We’re Separated, But Our Daughter Still Needs Her Dad

Dear Mamas,

My husband and I separated 2 months ago after I discovered he was having an affair with a co-worker.  I’m humiliated and angry, but am doing my best to make things normal and OK for our 5 year old daughter. The problem is, whenever he comes over to see her, or tries to take her to visit  for the weekend, she withdraws and doesn’t want to be with him.

I know this isn’t a good situation, and I’ve tried to explain things to her so she can still have a relationship with him, but it’s not working. How can I let her know that she can still love her dad, even though our marriage is over?


Beth, in Oregon

Dear Beth,

We applaud you for acknowledging that your little girl needs her dad, in spite of your anger and hurt.  Whatever he did to betray your trust doesn’t have to poison the bond he has with her, and the fact that you know it speaks volumes about your ability to get through this tough time with the strength you and your daughter need.

Chances are, your daughter is confused about what’s going on and feels like the rug’s been pulled out from under her. She may even have the common feeling that she’s responsible for the split. Let’s go over some basics  about kids and divorce that may help all 3 of you get on the road to healing.

1. Her greatest need is for reassurance and love from both of you. Above all, she needs to know that she’s safe and that you both will continue to love and care for her no matter what. She may be worried that Dad isn’t the same Dad now that he’s not living with you. Keep letting her know that you both will always be her parents, even if you’re no longer married.

2. Keep communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. Talk openly about her fears and sadness. Address the very concrete and specific issues she may be thinking about, like how she’s going to get to school from Dad’s new place or whether he knows which is her favorite breakfast cereal. Be aware that she’s picking up your non-verbal cues as well, so watch your tone and body language on the subject when you’re with her.

3. Let her be honest about her feelings without worrying that she’ll hurt yours. As an extension of this, let her know that you’re still the mom and you’ll get both of you through this. Be her strength and show her that though this is really hard right now, it will all turn out OK.

4. Provide continuity and routine. Try to keep her life as familiar as possible. Even though the family is breaking up and re-forming, it’s comforting for her to know that as many day-to-day activities as possible will stay the same. Work with your ex to create a new normal that provides the stability she needs.

5. Avoid blame. No matter how angry you are, be respectful when you talk about her dad.  She needs to get the feeling from you that it’s still OK for her to love him, even though you’re not married anymore.  She’ll take her cues about that from you, so make sure you’re sending the right ones.

6. Let her know it wasn’t her fault. Keep sending the basic message: what happened between Mom and Dad had nothing to do with her.  Many kids continue to worry that it’s their fault, even after parents assure them it isn’t, so let her know every way you can.

7. Keep laughing. Humor and playfulness can help relieve stress and defuse anger, so make sure there’s lots of it around. If you pick up that she’s sad or worried, ask her to tell you about it.  Then pop a favorite funny movie into the dvd player and have popcorn for dinner on the couch, or whatever brings smiles in your family. Suggest that Dad do the same.

8. Keep her out of it. Do whatever you need to do to avoid making her feel like she’s caught between the two of you. Make it a priority to develop an amicable relationship with her dad as soon as possible. Minimize the tension between you, and she will, too. Beware of those phone conversations. You may think you’re talking privately, but little pitchers have big ears.

9. Maintain ties with his family. It’s not just her dad — the relationship with his family is shifting also. Make sure you encourage grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to stay close. They may feel awkward at first, so let them know that they’re still loved and appreciated.

10. Watch for warning signs. It’s normal for her to feel angry, sad, and anxious in the early months following your separation, but if things seem to be getting worse, not better, she may be getting stuck in emotions that could block her way forward. Sometimes outside help from a counselor or therapist with experience in kids and divorce can help.

Expect that all of this will take a bit of time and adjustment.  It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep the focus on what’s best for your daughter you’ll keep this tough transition moving in the right direction.

Hang in there!

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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