How to Talk to Kids About Divorce When You Don’t Want to Lie
I’ve been a children’s therapist for over 15 years and have been fortunate enough to have worked with hundreds of kids and families over that time. Amongst more common kiddo concerns (like behavioral issues, depression, anxiety, loss, etc.) I have spent the majority of my career working with children and teens whose parents were in the midst of nasty divorces and high conflict family law litigation. I didn’t set out in my career with this being my chosen specialty, but this group of kids and teens (and their parents) found their way to me (typically via a court order) and thankfully, have taught me so much.
Divorce is one of the most challenging chapters of life a family can endure. The end of a toxic marriage and the subsequent proceedings of a divorce, even the most amicable, have a way of breaking people, causing them to react in ways and say things they would normally never fathom. Husbands and wives who at one time were madly in love, staring at each other with googly eyes as they planned their lives together, are now at war, mud-slinging, trying to “win,” and ultimately often lose sight of how all of this impacts their children.
Children interpret and process their parent’s divorce in a variety of ways, depending on their personality, developmental level, their relationship with their parents, and how their parents choose to shield or involve them in the adult issues at hand. It has always been my recommendation to parents to insulate their children, as much as humanly possible, from the drama of the divorce and fighting. I’ve given the analogy of putting their children in a metaphorical hamster ball, so their kids can “roll” through their life, protected from the storm of their parents’ relationship.
All of us, regardless of age, are our parent’s children and we all want to be able to hold our parents in high esteem. Kiddos (especially birth to early adolescence) are inherently connected to each of their parents and their perception of their parents is often tied to their own sense of self. If I, Jenny, as a 10-year old, believed that either of my parents, Alan or Mary Jo, was a “bad” person, or a liar, had hurt my other parent, or abandoned our family, then that would be something that would impact the way I see myself, my attachment with that parent, and could cause me to re-think values I’d always held to be true.
One of the things I’ve heard from parents countless times over the years when I’ve stressed the importance of insulating kids from their adult issues, is “I’m not going to lie to my kids!” Please note, I’ve never suggested that a parent should lie to their children. As a parent myself, even Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy were hard for me to stomach with my own girls, as it felt dishonest. I value honesty as one of, if not the most important foundation to healthy relationships.
What I do firmly believe in, is giving children age-appropriate truth about the changes in their family. Age-appropriate truth builds a foundation of honesty for the family to grow from and allows kiddos the ability to process information that they are developmentally capable of digesting.
Here are some suggestions that I’ve given parents over the years as ways they can answer common questions for their children:
- Mom and Dad are working on the grown up issues right now and your #1 job is to be a kid. We’ve got the grown up stuff and you don’t have to worry.
- We’ve had some grown up things happen that have caused us to not be able to stay married anymore, but we will always be your mom and dad and work together to take care of you.
- You will have time with both of us and even if we have disagreements about adult things, we want you to enjoy your time with both of us.
Often a parent who has been wronged in the marriage may feel compelled to share the offenses their spouse committed, as they want the kids to know “the truth” and also not blame them personally for the divorce. My question back to parents in these instances is always, “Help me understand how hearing terrible things about their parent is helpful for your child?”
I’m a grown woman and a trained professional in this specialty, but if my parents got divorced today, I STILL wouldn’t want the details. I want to love my mom and my dad and not have to worry about the details of their marriage. Our kids will always be our children and they deserve for us as parents, to be the parents, and protect them from unnecessary stress as best we can.