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Holden_Caulfield's avatar

How do you tell your 5 year old son that his mother is never coming home?

Asked by Holden_Caulfield (1139 points ) February 2nd, 2010

Those who have had a spouse or significant other with whom you have had children leave, know the excrutiating pain associated with the loss. And having chidren only exacorbates the pain, fear, anger, sadness, and loneliness associated, not only for youself, bu for them most importaty. It also brings up questions that are far beyond the wounded heart and mind’s ability to adequately answer at the time.

For me, my 5 year old son asked me this exact same question… and the only response I could give was “I don’t know” He looked up at me and responded with tears in his eyes… “That’s what she says, Daddy”

Have you ever been in a similar situation? How did you handle it? How did you answer it? How did you feel?

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25 Answers

deni's avatar

My parents got divorced when I was 7. I barely understood but they handled it really well…I can’t remember a single thing they said now, but one morning they told me and both my older brothers to come into their bedroom and they explained the situation. Again, I don’t remember what they said, but I remember sitting there for a while. And somehow I understood and was really sad for a few days. Just try your best to explain it…I really don’t know what else to say, I know this isn’t much help but it’s my 2 cents on the subject from the other side of the fence.

I’m sorry you’re in this situation, but good luck

Your_Majesty's avatar

Tell him that “She’s in heaven now. A very happy and amazing place. She wants to see you but she can’t,she has her job there. She’s always in your heart and will keep watching you my son,if you believe so”. Better than lie to your son,which he’ll find out later in life in his future and you’ll be branded as a bad dad who love to lie around. He needs to know the truth despite his young age. So he’ll able to face the reality in his life.

Hydrogenbond's avatar

@Doctor_D – She didn’t die.

Buttonstc's avatar

I’m assuming from your tags that you are speaking about divorce rather than death.

The most important thing to tell him above anything else is that it was not because of anything he did or did not do.

Children have an uncanny way of managing to blame themselves, especially young children who aren’t that far removed from the time in their lives when their basic viewpoint was that everything revolved around them and their needs.

Just make it very clear to him that adults sometimes have differences that can’t be settled so instead of always arguing it’s best if they separate from each other. But the one thing that will never change is how much he is loved by both of you.

There was nothing he could have done because it was a grown up problem. Regardless of who lives where, love is always there for him from both of you and that will never change. Just keep reassuring him about this.

And both you and your wife should be mature enough to never use him as a pawn in your conflicts. He should be able to love each of you fully without guilt or fear of being disloyal to one or the other.

liminal's avatar

My situation is different because my children’s first mom died when they were 3 and 4. Yet, I can’t help but think the grieving process overlaps. Sharing all the emotions honestly and being concrete has been really important for us. When I notice something that reminds me of their mom I point it out and how it makes me feel: angry, sad, lonely, (whatever feeling is stirred at the time). The children follow my lead and feel permission to say things they notice too (instead of being quiet and internalizing them). I also talk concretely about other things I notice for example “It feels sad to be eating dinner and not have mommy here.” This sort of thing gives them something concrete to practice. Which sometimes leads to all or one of us crying or being angry or being whatever but at least it isn’t getting trapped inside us. We spend a lot of time talking about how it isn’t their fault. (My son had slapped at his mom a couple days before she died and thought he may have killed her.) At very young ages it is so easy to take blame for things. It has been 5 years since her death and things still come up from time to time. You have the added layer of a person who is choosing to not be around. It must be very painful and confusing for you both. You seem to be taking the honest path and I admire you for that. Compassion and patience to you both as you navigate.

I also want to be clear that when I say “share” emotions I am not referring to having your child support you, but referring to you modeling how to navigate hard emotions.

liminal's avatar

@Holden_Caulfield Maybe I have misunderstood, is your son still having contact with his mother?

JLeslie's avatar

Are you getting divorced? Or, is she abandoning you and her son altogether?

