'What If We Lived In Two Houses?' Talking Kids Through Divorce Even the most amicable split is world-changing for young children. Here are a few key tips for grown-ups trying to help their kids navigate this big transition.
- Give children as much heads-up as you can — as soon as you've made a definite decision to split up.
- It's a grown-up problem. Don't share details that will confuse your child or hurt your partner.
- Don't fear the big feelings or the "pajama truth-bomb."
- It's good for kids to talk about a separation — even when it may be painful for adults to hear.
- Make sure your kids know that not everything will change.
- Keep routines, and toys, consistent, even if they're traveling from one home to another.
- Look back together on the good memories.
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'What If We Lived In Two Houses?' Talking Kids Through Divorce

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'What If We Lived In Two Houses?' Talking Kids Through Divorce

'What If We Lived In Two Houses?' Talking Kids Through Divorce

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CORY TURNER, HOST:

Today, the D-word.

ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

Divorce.

JADA: So we were just kind of talking, and she was like, well, why don't you just stop fighting? I was like, well, like, what if we lived in two houses, but we didn't fight anymore? She kind of, like, sat on it for a moment, and then she just started sobbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: I'm Cory Turner, an education reporter with NPR and the father of two boys.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz, an education reporter with NPR and the mother of two girls. And you're listening to LIFE KIT for parents, with Sesame Workshop.

TURNER: In every show, we're going to tackle a tough question that we face as parents, caregivers and teachers.

KAMENETZ: Like how do you talk with kids about death or bullying or, today, divorce?

TURNER: How do you tell kids that their world is about to change forever?

KAMENETZ: And then how do you help them navigate that world?

TURNER: We've got some answers and five helpful takeaways when we come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Before the break, we heard from Jada (ph). She's a high school science teacher outside San Francisco and the mother of two young girls.

TURNER: For privacy reasons, we're not going to use their last name. When I interviewed Jada, she and her husband had been divorced about a year and a half. And as we're going to hear, since that split, they've had a lot of ups and a lot of downs.

KAMENETZ: So this is Sophia (ph), Jada's older daughter, right, Cory?

TURNER: Mmm hmm.

KAMENETZ: And you said that she was 8 when you first met her?

TURNER: That's right. Let's take a listen.

SOPHIA: Last year, 2017, was, like, tragic year. This year is, like, getting used to it.

KAMENETZ: And this is Elizabeth (ph), Sophia's little sister. She was 6 when you talked to her, right? And she told you she had trouble adjusting to life in those two different houses - her mom's and her dad's.

TURNER: Yeah. She described to me the rules were different, expectations were different, even the languages were different. With their mom, they heard and spoke mostly English, and with their dad, they largely heard Spanish.

ELIZABETH: At the beginning of divorce, I cried and cried when I didn't want to leave my dad's house, when I didn't want to leave my mom's house.

KAMENETZ: Aw. So she didn't want to leave her dad's house, but she also didn't want to leave her mom's house. And all those transitions, just heartbreaking moments, I'm sure, for her and for her mom, too, and her dad.

TURNER: Yeah, it's the bouncing itself that was really hard for her. And, you know, it's been a hard year for the whole family, as we're about to hear. Our producer, Lauren Migaki, and I visited Jada, Sophia and Elizabeth at their house. It's tucked into a hillside in the suburbs outside San Francisco.

JADA: Nice to meet you. Come on in.

SOPHIA AND ELIZABETH: Hi.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: That was our welcome committee. As soon as we walked in the door, they jumped up from a hiding spot in the couch.

KAMENETZ: Mmm hmm.

TURNER: We were at the family home where they all lived together before the divorce. Now Jada lives there with the girls.

SOPHIA: Yeah, welcome to our huge yard. OK.

ELIZABETH: I'm the weirdest person in the whole wide world. Bye-bye.

KAMENETZ: Aw (laughter).

TURNER: They also have a coop full of chickens.

SOPHIA: Ms. Elderly Freckle Face (ph). Shadow. RBG, for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Big Mama (ph).

