Shielding Children from the Details of Divorce: How to Manage Information

One girl whispers to another while standing outside in a hidden place.Most divorcing parents believe their children are being protected from the details of their divorce. They speak quietly into the phone when discussing the divorce with family and friends. They don’t leave court papers or their financial documents around. They only work on them when the children are with the other parent. Should the children start showing signs of having information they did not want them exposed to, their first thought might be that the other parent is the one who is being indiscreet.

While this scenario is plausible, it is not always accurate. Whether you live in a small community or a large one, children have active lives at school with friends, on teams, and in music lessons, among other activities. They sometimes learn about their own families from the information their friends and schoolmates pick up. All news travels fast. In the desire to be helpful, concerned, and useful, people will often discuss other people’s experiences. Your children can easily be in the path of hearing about details you thought you were shielding them from. It is important to have close, trusted people to talk to while you go through your divorce. You may be surprised at how much can be overheard when you are whispering. Most of the time we think children have hearing problems because of the number of times we have to ask them to do something. Their hearing is fine, in fact it is generally extraordinary.

A few suggestions:

  1. Limit your phone calls to times when the children are not home.
  2. Do not talk to your friends and family when their children are home.
  3. Talk with your confidants about not discussing your divorce with anyone.  Should you find they are doing so, let them know you can’t continue to talk with them about it.
  4. Discuss it with the other parent. Ascertain if you are both in agreement as to how to shelter your children. Get help if you find an agreement is hard to obtain.

Children should be safeguarded from the specifics of your divorce. They do not need the burden of knowing that money is tight, why Mom or Dad are really divorcing, arguments about where everyone will live, or where they will go to school, etc. General conversations, when children ask questions, are appropriate and can often be addressed by letting the children know that you and the other parent are working out the details. Information about what you and the other parent are at odds about, how you feel about it, asking the children to tell you what they want, or what they have been discussing with the other parent are more than children should have to manage.

If your children are asking questions about things they have overheard, try to assure them that, as soon as anything is known for certain, they will be the first to know. It can sometimes be helpful, when possible, to have both parents present to answer the questions that come up. This helps children feel like they are getting a united response rather than confusion when each parent gives a slightly, or even radically different, answer. Help your children continue to have the belief and the experience that their parents are a strong force in their lives and are working together for their benefit.

© Copyright 2011 by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • KT

    KT

    February 3rd, 2011 at 3:56 AM

    My parents divorced when I was in the fifth grade and ever since then its been all about sharing my time with both of them, separately of course. At that time I didn’t quite know what was happening and I’m not too sure I would want to know the specifics. So it would be a good idea if the specifics are not given to the kids, especially if they are very young.

  • holly

    holly

    February 3rd, 2011 at 5:34 AM

    I tried shielding my own girls from the details of our divorce but eventually they got it out of me. I tried not to tell them everything, just the things that I thought they could handle. And I tried to do it in a way that was not mean spirited against their dad.

  • TODD

    TODD

    February 3rd, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    Well it all depends…if the parents shared a very open relationship with the kids in the sense they were comfortable talking to each other about sticky things like this and also it depends on the age of the kid to determine what details to let out.

  • Melinda

    Melinda

    February 3rd, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    There is a fine line that you have to draw when you broach the subject of divorce with your children. It is not possible to shield them from everything, and if you try then that might naturally make them even more curious than they would have been otherwise. I think that the best path to take is to tell them things on a need to know basis. tell them the things that they absolutley need to know and not any more until they are old enough to understand and maybe even come up with their own questions. I know too many parents who tell the kids too much and they forget that they are talking to children. There are just some things that they are better off not knowing.

  • kenneth

    kenneth

    February 6th, 2011 at 9:16 PM

    “Children should be safeguarded from the specifics of your divorce.”

    No! No! No! I think that’s the stupidest way to go about it. The kids need to know. They must know why the divorce is happening. They have a right to know their parents are splitting up. They have to know money is tight, that one of the parents has a drinking problem, or a girlfriend, or whatever. Trying to shield it from them is a bad idea. They already feel the distrustful air in the home.

  • daisy

    daisy

    February 7th, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    I don’t agree, kenneth. It doesn’t help at all to share every detail with them. Why burden them with all the gory details? If they are too young to understand you’ll confuse them and if they are old enough to understand, they’ll be more upset and angry than they would be with less information.

