I have so much respect for couples who sit in my office and ask for help with their divorce. It can be fairly easy to help with some questions, such as, “What type of parenting schedules are effective?” and “What is the best way to transition?” However, as a family therapist, the question I find the hardest to answer is, “What should we tell the kids about why we are divorcing?”
This is an important consideration. According to researchers, giving children an explanation that is age-appropriate is essential for their adjustment.
But what about when only one parent wants the divorce? What about when the reason is infidelity? What if one parent is leaving for another relationship? Because this is tricky territory, I compiled some tips to help you decide what is appropriate to tell your kids about the reasons for your divorce.
- Create a family story that starts with love. It may be something about how the relationship started. You decided to marry because you loved each other. Then you decided to start a family, and you are so glad you did. And even though you are divorcing, the love for the family and for them will never change.
- Let them know about your efforts to stay together. Help them understand that the decision to divorce was not made impulsively or recklessly. Let them know you have worked hard to try to stay together. List these efforts if appropriate—things like, “We have talked to trusted people, counselors, and pastors. We have had a lot of conversations and thought a lot about this. Despite these efforts, we decided it is best to divorce.”
- Think about what they do know. Have they heard you arguing? Have they heard you fighting about another woman or man? Have they seen nothing and does this seem to come out of nowhere as a result? Think about what your children may already know (spoiler: they probably know more than you think) and keep it in mind. Part of your job is to help them make sense of what they have seen and how that has led to the decision to divorce.
- Decide how much truth is important. Consider your kids’ cognitive abilities based on their ages or talk to a counselor and decide together how to explain things. Consider what they have been exposed to (are they aware of infidelity or addictive behaviors?). This thoughtfulness helps ensure both parents tell the same story. And it helps you to make sure the kids don’t blame themselves. You can simply help them see that “these are the reasons we are divorcing, and they have absolutely nothing to do with you.”
- Explain without blame. The best way to do this is to stick to facts, not your opinions or judgments. Assuming it is age-appropriate for your child, a fact may be that “Mom had/has a relationship with someone else. Sometimes, when this happens, moms and dads decide to divorce.” An opinion is, “Your Mom is a liar and cheater.” Maybe they have seen Mom crying and know on some level she doesn’t want the divorce. A fact may be that Dad requested the divorce and both Mom and Dad are very sad. You can explain that “for a marriage to work well, both people need to want it, and when one or both are not happy anymore, a marriage doesn’t work well and that is why we are getting a divorce.” Another opinion is, “Dad is breaking this family apart.”
There is nothing wrong with saying to your child, “I’m so glad you are asking me this. You can ask me or talk to me about anything. This is an important question and I’m going to think about it for a bit. Is it okay if we talk about this later tonight?”
- Know you don’t need to have an immediate answer. Take time to think about how to respond. Depending on your child’s personality, they may ask questions that are heartbreaking or hard to answer, such as, “Why are you doing this to us?” or “Why won’t you try harder?” There is nothing wrong with saying to your child, “I’m so glad you are asking me this. You can ask me or talk to me about anything. This is an important question and I’m going to think about it for a bit. Is it okay if we talk about this later tonight?” Call a friend, read a book, talk to a therapist, and/or consult with your child’s school counselor. When you feel ready, make sure you go back and respond to your child.
- Know that sometimes they aren’t looking for an answer. Asking questions is not always about needing an answer. Sometimes it’s just about needing comfort. It is normal for kids and grown-ups alike to ask questions when they feel scared, worried, angry, or sad. Sometimes when we say, “Why are you doing this?” what we really mean is, “I’m so angry this is happening.” Sometimes when we say, “Why can’t you work this out?” what we really mean is, “I’m so sad and I feel incredible loss.” Sometimes your kids need answers. But some of the time, they just need you to help them label their emotion and give comfort. Sometimes they just need to hear, “It seems like you are feeling sad. Me too. What part of this are you most sad about? Can I give you a hug?”
I have the privilege of talking to a lot of children whose parents are separating or divorcing. I am amazed at how much they know; how able they are to express themselves, their fears, and their emotions; and how hard their amazing little brains work to make sense of what is happening. Kids will process things on their own or with your help. Giving them age-appropriate explanations and a chance to ask questions is a gift.
- Emery, R. (2004). The truth about children and divorce: Dealing with emotions so you and your children can thrive. New York, NY: Penguin Viking.
- Schneider, J., & Corley, D. (2012). Surviving disclosure: A partner’s guide for healing the betrayal of intimate trust. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.
- Teyber, E. (2001). Helping children cope with divorce. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.
- Wallerstein, J., & Blakeslee, S. (2003). What about the kids? Raising your children before, during, and after divorce. New York, NY: Hyperion.
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