KAMENETZ: They have a hen named after a Supreme Court justice?

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is in the chicken coop.

KAMENETZ: I love it. So it sounds like some of the good things in their lives are still the same.

TURNER: Yeah, though, obviously, Anya, the biggest difference now is that their father is no longer living in the house with them. They've split custody. So here's 6-year-old Elizabeth's take on that.

ELIZABETH: I love Papa's house more than Mama's house. It's because at Papa's house we get to do whatever we want, and we get to play whenever we want.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) She sounds so excited.

TURNER: Yeah, she clearly loves going to her papa's house.

KAMENETZ: So it sounds like the divorce is that word that we use only for divorces - amicable. And we want to acknowledge that, you know, it's not always possible for both parents to stay involved after a divorce, depending on what the circumstances are.

TURNER: Absolutely. Obviously, there's a broad spectrum of outcomes when we talk about divorce, and in this case, both parents are still involved. That said, it's still been really painful. You're not going to hear their father's voice in this story because he didn't want to talk about it. He knows we're doing this. I emailed back and forth with him. He knew we'd be sitting down with the girls and Jada, and he was OK with that.

KAMENETZ: Got it. Got it. So when you got there, Cory, how did you bring this up?

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, I thought it was going to be a lot more awkward and maybe take longer. But we were having pizza at the kitchen table, we were talking about unicorns and strawberries, and then, all of a sudden, big sister Sophia, she brings it up first.

SOPHIA: OK. OK, people, let's get to the reason that you guys are here.

(LAUGHTER)

JADA: Why don't you begin?

TURNER: Go ahead.

LAUREN MIGAKI, BYLINE: Why do you think we're here?

SOPHIA: Because Mama said you're here to talk about divorce and stuff like that.

KAMENETZ: Wow. So she's - it sounds like she's being really brave, but then you can kind of hear her voice drop down at the end.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, Sophia was super honest about it. I was really impressed and with her little sister, too. But, you know, I feel like we're starting to get into the really sensitive stuff, Anya, and I need to phone a friend (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Totally. Yeah, absolutely. We should call some help. So as always, here is where we turn to our friends at Sesame Workshop who have these in-house child development experts, and they're the ones that vet every word that comes out of a Muppet's mouth to make sure it's as helpful as it can be for kids.

TURNER: Yeah. And for this episode, it's going to be Jeanette Betancourt.

JEANETTE BETANCOURT: I can hear you now.

KAMENETZ: Jeanette's senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop.

BETANCOURT: And what that means is we create resources on very specific topics and issues that families are often confronted with with young children.

TURNER: Including divorce and separation. So we talked with Jeanette, and we shared Jada's family story with her. And here are some key takeaways from that conversation.

KAMENETZ: The first one is, parents, give kids as much heads-up as you can. Of course, every relationship is different, and you may not have perfect control over the timing.

TURNER: But if you can, as soon as you've made a decision to separate or divorce, start talking about it with your kids because they're going to need time to get ready for what is a huge transition.

KAMENETZ: Cory, did you hear about when or how Jada first told Sophia, her older daughter?

TURNER: Yeah, I asked Sophia directly about it, and she remembered it pretty clearly.

SOPHIA: I was sitting in my bed. And Mama came in and was like, Sophia, I need to tell you something. Me and Papa are going to live in two different houses from now on. It's called divorce. And that's all I remember.

TURNER: Do you remember what your feeling was when she said that?

SOPHIA: I was, like, surprised, and, like, my heart was beating really fast at the moment. I was like - uh, what the heck? - in my brain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Wow. It sounds like a lot of feelings.

TURNER: Yeah, a lot of feelings. But interestingly, Jada remembers this conversation pretty differently. She says the girls' dad was in the shower, and Sophia had been asking her, why do you guys keep arguing? And that's when Jada decided, in the moment, to just come out with it.

JADA: What if we lived in two houses, but we didn't fight anymore? She kind of, like, sat on it for a moment, and then she just started sobbing. Like, (laughter) he gets out of the shower, and he's like, what did you do? Like - I was like, I'm sorry. It came out. He was like, this isn't how we said - I was like, I know. She brought it up. I - so it was completely unplanned.

