Should We Tell the Children Why We’re Divorcing?
“It’s time,” said Joe. Donna nodded. They both felt it coming. Once out in the open, they felt relieved that the decision to divorce had become final. But now. . .they needed to tell the children. “What will we say when they ask, ‘Why?'” Joe muttered.
Parents experience a range of emotions when it comes to talking to their children about divorce. Many parents don’t want children to know the reasons; others want to scream the causes from the rooftops. The emotions grow even more complicated for a spouse who never wanted the divorce but couldn’t stop it.
Should parents tell? If so, when? And, how much?
For children and early teens—telling harms.
Detailing the causes of divorce to children and even early adolescents is much like asking them to carry a duffel bag filled with large rocks. The burden is too heavy.
Children’s source of security comes from their parents’ relationship. When the parents’ marriage breaks down, that foundation of security shatters. Unless parents find a way to create a new, functioning parenting relationship—they leave their children without a foundation. Much like a house without a foundation, children disintegrate.
Even the best-intentioned parents find it hard to explain the causes of divorce without some blaming. Children, even children who asked the question, often respond by defending the other parent rather than understanding the divorce. Some parents go further, trying to get their children to join in their own anger against the other spouse. When successful, these same parents are surprised to find that their children stop relating to them, too.
Children rarely side with one parent against the other, and they distrust anyone who disparages their mom or dad. So, when parents undermine each other–children learn to distrust both. As with any relationship, once trust is gone—so is the relationship.
Knowing all this, Joe and Donna prepared their answer. When the children asked why, they offered “The reasons are between us. What you need to know is that it is not your fault. We decided this and we will make it work. The most important thing for you to know is that we love you and we will take care of you.”
When details may need to be shared:
When older children need clarity. “Did something bad happen around my birthday?” Jason asked this near his 14th birthday, sharing that he always felt “off” as his birthday approached. His mom said, “Yes, one year was really hard right around your birthday. When you’re older, I’ll explain.”
At 17, it seemed time. When Jason asked again, Carol explained that when Jason was 5, she discovered that his father was having an affair—two days before Jason’s birthday. Though both tried to protect Jason, the tension was huge. They divorced 18 months later.
The details helped Jason understand more about his parents, their reactions to issues, and the mixed signals he had often received. It also helped him trust his own gut. While grateful his mom had not told him earlier, the clarity helped Jason make sense of his own life. Younger children need the ability to trust parents. Older children, with trust in hand, often also need to understand the fuller details to make sense of life.
When children consider marriage. When children contemplate marriage, they often want to know how to avoid their parents’ divorce. This can be an appropriate time to share the reasons for divorce. The focus should be more on the patterns that didn’t work than placing blame. This equips children to learn from their parents rather than take sides.
When children hear from outsiders. Children never want to feel outsiders know more about their family than they do. This is the prime reason parents should avoid sharing details with groups of friends or on social media—their children WILL hear.
Instead, parents should confine themselves to talking only with one trusted friend, counselor, or pastor. To the rest of the world, the explanation should be, “We decided to divorce. The reasons are private. We are moving forward.”
But, if children get information from others—especially misinformation—parents should clarify in such a way that children are confident they are experts on their own family.
“I dreaded telling their children that divorce was coming,” notes Donna. “And, it was hard–for a long while. Yet, because Joe and I stayed focused on creating security for our children, we found ourselves being much nicer to each other than I expected. This made it much easier to take care of the children. . .and ourselves.”
The divorce proceeded smoothly. Joe and Donna are now working together to raise their children even as they build their own, separate lives. Looking back–they are grateful for the path they chose and the security they see in their children.
Navigating divorce is hard. Navigating in a way that cares for everyone involved may seem harder–but it is possible. If you would like help moving through divorce, protecting children, and creating a new life for the future, call The Resolution Center at 317-344-9740 or email info@TheResolutionCenterIndy.com. We look forward to serving you.