how to explain divorce to a 4 year-old

I don’t know what to do about my Catie.

Catie girl in her new horsey pj's

She’s always been a cautious kid, from the time she was a baby. She doesn’t warm up to new things quickly. She takes her time, assessing the situation, until she decides it’s ok. She wouldn’t even get on the swings at the playground until this past year. She is just not the type of child to jump into the deep end and start splashing.

And you know what? That’s FINE. There’s nothing at all wrong with it. In fact, it’s made parenting her a lot easier. I’ve never had to worry about her pulling some daredevil stunt if I took my eyes off of her for two seconds, because she isn’t the type of kid to do something like that. Heck, I never even really had to childproof anything when she was a baby. I’d point to the cabinet full of breakable glass serving dishes and say, “Don’t touch that stuff.” And she wouldn’t! She’d go play with the tupperware instead.

Because of that, this (relatively sudden) separation has been unbelievably hard on her. When Dave was just a few miles away at a hotel, it wasn’t so bad. She spent the night with him there a couple of times, he picked her up in the morning to take her to daycare a few times, and they still saw each other on a fairly regular basis.

Grumpiest. Princess. Ever.

I haven’t really blogged about this, but in early September, Dave moved to Seattle for a new job. His plan is to be back and forth a lot so he can still see the girls, but… well. You can’t really explain long-term timetables to a four year-old. A week in her mind might as well be a year. Telling her that Daddy will be back next month? Yeah, it doesn’t help.

And my sweet baby, she is such a daddy’s girl, and it is heartbreaking to watch her grieve this loss. The last week or so has been particularly bad. She’ll start crying about something that seems particularly non-tear-worthy – like, say, I tell her to wait just a minute before I can get her a cup of milk – and then it escalates into this full-on, “I WANT MY DAAAAADDY!!!” sobbing.

You know that scene in “Hope Floats” where the little girl is standing in front of the house screaming for her father as he drives away? Yeah, it’s like that. Nightly. It physically hurts me to watch her like that.

A couple of nights ago, I lay down with her in her bed to snuggle with her before bedtime, and she started to cry again. I just held her and stroked her face and tried to talk her through it.

She said, “It used to be me, Mommy, Daddy, and Lucy, but we aren’t that kind of family anymore.” I agreed that no, we aren’t that kind of family anymore. It just made her cry more.

She asked when she was going to get a new daddy (I have no idea where the hell that came from – there’s a little girl at her daycare whose parents divorced & the dad moved far away, and the mom has a new boyfriend, so maybe that’s it). I quickly reassured her that there will be no new daddies. Her Daddy will always be her Daddy, and he will always love her very, very much. He just doesn’t live with us anymore, that’s the only thing that’s changed.

I also told her that it’s normal to have lots of feelings about this: we feel sad, hurt, confused, and angry, and it’s all ok.

She said, “I think, tomorrow, I’m going to be angry.” I thought that was kind of funny, but I didn’t show it on my face. I just said ok, that was fine, we just need to talk about why we feel angry, but that’s totally ok.

I told her that this is especially hard right now because it’s all new, and changes are scary. But someday this won’t feel so sad, it’ll just be normal.

And I told her that one day, when it was just me, her, and Lucy? We are gonna have us some fun. We’re going to go on adventures together, just us three girls, and it’s going to be great.

I don’t know if any of that really sunk in, and I’m sure I’ll need to repeat it quite a bit over the coming days and weeks.

Pony ride. The 4 year-old's day = MADE.

I know she’s going to be ok, I really do. I just need to figure out the best way to help her through this. I don’t want to accidentally say anything that will make it worse. This process of getting her from point A to point B is so unbelievably scary and hard.

11 thoughts on “how to explain divorce to a 4 year-old

  1. It is hard. She’s at that questioning stage. And things don’t really get past her.

    I’m sure it will get easier for all of you as time passes.

    Just know I’m here if you (or the girls) need anything. And by here, I mean a few thousand miles away, but I do what I can!


  2. I wish I had some magical words of wisdom, but alas, my parents divorced before I knew them together. I am so sorry you not only have to deal with this yourself, but also have to worry about your sweet girl; double hard on you.

    That scene in Hope Floats is killer.

    It sounds to me that you’re doing all of the right things. There will always be times when she wants her daddy; you just wipe the tears and hold her and she’ll be ok. It is scary and hard, but you’re doing it, and you’ll all be ok. xoxoxoxo

  3. You seem to be handling this with a helluva lot of strength and grace. You answer her, you validate her, you comfort her, all while you are going through this yourself, without letting your feelings affect hers. I think you are doing it all just right, from my experience as a child of divorce.

  4. Oh wow. That totally made me cry. You are an AMAZING mother. My parents divorced when I was 11 and didn’t talk to me too much about it, it just kinda happened. It was awful. I truly think that talking about it will make it ‘easier’ to make it through.
    Keep doing what you’re doing- I can’t imagine how hard it is for you, but you’re doing it with grace.

  5. Cindy, you’re doing a great job. Catie is very lucky to have you as her mamma. It’s so hard to watch them deal with this, for me it was harder than any other emotions I dealt with.

    Just keep doing what you’re doing. Under it all she just wants to know that she’s loved, and you’re doing a great job of that.

  6. I think you just keep doing what you’re doing. Make her life as normal and scheduled as you can. Keep being there and letting her grieve. She’ll be okay. You will become her constant and she’ll adjust to it.

    Hugs to both of you.

  7. Divorce is so hard. You not only have to go through *your* emotions but your child’s emotions as well. I seriously commend you and give you big hugs for how you’re dealing with this with Catie. It’s not easy explaining this to a 4 year old and it’s even harder explaining daddy isnt down the street anymore.

    I don’t have advice just love and support. I wish I could do more.

  8. Ugh, that hurts my heart. Hugs to you and to Catie. I think just talking to her, letting her talk it out, cry it out, yell it out, whatever she needs is the best thing you can do for her. She’ll be okay. I know this because she has you for a mom. Love and hugs.

  9. AW, that’s so hard to hear. I think you’re doing a great job handling what is a very difficult situation. My folks divorced when I was 8, and I took it pretty hard, too. It all works out eventually, but getting there is tough. Kudos to you for doing a wonderful job.

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