Q: My 8-year-old son is constantly asking if his dad and I are going to go back together. Every time he comes home from his dad's he asks, "Mommy, when are we going to move back in with Daddy?" I finally sat down with him and told him that I will always love his father because he gave me him, but we are not going to go back together. He cried himself to sleep. What did I do wrong? What's good ex-etiquette?
A: All kids respond differently to their parents splitting up. Some take it in stride, some are forever damaged, but just about all the kids I have worked with have harbored a secret wish that their parents will reconcile. Take that secret wish and combine it with an 8-year-old's understanding of adult relationships and you can have one very confused little kid.
I can only speculate how your son is feeling, but I ask you to consider the following. Most people, children and adults alike, equate the word "love" with longevity. When you told your son you will always love Daddy, in that second he thought he got his wish, only to be let down in the next breath when you told him you're not getting back together. Add in "he gave me you" and in your son's little brain he may have thought that you and Daddy are no longer together because of him. Is that what you said? No, but it's common for children to blame themselves for their parents' breakup.
"Maybe if I was a better kid," or "If I did my homework without a fight," or "If I had kept my room clean," or "If I didn't fight with my sister," "my parents wouldn't have argued and they would be together right now. It's all because of me." And now you have one very depressed little boy not understanding the world around him.
In the future, rather than use the word "love" when explaining your relationship with his father, consider using the words "care about." That reinforces the feelings you want your son to understand, but then spend the majority of the conversation reinforcing how much you and Dad love him. Make sure he understands that will never change, whether you and Dad live together or not.
It's also important to make sure you and Dad are on the same page when discussing your breakup. It can be very confusing if Dad is saying something different from what you're saying — or he's telling your son things that imply there might be a reconciliation. Finally, don't be surprised if you must explain the same things to your son over and over again. He may tell you he understands when he really doesn't, and as he gets a little older, require the same explanation you've already given him in the past. Have patience. Put your child first. That's good ex-etiquette.
Jann Blackstone is founder of bonusfamilies.com.