Of course we should be honest with children, but really? How honest?

When parents are divorcing, particularly if the decision wasn’t mutual, there is often a lot of anger and hard feelings. Divorce is difficult at best when both parties are in agreement to separate. But if one did not want the marriage to end and the other has already moved on, the situation can be toxic. What to tell the kids when they ask why their parents are separating is an important question.

A couple I was working with recently split up because the mom had an affair and her husband couldn’t get over it. He was furious. The more angry he got, the faster she wanted to leave and he proclaimed that she had ruined their family. He wanted to tell their 10 year old daughter and 13 year old son that the reason for the divorce was that their mother was cheating on him and had an affair. It was all her fault and she was to blame. The mom was devastated. While she owned that she had an affair, she reminded him that they had a terrible relationship, hadn’t been intimate for years and spent almost no time together. He said that wasn’t the point.

It was clear that the relationship was a problem and the wife made the decision to act out her feelings as a way to extricate herself from the marriage…..not a great way to deal with conflict, but that’s what she did. She did not want her children to know she had an affair. She felt embarrassed and thought this information would be detrimental for them to hear. I agreed, and was also able to validate the husband’s hurt and anger.

I helped them by refocusing the discussion on the children, away from the hurt and anger of their relationship. How might the children feel if they heard their mom had an affair? How would they feel about their mom? How would they feel about their dad for being the messenger? I suspect the children would feel awful and mad at both parents and not know who to turn to and not feel safe with either one. This would not be helpful for the children.

I worked with the parents to problem solve language to use with their children that felt honest, although not completely honest….like mom and dad have been having a hard time together and fighting a lot. Sometimes that happens with parents and they need to be apart so they can feel calmer and happier. That is honest, but protects the children from some of the hard facts that they never need to know.

This process is not an easy one, and refining what to tell the kids can be difficult, but with some guidance parents can generally arrive at language that feels “comfortable enough” and “honest enough” so the children can be protected.