Holden_Caulfield's avatar

@liminal very little. They see her. We have 50/50, but she is gone most of the time even when she does have them, and I have them the majority of the time. We are divorced now.

Holden_Caulfield's avatar

@JLeslie all happened recently. I have struggled with this situation and question and felt I did not live up to the task. Was looking for others who have been in same or similar situation. As well, was hoping others who may have to go through it would have some help so that they do not experience the emptiness of having to answer, ”: I don’t know” to their children when the question/answer directly impacts them emotionally.

Jeruba's avatar

@Holden_Caulfield, your distress is evident, and I am sorry. I don’t mean to be critical, but your explanation is not clear. You said:

For me, my 5 year old son asked me this exact same question… and the only response I could give was “I don’t know”

but you did not state any question. What question did he ask? And what had his mother said to him?

JLeslie's avatar

She is gone, because she is working? If she is not present why does she have custody on those days? I am still confused.

I’m sorry you are going through such a difficult time, it is obvious this is very difficult for you. I have not been divorced, but the people I know who have been, the younger their child is the easier it seems for the child to accept the new circumstance from what I have observed, so I am hopeful your son will adjust quickly.

Holden_Caulfield's avatar

@Jeruba My apologies… He asked me when his mom was coming home. I thought I was clear, but you are right, I was not. The conversation was: ” Daddy, when is mommy coming home?” and my response was: ” I don’t know”. He then said: “That;s what she says”. Sorry about that. Was hard enough to type. Missed the details. His mother responded same as I did.

@JLeslie I agree the younger the easier… but it must take time, I guess. He still asks and wants what he believes the right thing to be.

Your_Majesty's avatar

Sorry I’ve misunderstood your question. I tend to associate ‘loss’ as gone forever forever from earth.

PandoraBoxx's avatar

It sounds like he needs concrete answers. Saying mommy is going to live at her house and we are living at our house. You will have two houses. Right now, mommy is out of town on business, but you can call her tonight on the phone if you’d like. When mommy comes home from her trip, she will come home to her house, but not to Daddy’s house. You will see mommy at mommy’s house.

Perhaps you can do a craft project with him, with who lives at who’s house. Like have him draw pictures of grandparents’ and other relatives houses, your house, his mom’s house, and have him match photos with different houses. Have him match himself and siblings with both houses. If he has cousins or friends with divorced parents, have him match them with two houses as well. Put pets in the right houses.

liminal's avatar

removed by me :)

Holden_Caulfield's avatar

@Doctor_D No worries! I completely understand. Considering the details of the circumstance, I knew it was for good. Loss in this case was gone for good.

DrMC's avatar

Your child definitely knows you are in pain. The approach I’ve used in non similar situations is to try to help them understand in terms they are familiar with.

They have friends, sometimes they fight. Sometimes they don’t want to be friends anymore. You most likely can think of these friends names etc.

Start with – well, you remember when friend 1 and friend 2… They will usually get this quickly.

Then you say that you and your spouse tried really hard to stay friends, but it didn’t work. She wanted to be be away.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the child, and its REALLY important to emphasize that.

Rejection by a spouse is nasty. They can be replaced.

Rejection by a parent makes you Huckleberry Finn. Few have his true grit.

Kids can be REALLY hurt during this process. It is ever so important they realize this is strictly a you and her issue.

Pandora's avatar

I think the best thing to tell her is that she will always have you to hold her and comfort her and that you will never go away, no matter what. I know for my nephew he felt his dad didn’t love him enough to stay and he would always try to find a way to fix things but never could. Tell her that together you can both get passed the disappointment and you wish you could make things better for her but that together you can create a new life that will have lots of good times. She will feel insecure wondering if you will ever leave. Whatever you do, do not bash your ex because she may resent you and it will just hurt her more. She is going to love her mom no matter what, so be sure not to step on her feelings. Make her understand that it is not disloyal to love her mom. If you know for a fact her mom loves her than tell her this. Reassure her and work with your ex on making the divorce as comfortable as you can for her sake.

