggressive to each other in our presence, and there’s nothing like waking up at midnight because SURPRISE! Mommy & Daddy are screaming AGAIN. Also: her own space and tradition is vital here. For example, my stepkids have their own rooms and every Sunday morning we all make breakfast together. They have their *own* space that they can count on, and a tradition they can count on. Now, your daughter is probably a bit young for scrambling eggs by herself, but maybe it’s something simple like for example: when she’s with you, make her favorite dish like strawberry pancakes. Whatever. It’s something that solidifies that while her world is being turned upside down, this is something she can count on.

  34. Ashley Jun 03 at 4:38 am Reply Reply

    I agree with all the commenters here (except for the ones badmouthing and advocating staying together. So not the issue at hand!) 

    There is one thing I don’t agree with though: don’t have the “it’s not your fault, you didn’t cause this” conversation unless she exhibits signs of feeling to blame. I was a child with divorced parents. I never once wondered if I was to blame, and had they brought it up I probably would have started obsessing over why they said that and if I really WAS to blame. I know she’s unlikely to obsess over anything right now, but i’d hate to see it later on. I had friends with divorced parents and the first thing they parents would say was “this is not your fault.” and their reaction was always “duh.” And shortly thereafter they’d start thinking maybe it WAS. Why else would their parents even think to say that?

    So unless she starts wondering if this is some sort of punishment, i’d steer clear of having conversations that might trigger associations that weren’t there before. (If she comes up with it on her own, of course reassure her though!!) 

  35. Harriet Mar 04 at 11:49 am Reply Reply

    This has been so helpful to me, everyone. My husband and I separated about a year ago. We have a beautiful three year old son. Sometimes, we are just not sure what the best arrangement should be with regard to custody. It’s often so hard to know how it’s all going to turn out for our son. Consequently, I worry a lot about it all. 

    Currently, we have a one week on, one week off arrangement. It seems to be working all right. One issue: our son cries whenever dad picks him up from daycare and asks to go to my house instead. I do not in any way speak ill of his father or encourage any sort of favoritism. However, I honestly think our son prefers me. Are we damaging our son but not giving him what he wants? More time with him mom? Maybe 50/50 is not the best thing.  

  36. Charles Mar 17 at 12:59 pm Reply Reply

    I’m going to share my experiences as a step-dad.

    My two step kids are 6 and 2, respectively. The son, 6, is old enough to know that his parents are divorced. The daughter is two and will be 3 this year, so half the time, she calls me daddy.

    Most people have told me I am crazy for taking this family on, but I find that it actually brings me a lot of joy. The kids (seem) to adore me, and the son and I get along especially well. The daughter is in that phase where she generally wants only mommy, but is known to hide behind my leg when she gets scared.

    Honestly, if they are taking the divorce hard, its hard to tell. I guess my point is divorce isn’t the end of the world. Sure, I bet there will be some issues down the road, but if I was their father, it would be “I hate you!” rather than “you’re not my dad!”

    Additionally, I believe they react better to the immense positivity between my wife and I. We do not fight much or at all, and we never speak negatively re: the father. We run a fairly tight ship; bath at 8 pm, shows at 830, bed at 9. Every two weeks, we goto dad’s at 10 am. If there is an issue with this, I’ve never heard it. Consistency is key with any kids, divorce or no.

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