When a Parent Leaves

Help your child make it through the tough adjustment to life without one parent at home.

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You and your spouse have told your children about your plans to separate. So far, though, things have remained relatively status quo at home. That's a good thing. "There needs to be a bit of a buffer time between when you tell a child that you're separating and the actual departure of a parent," says psychologist William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the marriage and family therapy program at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Now that you or your spouse are ready to move out, take these steps to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible for all involved.

Prep your child.
Even the youngest child needs time to process the idea of a parent moving out. The amount of time between the announcement and the move depends greatly on your child's age and temperament. "Because toddlers and preschoolers don't understand the concept of time, you shouldn't tell them weeks in advance," Dr. Doherty says. For this age group, a few days will suffice. You might want to mark the day on the calendar and mention it occasionally. For instance, "In two days, Daddy is going to be at his new home and you will visit him there." School-age kids may need a few weeks of preparation. Still, having a definite move-out date is helpful.

    Visit the new home. Seeing Daddy's or Mommy's new digs prior to the move helps make the abstract concept -- someone is leaving -- more real. "Then when you talk about the move, the child can actually visualize the parent in the new home," says Mikki Meyer, Ph.D., a family therapist in New York City. It's important to familiarize your child with his new bedroom and where he'll be spending time with Mom or Dad in the future. Again, for young children, you might visit the place a few days before the move; for older kids, a few visits over the course of a couple of weeks would be good.

    Pack wisely. Regardless of a child's age or maturity level, it can be rough to watch a parent pack up belongings. (And, of course, deciding what items go with whom can be fraught with emotion for adults.) For these reasons, it's best that children not be around during the actual packing process, Dr. Doherty says. Let them spend the day with friends or a relative; just make sure it's someone who won't speak badly about either parent. It's okay -- even helpful -- for kids to see the aftermath. Stacks of boxes or packed suitcases may be upsetting to a child, but they also help send the message that the move is really happening. Expert opinions are mixed as to whether children should witness the physical moving of a parent's personal belongings out of the family home. The removal of items can be upsetting to watch. On the other hand, "It can be distressing for a child to come home and discover that a parent has moved out while they were away," Dr. Meyer says. It depends on your child and how you think he is handling the situation.

    Don't sneak out. Even if you decide that your child shouldn't be present during the actual move, you should make sure he is home in time to say goodbye to the departing parent. "Children need to understand that Mommy or Daddy is really going to be living somewhere else," Dr. Meyer says. "The parent isn't simply going to work for the day or leaving for a business trip and then returning home later." Yes, you should expect some tears. Although it's okay to say that you are sad too, it's not okay to blame the other parent for the situation.

      Have a see-you-soon plan. Make sure your child knows when she will see or hear from the exiting parent again. You might arrange for your spouse to call or Skype with your child every day at the same time. You should also mark on the calendar the days that your child can expect to visit with the parent who moved away.

      Seek support. Moving day is emotionally exhausting for everyone. It can be helpful for both you and your spouse to have a relative or friend present for support and to help soothe the children should they become upset.

      Check in with your child. Try to keep things as normal as possible for the kids after the other parent has left. This isn't a time to distract them with a trip to the ice cream shop. Instead, Dr. Meyer suggests planning a quiet evening at home. "Give your child an opportunity to ask questions and talk openly about how he is feeling about the day's events."

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