When you are in the process of physically separating, and legally divorcing, you have a hard time telling your close friends, your family and other people that might need to know about what is happening in your life. It’s even harder to tell your children in a way that makes sense to them, doesn’t overly traumatize them, and hopefully allows them to process the information in a way that keeps their relationships with both parents intact. Kids want information. They demand information because they are frightened and they want to know that their parents have answers as to what is going to happen and what it is going to mean to them. You probably don’t have all the answers yourself. There is also a substantial amount of pressure from the courts and therapists not to tell your children anything because it is too confusing. So what do you do?
The answer as to how and what you tell your child is as varied as there are different children. With some children, they are satisfied with a simple “Both of us love you, but we can’t live with each other anymore and we are going to have two households.” They don’t want to know any more. There may be some questions about what the schedule is going to look like, and will be happy with a parent telling them that they are working on it, and will let them know when there is an answer.
Other children demand much more information, detailed information about the problems of the marriage. They will usually say that they are part of this family and they have a right to know what is going on. They are a part of the family, and they want the information, but that doesn’t mean that you should be giving them information that is developmentally inappropriate for them. Ask your child questions to get a sense of what is really bothering them. Your child may be demanding answers because developmentally the child sees relationships in black and white terms. You are either friends or you are enemies. Your child may be trying to figure out which category you fit into, and which category your spouse fits into. Once you realize that this is the child’s concern, you can address that problem, without answering the specific questions about whose fault the pending divorce is.
If your child persists in asking specific questions that are inappropriate for the child to hear, then you should be telling your child that that question is an adult issue and that the adults will deal with it. The child may not like that answer, but by receiving that answer consistently, the child is learning that the divorce and the divorce issues are not the responsibility of the child to solve, and that the child doesn’t have to be in the middle. The child may be feeling pressure from a parent to give information or to take sides or to listen to the other parent’s anger and frustration. Telling your child it is an adult issue gives the child the tools to tell the parent or grandparent or friend that the child will not be put in the middle and express the child’s feelings about being put in the middle.
The worst response is to not answer the questions at all. This may be a timing issue. Maybe you cannot talk about the divorce at that moment without breaking down and crying. If that is the case, then tell your child that you are having a hard time talking about it right now, but will get back to them. Then make sure you take the time and opportunity to talk to them. If you don’t say anything, it is not uncommon for the child to believe that the divorce is their fault. They didn’t pick up their toys when they were told to do so, or they made the parent who is leaving the family home angry. The child may not even voice that concern, but it consumes much of their thinking and their fear. When you do talk to your child, be sure to tell them that the reason for the divorce is between the parents, and is not the child’s fault. Even if the child hasn’t voiced a concern, the idea is in the child’s head when the thought does occur to them.
Sometimes the child has been a witness to arguments or domestic violence, and has strong feelings about the other parent. It’s hard to then tell the child that both parents love them and are going to protect them, when that is not the child’s experience. The key is listening to your child, and figuring out what their real concerns are, not just the questions that they are asking. Work towards giving the child the tools to have a relationship with both parents, even if the child is skeptical about the other parent. If the other parent has damaged the relationship with the child, all you can do is to encourage the child to have whatever kind of relationship is possible.
Talking with children about divorce proceedings, or custody proceedings, is like walking in a minefield. You don’t want to give them too much information because then you are seen as a parent who does not have good impulse control, but you don’t want to give too little information or the wrong kind of information because that hurts your relationship with your child. This is a great time to think about the Parenting Mantra: What is your goal? What are the facts? How does applying the facts to your goal affect your children?
For information on Rose Hubbard’s book, Custody Evaluations: the Private War, please visit: http://www.custodyevaluationsbook.com