TURNER: Is it fair to say you have a regret?

JADA: I mean, I don't know if it's regret. I think I could have done things that would've made later stuff easier. I mean, I - there's a lot of places where, like, I have, not regret, but doubt.

KAMENETZ: Wow. I mean, that's just such a real-life moment. Life is not as predictable as - and neat as the handbooks that we read, you know?

TURNER: Oh, absolutely. And I know Jada didn't want to have that big conversation, you know, with her husband in the shower. It was not the way she had hoped it would go. But, you know, she also didn't want to lie to Sophia, and she didn't want to keep putting off her very important questions.

KAMENETZ: Right, and those questions showed, of course, that Sophia was already kind of picking up on warning signs, right?

TURNER: Absolutely. And, you know, it reminds me of something that Jeanette said to us, Anya, after the fact, when she heard this story. She said, you know, if there's tension at home, even if you think, as a parent, that you're doing a good job of not fighting in front of your kids, you're hiding it behind closed doors after they go to bed, your kids are probably feeling it anyway. We're not fooling them (laughter).

BETANCOURT: Not fooling them.

TURNER: Yeah.

BETANCOURT: Not at all. They're very, very smart. They pick up so much.

KAMENETZ: We're not saying that anytime you and your partner are fighting that you should be bringing up the prospect of a split with your kids.

TURNER: No, no, no. Not at all. It's not until you've actually decided to make a change that the kids should start hearing about it.

BETANCOURT: It should be when there is really, clearly a decision that there is going to be a separation. Then, be as explicit as possible in introducing that things will be changing.

TURNER: Jeanette says kids need time to get used to the idea, if that's possible. For example, after Sophia and Elizabeth were told about their parents' divorce, their dad stayed in the house for several months.

KAMENETZ: So that's when to start talking about the idea of a split, but how? How do you talk about it? What exactly do you say?

TURNER: That's takeaway No. 2 - divorce is a grown-up problem.

KAMENETZ: It can be tempting for one or both parents to be defensive, to blame each other. But what Jeanette at Sesame says is you just cannot overshare this stuff with your kids. It's not healthy for them. And if you and your partner are having trouble stopping doing that, it's probably time to get outside help, like mediation or counseling.

BETANCOURT: One of the things you want to be careful is not to start including your children into adult problems.

TURNER: All kids need to know is that you have grown-up problems that you and your partner just can't fix, and that these problems aren't your kids' fault.

KAMENETZ: And even though you've decided not to be together anymore, you both still love your kids very much.

TURNER: And it turns out, Anya, that this is pretty much what Jada said.

JADA: There's no way to actually explain, like, the dynamics of why marriage isn't working anymore. So saying something like, you know, we're not getting along, is a really simple way to explain. And she's asked since then to know more, and I said, you know, that's just not something that I can talk to you about right now.

BETANCOURT: Jada did the right thing. She actually said, I can't talk about the grown-up problems. She should continue, as she does, reassure - I'm here for you, Dad is here for you, and we still love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: A side note; these conversations are always going to be hard. So Jeanette reminded us, when you're dealing with adult problems...

BETANCOURT: Grown-ups need to take care of themselves before they take care of others.

TURNER: And, obviously, this is even more true if your divorce is really rough. Maybe you're yelling or fighting in front of the kids. Jeanette says this too is hard on kids. If you can't find a way to calm things down, again, look for outside help.

KAMENETZ: We really want to avoid burdening our kids with this stuff. And Jeanette says parents shouldn't be afraid to ask for help even months, even years after the separation.

BETANCOURT: They're also dealing with a lot of stigma and guilt and - should I have changed it, could have done anything different? And without taking care of yourself, then it's very difficult to help our children.

KAMENETZ: It's like the oxygen mask rule, right? You got to put the mask on yourself before you can help a child.

TURNER: Yeah. And that brings up another really important point, Anya. We know divorces come in all shapes and sizes.