    I think when you do that you’re just using your child by offloading on them. Save that venting for the adults.

    Give them just enough information to understand there’s going to be a split, that both parents love them and that it’s not their fault. That’s plenty for them to have to deal with. Divorce is hard enough.

  • Phil

    Phil

    February 7th, 2011 at 2:11 PM

    The innocence of your children should be put aside as a main concern when a life-changing situation is going on such as divorce. You can’t sweep that all under the rug. Honesty is the best policy. They will thank you for it when they are older.

  • Sean

    Sean

    February 7th, 2011 at 5:12 PM

    True, honesty is the best policy but you don’t need to be graphic about every minuscule happening either. If you were going in for surgery, would you take your child into the operating theater and let them stand and watch you get cut open? Or would you want them to see you once it was all over?

    Any parent would choose the latter. The kid would know you’d been through it because you were the worse for wear and all stitched up. That doesn’t mean they need to witness the surgery and see the open wound to “get it”.

  • Frances

    Frances

    February 7th, 2011 at 6:25 PM

    Kids are used as weapons in divorce cases. If they don’t have the full facts at all times, one parent can manipulate them into taking their side and say “I want you to tell the Judge daddy hit you” or “I want you to tell this lady that mommy brings strange men to the house” and guess what happens? Testimony from a kid just doing as they’re told even though it’s outright lies is a matter of court record and taken seriously. The kids need the chance to make their own minds up on who’s the good guy.

  • Sandy

    Sandy

    February 7th, 2011 at 6:53 PM

    Judges aren’t stupid. It only takes another probing question or two from them that the child isn’t prepared for to see they have been coached. Any adult who thinks it won’t be spotted and/or that the child won’t break under the pressure is an idiot. They would find themselves in jail for that. And then what happens to their kid? Think, people, think.

  • Ruthie

    Ruthie

    February 9th, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    @Holly — And I would like to commend you on your sensible attitude. I have seen and heard too many stories where parents have told nothing but black lies about the other to get custody of the kids. You did it all the right way.

  • Leigh

    Leigh

    February 9th, 2011 at 5:01 PM

    I didn’t want to be mean about my ex when we split up and was careful to be honest, not spiteful when talking to my son about him. I hoped they would be able to have a proper relationship when he sobered up and my son was older, so played down how bad living with a secret alcoholic really is. He only got to hear a fraction of it and that’s how it will stay until he’s older and can talk to me as a grownup about that period. I didn’t want him to come back to me in later years and blame me for turning him against his dad or something. His dad’s perfectly capable of doing that all on his own with his antics anyway without my help…

  • Shendl Tuchman

    Shendl Tuchman

    February 17th, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    Thank you all for your insights and thoughts. Clearly there are differences of opinion concerning how much children should know. It can depend on the degree of acrimony between the parents and the intensity of feeling a child could have being caught in the middle of two potentially divergent stories. If mommy tells one story and daddy tells another, a child might wonder who is right and do they need to take sides like they do on the playground when their friends have arguments.

    Melinda suggested giving them information on a need to know basis. This is a good rule of thumb. Children will give you all kinds of clues about what they are struggling with. Let them come to you with what they are ready for and still use your judgment before giving them more detail than they are prepared for.

    Daisy suggested that letting them know they are loved and that the divorce is not their fault is information enough. This can be incredibly important at the younger developmental ages, but not only. Children go through phases when they are appropriately narcissistic. When a divorce happens at this time, their inclination could be to think they did something that mommy and daddy are fighting about and if they had not done it everything would go back to the way it was. These children are often at risk for self hatred and depression.

    Phil stated that honesty is the best policy. It often is. However, sometimes it isn’t. Knowing what to be honest about matters. I have worked with adults who were children when their parents divorced. They report feeling overwhelmed and distraught as adults because of the information they wanted to received as children, when they felt they were being treated as an adult by being a confident to one or both parents. Most wished they hadn’t been told the details. One client said that if she had not gotten as much information as she had, her parents might not have continued fighting so much and she could have a relationship with both now. There is no way to know if she is right, but the desire and the thought that having this information has not been a positive in her life remains.

    Consider, though, the content of the blog post. It was not focused on whether or not to tell children about the details of the divorce, but the many ways children can get information even when you don’t want them to know. It takes moth parents being discreet and careful in their communications to make that a reality.

    Again, thank you all for your comments.

    Shendl Tuchman, Psy.D.

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