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Preschoolers Handling Divorce

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Hello Dr. Turben:

My daughter will be 5 years old and my son will be 3 next week. My husband and I have been married 6 years.  Three weeks ago my husband moved out. There hadn’t been a lot of fighting between us during the marriage, however, over the past few months I had been noticing personality changes in my husband and I had been under major stresses. Although I say major I also am certain that it is typical stress for a mother working from home and carrying a lot of responsibility.

My husband moved back to his parents’ house and each time he comes to visit he removes more of his things. My five year old sees it. Everyone tells me the kids are too young to understand – but I’m certain he gets it. Both of them have been totally out of sorts. Both of the children come into my room every night – when I put them back in their rooms, they return to my room several times throughout the night – always going to “daddy’s side” I’m sure they are looking for him.

My son begins preschool this week. More than my heart is breaking for me, my heart is breaking for what they are going through. My son keeps asking when Daddy is coming back to live with us. And that grandma has “grandpa and 2 other people living there and doesn’t need our Daddy, we do.” He also keeps saying “I’m the Daddy around here” or “Call me Daddy”. Obviously, I completely discourage this.

All in all it is a horrific situation. I’ve begun to see a clinical psychologist. My husband is also seeing the same doctor as I said he couldn’t see the children until he has answers to why he is choosing to do this to our family. I know I need help for my son and thought you may be able to direct me? I’d appreciate any direction you could give me in handling this with my children. I make every effort to be sure I’m not negative about my husband and toward my husband in front of them. I’m not sure where this is going but my husband seems very certain about his decision. Therefore, I want to make sure my children suffer the very least possible. I need guidance on how to handle myself, the situation, and my children to achieve the best possible results. I’d appreciate any help. Thank you.



Dear Kristi:

Thank you for writing. You have done the right thing to see a counselor and to try to get your husband to do the same. My remarks will be general because I focus on the children and their developmental stages. This approach helps you to know how to handle the children’s comments and actions, but it does not prescribe or dictate what you decide to do. Take the information and use it the way that best fits your family’s situation.

Most moms and dads in this situation need professional help, and they need to keep the children’s life schedule the same, or as close to the same as possible. The spouse who moves out bears the responsibility to explain his absence and you are correct in not speaking of their father negatively. You need support from a counselor, friends, a group counseling session, in which other moms who are separated can hear your story and you hear theirs.

Your church or mental health center can advise you on the contacts you can make. Contact your pediatrician and tell him the situation. Be sure you have a pediatrician who is a good listener. If not, change immediately. You will need the children to be seen routinely to be sure he or she doesn’t notice changes that may indicate childhood trauma, depression, excessive anger, etc.

I hope you know your son does indeed know that you are not together. He is a concrete literal thinker who talks about exactly what he sees and hears and wants attention and answers. Tell him what is happening in a matter of fact way, which is how he thinks.

Be sure his teacher knows the facts too, so she or he can understand why he may be pushy, or too quiet or cry or refuse to do something. He may hit or kick or yell. He’s normal if he does.

Your two year old will be easily distracted by objects, toys, going places, etc., so it is easier to keep her organized. She needs to have plenty of opportunity play with other children so get her into the toddler Head Start or a play group in your neighborhood. If she is in day care, explain everything to the director of the program. Substitution and distraction work best to get her to cooperate. Your goal is to let both children help you around the house as much as possible to keep them feeling secure and trusting. No overnights or visits for children this age. Be firm. They need the security of being at home.

Thanks again for writing.


Dr. Susan

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