KAMENETZ: Absolutely, there's so many variables. And we know one or both partners might be bringing really serious personal challenges with them.

BETANCOURT: If there is an addiction or incarceration, it is important to share what that means as well. This is happening because mommy or daddy has been incarcerated. All of these things, when you're talking about them, are providing children a sense of comfort and safety. So the assurance that the parent who is home with the child continues to provide support and an open dialogue is the most important thing.

KAMENETZ: So Jeanette says what's important is honesty but also reassurance. And this leads us to takeaway No. 3.

KAMENETZ: Don't fear the big feelings because there will be big feelings. And Jada says the months after her husband moved out, they were really hard, especially on Sophia, in part because she blamed her mom for the divorce.

JADA: We would just get home from school. And every day, she'd walk in the door and just lose it and, like, stomp and slam doors and scream and cry.

KAMENETZ: That's a lot of acting out every day.

TURNER: It's a lot of big feelings. Jada says Sophia really struggled like this for, honestly, much of the first year.

JADA: We had a our conversation three or four months ago where she was like, I'm just - don't want to be sad anymore. I'm sad all the time. I was like, I promise it's going to get better. She's like, you've been saying that. You've been saying that. Like, I don't feel better.

TURNER: One of the things Sophia's been doing to feel better is spending a lot of time talking about her feelings with her mom, also with a therapist. All three of them have been seeing a therapist. And Sophia even shows me a chart she's made.

SOPHIA: These are the ones I feel the most - sad, stressed, jealous, mad, confused, bored.

KAMENETZ: Wow. She's not holding back.

TURNER: She is not holding back. It had all of the feelings. And all of this, Sophia says, has really helped her to identify and manage those big feelings.

KAMENETZ: What about Sophia's little sister, Elizabeth? Did she have anything to say beyond that she's the weirdest person in the whole wide world?

TURNER: Oh, she had lots to say, but most of what she and I talked about was not about divorce.

ELIZABETH: Salad's my favorite. Carrot's my second. Cucumber's my...

KAMENETZ: Oh, my gosh.

TURNER: Yeah. She also made me jump rope. But there was one moment - she and Sophia had gone to bed. And Lauren and I were talking with their mom, Jada, in the living room. And about half an hour later, out wanders Elizabeth in her pajamas. And unprompted, she says this...

ELIZABETH: I, like, really miss my dad right now because he's in a different house. And I also feel like he should live closer because I really super-duper really miss him. And thank you. Bye.

KAMENETZ: Oh, my God - the pajama truth bomb.

TURNER: (Laughter) The pajama truth bomb.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

TURNER: And Jeanette says this is a really good sign, even though the kids are sharing painful feelings.

KAMENETZ: Or sharing them in a way that may be painful to you as a grown-up.

BETANCOURT: Sometimes, as an adult and a parent, it's kind of hard to constantly be responding to these big feelings because you want things to go further forward. Also, the fact that they're talking about it is actually a wonderful thing because children who often don't understand what's happening or have unsettled feelings, they often won't speak about it. But the fact that they are asking some kind of hard questions, it's progress, and it's moving forward.

KAMENETZ: Jeanette says look for the good, but no matter what, you can't rush your kids. Processing these big feelings will take time. Expect the fears, the doubts, the sadness to keep returning. They could come up for months or even years.

TURNER: Yeah. After Elizabeth dropped that pajama truth bomb, Jada seemed pretty worn out, honestly. She said they'd been having more and more good days, but that they were still trying to find that new normal.

JADA: How do you get out of the dark place and start just getting to a place where things feel OK again for everybody? I don't know. Like, I still am trying to figure out how to get there for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So all of this leads us to takeaway No. 4, which is to help kids even when things seem really tough. We can make clear to them that, no matter what, not everything is going to change.

TURNER: So, parents, think about some things that can stay the same.

KAMENETZ: And if you can, get on the same page with your co-parent.

BETANCOURT: The idea as both parents talking about consistency and routines would be very helpful. One discipline - if something is not right, we both are parents who are continuing both our discipline and our support.

