Every divorce is painful for all members of the family. But that does not mean that life after divorce is always tough—in fact, as a parent, you play a big part in easing the fears and anxieties of your child. Most parenting experts conclude that what you tell a child about the reasons for your divorce depends a lot on the age and maturity of the child, and whether or not some of the reasons are obvious.
So, here are some good general things to consider when preparing for one of those "Why did you get a divorce?" discussions that are sure to come.
Behavioral therapist Steve Kalas divides the reasons for divorce into three general categories:
Divorce as a Moral Demand
If your spouse was abusive, degrading, or a criminal, the divorce was necessary to prevent self-destruction or further evil to others.
Divorce Due to Betrayal
If you or your partner had one or more affairs, announced she was gay, robbed you blind or was mentally unbalanced and refused treatment, the divorce was likely due to a lack of trust and a desire to be free from such behaviors.
Divorce Due to Marital Malaise
In these cases, spouses simply grew apart, fell out of love, failed to meet one another's expectations, or took some other similar action which resulted in the divorce.
How and when you tell the children the reason depends entirely on which scenario is most reflective of your divorce. Generally speaking, if the reason for your divorce is in the "moral demand" category, it will be obvious, and should be shared with the children. In the other two categories, it largely depends on the child's age, awareness, and maturity.
For younger children, the discussion should stay general
When the question comes up, try not to get really specific with your younger children. You can say things like, "Dad and Mom just couldn't seem to get along well, and we thought you kids deserved not to have parents fighting all the time." Or, "Mom and Dad's jobs took so much time that we didn't have much time to keep our marriage strong."
If possible, agree with your ex on what you will tell the kids
Particularly when they are younger, children can be confused with too many details, and even more confused when the parents share different reasons for the divorce. If you can agree on the details you will discuss and share, it will help the kids process what is going on.
Don't disparage the other parent
Telling your child that their mom kept getting drunk or had an affair with the neighbor will generally not be helpful, especially for younger children. Even if the other parent was in your mind primarily to blame for the breakup, keep the attitude positive. This rule would not apply in cases where the divorce was a "moral demand," in that case, it would be ok to suggest the divorce was needed to keep the children safe.
Encourage them to talk with you about it
If the parents are not willing to talk with the children about their feelings about the divorce, they may go to other parties like friends, neighbors or grandparents, who often only have part of the story. If you avoid the discussion, change the subject, or just refuse to answer questions, you will drive them to others for the answers.
As the children get older and ask questions, you can be more specific
For example, it might be inappropriate to tell a six-year-old that Mom had an affair, but when an 18-year-old asks, you can answer more specifically. Be sensitive to the needs and concerns of the child.
Answer specific questions specifically
When your children are old enough to ask specific questions, you can answer them specifically. It would even be beneficial to take responsibility and explain why your actions matter. For example, if your child asks about your infidelity, you could say something like this: "It was wrong of me to do that and I owed your mother total loyalty. I'm sorry that it broke up our marriage and hurt you. I didn't say anything about it sooner because I wasn't sure that you needed to know. But now that you do know, I want to make sure that I am honest with you."
Focus on the real reasons rather than the symptoms
Sometimes it is hard to look beyond the symptoms of a bad marriage to see some of the root causes of the divorce. If you can look a little deeper, you will often find causes like not making enough time for each other, not being able to talk in a meaningful way about money, not listening to each other, or not being willing to get help when needed. Sharing these kinds of reasons for a divorce will be less incriminating and will also help your child see the need to do these things well when they are married later in life.
Talking with the children about the reasons for divorce is one of the toughest things for a parent to do. But being as honest and straightforward as you can, while still respecting the child's age and emotional maturity, is the best way to approach the challenge.