Clinical psychologist David Coleman addresses your parenting questions in his weekly column.
At just two years old, will my grandchild understand about his parents' separation?
Our grandchild is two-years-old. His parents separated earlier this year and the child, an only child, lives with his mum (our daughter) but does see his dad twice a week and this arrangement appears to be working. He gets to see his dad's family when he visits him too.
We worry, though, that going back and forth will make him insecure. Does a two-year-old understand what is going on and, if so, what does he understand? There are pictures of them as a family in our house but, when the child comes to us and looks at them, you can see the questions that need answers. Can you advise us what to say that won't sound like we are taking one parent's side over the other? Also my husband worries about the long-term impact of him growing up without a dad in his house.
David Coleman replies:
You have many questions arising from your daughter and grandson's circumstances. I'll try to address them all.
I'd guess that you were very excited by the birth of your grandson. Birth always brings such hope and typically a lot of joy too. This may have seemed like a real solidification of your daughter's relationship.
I could, equally, imagine that the separation from her partner was very upsetting for you too. Perhaps some of your hopes and dreams were dashed, along with your daughter's. You sound like you are not just worried, but saddened also.
However, what you describe seems like a very good outcome from a very difficult situation. Parental separation is never ideal, but at least your grandson is growing up with the input of both his parents.
Since they have obviously been able to arrange access that works, they must be communicating relatively well too. That always makes separation easier for children to cope with.
In addition to that, your grandson also has the benefit of being connected to both sets of extended family. All these factors will minimise the potential for the separation to cause long-term distress or harm.
The issue of his security or insecurity (one of your concerns) is mostly influenced by how consistent and reliable his mum and dad are. At age two, your grandson is still highly dependent on his caregivers to meet all of his needs.
Your daughter, his mum, is the most important source of that dependability. As the primary care-giver she is the one who will most influence his sense of security, by being consistent in her responses to him and by being emotionally available to him.
Similarly, it is important that his dad, too, is very consistent and reliable in spending time with him on the regular, twice a week, visits that he has.
As long as his parents are able to meet his needs in a stable and trustworthy way, he can feel secure in his relationships with them.
You have another query about his level of understanding. At age two your grandson will be able to understand something of the nature of his parents no longer living together. However, any understanding is based on the concrete reality of his experience.
So, he knows that he lives with his mum, that he sees his dad regularly and that he has grannies, granddads, aunts, uncles and cousins since he meets them all too. He won't have, or be missing, an abstract understanding of a traditional "nuclear" family.
You have another worry about his dad not being present all the time. I can understand that his dad's arrangements to see him are more formal and less fluid than if they were all still living together. However, I think your husband can rest assured that your grandson still has the important influence of his dad.
Even when parents separate, both mothers and fathers remain crucial figures in children's lives. So, as long as his dad can continue to step up to the mark and remain involved in his son's life, then your grandson won't lose out.
Your final concern about what, if anything, to tell your grandson about his circumstances actually need not be a concern for you at all.
It is entirely up to your daughter and her former partner to explain everything about their relationship before and since the separation.
If you want to say anything, then your daughter must guide you so that any messages you give are consistent with the messages that his parents give him.