KAMENETZ: Let's say you've got a joint custody situation, right? So the kids are switching back and forth between one parent's house and the other.

BETANCOURT: Could we maintain a similar bedtime routine? - so it feels that whatever is happening in both homes, there's a consistency in routine. Are there certain things that I bring to both houses or I keep in both houses? Is there a favorite book that we love to both share? Is there also what we call for young children what's called the transitional object? And it's really a lovey, you know? It's something special.

KAMENETZ: Your bunny.

BETANCOURT: Your bunny, your blanket or something like that. Do I bring that back and forth?

KAMENETZ: So finally, our last takeaway - and this one kind of surprised me.

TURNER: Yeah. Takeaway number five, find a way to look back and celebrate what was good about the relationship that's now over.

KAMENETZ: This may seem weird, probably pretty hard for some exes. But let's listen to how Jada explains it.

JADA: So, like, giving out our wedding album, like, and showing them pictures. Yes, our marriage ended. But I'm so glad it existed. You know, like still having, like, family pictures up. Like, our family still exists. It's changed shape. Some of us are really upset about it. And we all have sad feelings about it. But like, it was a good thing to tell them, so they believe but also trying to like, I think, accept that, like, it was good. And it ended. Just because it ended, it wasn't bad.

KAMENETZ: Whatever configuration you're parenting in, the bottom line is make sure your child knows that he or she is loved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: So let's recap. Takeaway number one - give as much heads-up as you can. Once you've made a definite decision to split up, that is.

KAMENETZ: Yes. Takeaway number two - remember, divorce is a grown-up problem. And, grown-ups, take care of yourselves, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Takeaway number three - don't fear the big feelings or the pajama truth bomb. Kids talking about the split is a good thing, even when it may be painful to hear.

KAMENETZ: Takeaway number four - make sure your kids know not everything's going to change.

TURNER: And finally, takeaway number five, try to find a way to celebrate the relationship that was - that gave you your kids in the first place.

And before we go, Anya, I want to give listeners a quick update since...

KAMENETZ: Oh, yeah.

TURNER: Yeah. Lauren and I visited Jada almost a year ago.

KAMENETZ: How's it been going for them?

TURNER: Well, I just talked to her a couple of days ago. And she says life has gotten easier. She says she and the girls' father now share custody 50/50. And this, she says, has made life a lot easier - for the girls, especially - to really settle into both homes. And, she says, they still try to spend a little bit of time together on birthdays and major holidays.

KAMENETZ: All four of them.

TURNER: Yep, all four of them. Not a lot of time. But they try to make a point of it.

KAMENETZ: That's really nice.

TURNER: Yeah. I have one more update from the chicken coop. It turns out Ms. Utterly Freckle Face and Ruth Bader Ginsburg got attacked by a fox.

KAMENETZ: What?

TURNER: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: Oh, no.

TURNER: Sorry.

KAMENETZ: Rough.

TURNER: And Ms. Utterly - she didn't make it. But just like her namesake, RBG - still going strong.

KAMENETZ: That's awesome to hear.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: All right. That's all this episode of LIFE KIT for Parents with Sesame Workshop.

TURNER: Special thanks to Jada, Sophia, Elizabeth and their dad for sharing their story with us. Thanks also to Jeanette Betancourt and all our friends at Sesame Workshop. For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes in this guide.

KAMENETZ: There's one about how to talk with your kids about scary stuff in the news and what to do when they want a toy that gives you the heebie-jeebies.

TURNER: If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter, so you don't miss anything.

KAMENETZ: We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics. And as always, here's a completely random tip, this time from LIFE KIT listener Leslie Quiros (ph).

LESLIE QUIROS: My tip is to visit your local public library's website to find a list of free resources and check if it offers museum passes, live music performances, yoga classes and movie or audio book rentals. I think libraries offer great resources for living on a tight budget.

TURNER: If you've got a good tip or a parenting challenge you want us to explore, please let us know. Send us an email at lifekit@npr.org.

KAMENETZ: I'm Anya Kamenetz.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner. Thanks for listening.

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