Choosing your words carefully is very important when sitting your child down to tell them about your plans to separate. Your word selection can make all the difference in how your child takes the news and more importantly how it will impact his/ her development of self-esteem.
Over-focus on Sharing the “Truth and Nothing but the Truth.”
No matter how you are feeling about the other parent, or the reasons for the separation, you must find a safe and age appropriate explanation for the divorce. Parents are often over-focused on making sure to tell their child the “truth,” which usually includes the ugly details. However, your child should not be told anything that will negatively change their view of either parent.
This creates a real dilemma for the parent who feels betrayed and harmed by the other parent. Maybe the problem came to a head when an affair was discovered. Perhaps it was gambling away life savings, or any other sort of betrayal. It is very easy to blame the other parent for destructive behaviors. Over time, most mature adults will be able to recognize that their marriage was in trouble long before something as devastating as an affair. When adults are able to recognize this truth it allows them to each accept some responsibility for the end of the marriage. Sometimes though, this awareness never occurs leaving one parent resentful while holding onto their sense of betrayal and blame. These parents tend to emotionally harm their children as they are unable to consider anyone other than themselves at that moment. These parents are unwilling to consider a neutral explanation. This gains them sympathy and alignment but ultimately impairs their child. This is a self-focused, rather than child-focused, outcome that can rarely be corrected.
Explanations that Blame and Harm:
- “It’s all your mother’s fault because she went and got herself a boyfriend!” (Mom cannot be trusted therefore maybe I cannot be trusted either……..)
- “We are getting a divorce because your father is good for nothing and I am tired of taking care of him while he sits on his behind!” (My dad is worthless so maybe I do not have worth……..)
The Ideal Explanation is Neutral and Presents:
- A “we” explanation
- A non-blaming explanation
- A safe explanation
Assuming both parents can do the right thing and try to find an explanation that will not harm their child, the following are some of the “broader” explanations. Unfortunately as neutral as these may seem, they may still create distress for the young child.
Some Neutral Explanations May Increase Your Child’s Anxiety:
- “You mother and I are not getting along and have decided to separate.” (If mom and I don’t get along will she leave me too?)
- “You father and I have been struggling to communicate and have tried everything. Unfortunately, we are unable to make our marriage work so we are deciding to get a divorce. You will still have both of us etc…” (What happens when dad and I get into one of our big conflicts? Will he want me to move out?)
Some parents focus on the degree of conflict they have revealed to their child and make this their explanation. From not getting along, growing apart, to communication or conflict these all are neutral “we” explanations that do not point the finger at either parent. (Children typically do figure out who we are but they must learn this on their own rather than through the other parent).
Even with these explanations they still may create anxiety for some children. For example, if you have told your child the main reason is because the two of you do not get along, your child may wonder what happens when you and your child are “not getting along?” This is not unusual since parents and children will naturally have conflict, especially during the teen years. A sensitive child may live with a fear that if they do not get along with you one hundred percent of the time, you may choose to leave them too.
Perhaps one of the safest explanations for your child may be to-
Use the Terms “Husband” and “Wife:” Over the years I have found when telling your child about a separation or divorce it should be focused on the role of husband and wife. In addition, I have also found that all the reasons for a divorce can be placed beneath this boarder explanation. For example:
“Your father and I are planning to get a divorce because we are not loving each other the way a husband and wife are supposed to love and treat each other.”
Create a Safe Boundary: By using the terms “husband and wife” it places the problem outside of the child’s understanding of relationships where it belongs. The dynamic between the two of you should be private and separate. Your child cannot relate to being a husband, or a wife, which removes some of their anxiety. Parents can state that they have tried very hard to make it better but they have decided that they cannot love each other the way they are meant to. This logic then becomes the fall back explanation that both parents use to anchor the child’s understanding. Neither parent points the finger even if their child pushes for further explanation. This is the safest and easiest explanation for children to absorb.
Secondary Benefit: When parents are able to proceed in a cooperative manner during and after the divorce, their child will likely inquire, at some point, if they still love one another. Assuming you do have some positive feelings for your former partner you may respond with, “Of course I still love your mom/dad.” This often will confuse children because they struggle to understand how their parents can love each other and yet still be divorced. The young child will think in black and white, love and hate. When hanging the explanation on the role of husband and wife, the child can be told, “Of course I love your dad/mom but remember we don’t love each other the way a husband and a wife are supposed to love each other.” A child can understand this much better while also learning a life lesson about different kinds of love.
The Big Picture “Truth”: If parents really think about all of their blame and anger and their own contribution to the big picture, they can come to a truthful conclusion. For example, if either of the parties went outside the marriage, told lies, withdrew affection, kept secrets, focused too much attention on their child, undermined each other in their parenting, made promises that they did not keep … all of these are examples of “not treating each other the way a husband or a wife should treat each other.” Therefore, parents can use this explanation to explain the big picture, by stating a “truth” while safely leaving the ugly details shielded from their child.
Ideally parents can both agree to a simple and non-blaming explanation to tell their child together. However, even if this is not the case, one parent can make it their own explanation and demonstrate mature, child-focused parenting. Sometimes that is the best you can hope for.