It is the dreaded question parents fear most. What do we say to our children if they ask us WHY we are getting divorced? Faced with this question, parents often freeze. Some blurt out a truth that will hurt their child, others avoid answering, leaving the child confused and perhaps with a sense that the answer is too frightening to speak of. Here is a guide to help you think about what answers might feel comfortable, and honest – while protecting your child from additional pain.
Discuss with your co-parent how you will answer the question of “why” in advance, and aim to develop a shared narrative both parents can sign on to. While no parent should lie to their child, all parents can understand that when a child asks “why”, they are seeking an understanding that will help them survive the break up of their family. They are not investigating a crime and seeking the evidence to convict one parent or the other.
Depending on the age of the child, parents can offer a range of explanations that offer enough information to allow the child to do the work of adjusting to the painful changes in the family, while protecting the child from unnecessary anger and distress.
No matter what the circumstances of your marital break up, try to remember this: your children experience themselves as partly Mom and partly Dad (or Mom and Momma; Daddy Joe and Daddy Nick). If your explanation of why includes assigning blame to one parent, and the role of victim to the other, your children will be burdened with the extra weights of conflicted loyalties to each parent. They may feel ashamed of the parts of themselves they identify with the parent “at fault”, and they may feel they need to protect the parent who is the “victim”. Neither stance is healthy for a child, and is likely to warp their development. No matter how angry you are at your spouse, make every effort to avoid injecting your anger into your child’s soul.
Some answers for young children:
1. Mom and Dad (Or Mom and Momma; Daddy Joe and Daddy Nick) haven’t been getting along well. Sometimes married people feel unhappy living together, and then they decide they need to live in separate houses. You didn’t do anything to cause this – this is all because of us – your parents. We have grown up problems, and we are going to live in two houses because we think that might help us with some of the problems that are between us. We can’t really explain it much more right now. But as you grow up, we will keep helping you understand it, and we can talk about it more as time goes by.
2. We have had problems being happy sweeties – but we will always be happy parents to you. We love you forever and ever, but we don’t love each other as sweeties anymore. That happens sometimes with grown ups, but grown ups never stop loving their children. We will live in two separate homes, but we will always be your parents, and we will be a different kind of family – but still a family that loves you and will help you always in whatever you need.
Some answers for older children:
You have probably heard us fighting/seen us arguing/noticed we do a lot of things separately. We have been struggling to find a way to stay together as a couple, but we finally decided we need to be separate. We care about each other as people, and we will always be your parents and try our best to work as a team. But the problems in our relationship have led us to decide to separate. None of this is your doing – and there isn’t anything you can do to change this – even if you get all A’s in science and eat my lentil stew. We know you will have many questions, and we will try to be truthful in answering you. But some things need to stay between us – because we are the adults and you are the kids. As time goes by we can talk more about this, and we will try to help you understand it better. For now, though, the main thing is we are not going to live together any more. And we are eventually going to be divorced.
When one parent is strongly against the decision to divorce, and the other parent has initiated the separation unilaterally and/or abruptly:
We have decided we need to live separately because we’ve had some serious problems in our marriage. The problems are complicated, and have caused both of us a lot of pain. You may have heard us fighting/seen me crying/noticed that I have been gone a lot. We are so sorry that we have been having such a hard time and that has made life very hard for you. We know that – and we know it’s not a good way for us all to live. Neither of us wanted this to happen this way. Dad/Mom is going to move into another home, and we are hoping we will both feel better when we are living separately. You will not lose either of us – we will figure out a plan to make sure you see both of us a lot. None of this is your fault. Even though we are having a hard time getting along right now, and it’s hard for us to be together, we promise we will work on being good parents to you. Each of us wants to be there for you – no matter what.
When one parent is leaving the marriage for another partner – and your child asks point blank if one of you has “someone else”.
Unless your child has concrete knowledge about an extra-marital relationship, it’s best to protect your child from this information in the early stages of the break up. Allow your child time to integrate the news about your divorce before being forced to adjust to the idea of a parent’s infidelity.
There are a lot of reasons this is happening. The main thing is that we are both very unhappy right now, and we need to live apart. We want to focus right now on helping our family get through the changes coming up – and as time goes by, we will try to find ways to explain this more clearly, and help you understand.
If your child – especially likely if you have teenagers – pushes for a definite answer , or your child knows for a fact that you have had an affair – you can try something like this:
I have had another person in my life who became important to me. That relationship has caused great pain for your mother/father. Right now I am trying my best to focus on helping our family get through this, and on being available to you kids.
You do not need to worry about the other person I met – you are not going to see that person at any time soon, if ever. The important thing right now is that we want to let you know we will be separating into two homes, and we are going to do all we can to help you adjust to the changes.
Even when couples break up, parents never stop loving their children, and neither of us is leaving you – we will always be your parents, and we will love you forever, no matter what. We can talk more about this as time passes, but let’s just take it one tough step at a time for now. I think this is plenty of information to get used to – so for now, I’m going to ask you to hold some of your other questions, and I will try to answer them gradually, as we move forward and start to heal.
The main thing for parents to remember when you talk to your children about the WHY of your divorce is that children’s primary fears are going to be of loss and disruption. Reassuring them that they will never lose YOU, and that many things in their lives will remain the same, can help ease their confusion about the reasons for the break up of their parents’ marriage. If you handle these questions with sensitivity and empathy for your children, your children will recover. And they will adjust.