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Ask the Experts

Help My Child Cope With Parental Separation

By Debra Collins, Family therapist

Question:

I have been separated from my husband for a year now, and I have tried to inform my daughter of this. At first she asked about him all the time and suggested that he was at work. Now she understands that he is not home and she asks if we are divorced. I always tell her that even if we get divorced, it is not because of her. I tell her that we both love her. She always likes to stay with him because I am the one who makes her study and he does not care as much about studying. Any suggestions of how I can make the transition easier for her?

Answer:

Almost all children fantasize about their parents getting back together and worry that the divorce is their fault. Where children are developmentally also contributes to their understanding. It was probably easier for her at age 6 to believe that her dad was at work. Going to work is something concrete she understood. "Separation" is a harder concept to grasp.

By second grade she has a better understanding. You mentioned that you told her, "even if we get divorced…" I'm sure it must be a challenge to explain things if there is a possibility that you might reconcile. The anxiety about not knowing can be very stressful for all concerned.

If you are unsure about divorce, empathize with her that it must be hard waiting for mom and dad to decide. It would be ideal if you and your ex-husband talk with her together about what you have planned, and what routines and rules will be enforced. If you know that you will divorce, let her know when that will occur and any changes in schedules that may happen as a result.

Many parents understandably feel that one parent is favored by the child because of discipline issues. My experience working with families is that while it often appears that way, children want to be with their parents because they are their parents. However, children do test the limits and the boundaries with each one. This will happen whether you remain together or apart.

GreatSchools has wonderful information and resources about children and divorce which can be useful in your case, as well. Let the teacher know about this situation so that she can be aware of any behavior changes. Family therapy might be helpful to guide you through these transitions as well.


Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/17/2010:
"I have to children 7 and 12.I have had some anger issues with my 12 year old for a while now. His father and I have been in and out of a relationship for 15 years now. Anyway I know that it has to do with what angers him. He is hitting things, he will not talk to me about it. HE has seen a doctor and the doctor says he is ADHD and Bipolar and now he is on medication for both. But the meds. does not help him. HE still gets angry and still punches trees, poles, walls, I am hoping to find some answers as to what I can do to get my son the help he needs to get over these issues."
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