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Reality Check: Explaining Divorce

Q. How can I explain to our 2-year-old that his dad and I are getting divorced?

A. Better to err on the side of saying too little than too much right now. A toddler is interested mainly in how his world will be affected by changes going on in his family. He can understand that Mom and Dad have separate places and that he belongs in both of those places. Telling him more than he's ready to grasp will only confuse him. As he gets older, you can gradually explain more about how some moms and dads live in the same house while others don't, as well as some of the reasons. "But nothing need be said about what divorce is for another six months to a year," says Judith Wallerstein, Ph.D., author of The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: Report of a 25-Year Landmark Study.

Wallerstein, who's been studying families in the midst of divorce for 30 years, has concluded that while verbal reassurances of love are helpful, when it comes to babies and young children, actions speak louder than words. If your husband's moving out, set up frequent visits for your child right away so he won't be anxious about when he'll see his dad. Ideally, the frequency of these visits should approximate the amount of time they spent together before the divorce. Once your ex is settled in his new place, he should bring his son over to play. "The meetings and exchanges between the parents should be pleasant," says Wallerstein. "Do whatever is necessary to make this sacrifice for your child." Kids are masters at picking up vibes, and if he senses hostility, it will only make things harder.

If you feel you need to give your child more than just a bare-bones explanation of your divorce, it probably means you need to find someone else to talk to -- a friend, a therapist, your minister or rabbi. This is your divorce, not your toddler's. Be sure to keep the two separate.

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