JLeslie's avatar

@Holden_Caulfield That conversation sounds to me like you are separated, like a trial separation, not divorced. If you are divorcing I would think the answer goes something like, “mommy and daddy are going to live in separate houses now, and you will have a room in both places, in the new house you get to pick what color you want the room to be and we can go shopping and make your special space. Mommy and I both love you and you will spend some time in my house and some time in hers, and you can call either of us any time you miss us. We can make up a special calendar so you know when you will be home with me” (if he understands what a calander is, so he can feel some control, and it is not mystery when he is going to be where.) Or, something to that effect, and I think you and your x need to have the conversation together with him if possible.

And, also know that your son will want to tell you things he thinks you want to hear while he is with you. If you are upset that your wife left, he will play into agreeing with you and wanting what will make you feel better, not only himself.

augustlan's avatar

If you are truly divorced with no hope of reconciliation, “I don’t know” is not the way to go. That just leaves it open ended, and your child will continue to hope for mom to come back ‘home’. Always tell the truth, in an age appropriate way. Clear and concise, without details, seems best for a five year old. “Mommy and Daddy just can’t live together anymore. We both love you very much. You will have a room at Mommy’s house and a room at Daddy’s house.”

montreality's avatar

It must hurt to see your little boy in pain like that :( I have never been in this situation, I don’t have children and my parents are still together. But I imagine you could explain that while his mom and dad don’t want to live together anymore, they still both love him very much. Maybe also say that what happened was not his fault.

liminal's avatar

@Holden_Caulfield Okay, I am going to try this again. I didn’t like how it sounded the first time, that is why I removed it. Please know that I say this with all gentleness. It seems that the truth closest to reality for your family, right now, isn’t that mommy has left home, but that mommy is making a new home for herself and the children. It would seem, although it is hard, that it is best to make this clear to your children. I don’t say this to be heartless. I say this out of knowing that clarity and directness is best for adjusting and grieving. The best thing you can do for your kids is what you did tonight. Talk with other adults or a counselor, gain perspective, and care for yourself. It is obvious that you love your children and want to be honest with them, that can heal a multitude of wounds.

Darwin's avatar

“He asked me when his mom was coming home.”

Since you are now actually divorced, the correct answer is she has her own home now so she won’t be coming to this home. You should also, as others have indicated, make sure your son knows that he is a part of both homes and that absolutely nothing he did or said caused the two of you to part ways.

Don’t say “I don’t know.” In all probability the correct answer is “never.” However, your son needs a concrete but positive answer expressing this.

JLeslie's avatar

@Holden_Caulfield Some states, like FL, require a class for children going through divorce, which I have heard is very helpful. I wonder if there is something similar for your son where you live? Not to mention the parents are required to attend a class also. I found this link http://www.educationprograms.com/ I have not read it through, but I think it might be helpful.

judymcb's avatar

wow…I’m sorry you’re going through this. I think I did a pretty good job prepping and maintaining my two children through our separation. My kids were 5 &7. I repeatedly said “mommy and daddy just can’t get along, you know how you and bobby fight and you need time away from eachother?” over and over i told them it was grown-up problems, we both loved them. i spent a great deal of time (and still do) telling them how great daddy is. sometimes it makes me want to throw up a little bit!!!! but it’s not their fault. i’m not sure if “i don’t know” is the best answer, because if she does come back, great. but if she doesn’t, it gives a little false hope (just my opinion, please don’t be hurt or offended). i was firm with my kids that this was how it was to be, but we loved them, it would just be different. we try to do things as a “real family” like holidays, birthdays, special occasions and no reason at all dinners. my kids are 4 years out, well-loved and well-adjusted. it worked for us, but everyone is different. just put them first in any answer you give or action you take. trust me, it ain’t easy!!!! but it sounds like he’s the most important thing in your world and worth every bile-inducing “mommy is great” you can give him!!!!! oh yeah, and she needs to be on YOUR page too. he’s worth it…

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