There are a lot of recommendations about how to tell your children you are getting divorced. This article concentrates on what to convey to your kids after and about the divorce, and the reasons for your divorce in an ongoing way. In mediation, I counsel divorcing and post-divorce clients on this topic. We discuss and develop an agreed-upon narrative to be shared with the children.
The wife feels that the reason the marriage broke up is that the husband is a cheating, lying scoundrel. If it weren’t for the 23-year-old that he got involved with when he was supposed to be billing more hours at work, they would still be married.
The husband feels that the reasons the marriage broke up were: (1) Once his wife had her mom move in, she spent all of her weekends concentrating on her mom’s needs instead of paying attention to the marriage. (2) They hadn’t slept together in the last 2 years. (3) She was unkind and criticized him all the time. If they had any kind of relationship, he would never have even thought about developing a friendship, much less anything extra marital. He felt like his wife was so out of the relationship, that the affair just happened.
So now we have two different points of view of what is a reasonable and understandable story. Neither version, nor a combination thereof, however, is anything that a 6 and 10-year-old should be privy to. Not because it isn’t true, or because either point of view isn’t absolutely valid, but because it is harmful to your children.
Children are not equipped to deal with adult issues and should not have to. Just as you wouldn’t serve an infant child steak and baked potatoes because it would choke them and overwhelm their digestive system, certain information is not appropriate for them to consume. Babies eat pureed baby food, so they can be nourished, not harmed. Their well being and developmental stage dictates what you give them. A narrative that is filled with vitriol about how you were victimized, or abandoned in the relationship, or subjected to frigidity or infidelity, isn’t information that your kids can digest or use for nourishment.
Children have to be protected from unnecessary details and information, particularly as it pertains to their parents. The weightiness of anything related to their parents goes right to their most basic and primal survival instincts and needs. If they are given too much information that casts either parent in a poor light, their relationship with both parents can be damaged. The child not only has to process inappropriate information about one parent, he has to manage the poor boundaries demonstrated by the parent who said too much.
However much you feel a need to express your story, or inform your kids why the marriage ended, don’t tell them. Just because it’s “true”, doesn’t mean it’s helpful or appropriate. In fact, regardless of the accuracy of the information, it can be poisonous not just to the spouse whom you blame but to your children and yourself.
Kids need parents whom they can admire and trust. They also need to model adults who can emotionally regulate themselves and self-soothe. Be these adults for your kids. Children who don’t learn to calm themselves down are vulnerable to a variety of dangers including addiction, unhealthy relationships, and difficulties with authority.
Divorce from a difficult spouse can be an opportunity to teach emotional regulation, good coping skills, and managing stress with calm, grace, and dignity.
So what do you tell your kids?
What is an appropriate shared narrative? This is something we work on in mediation: creating a narrative that each parent can get behind without compromising their integrity or needing to grit their teeth when relaying it to their kids.
It might feel disingenuous to say it was a mutual decision if it wasn’t, so that wouldn’t be language we would choose. Each party may be committed to their rendering of the facts. I help parents step back to observe a more macro version of the facts, and make use of the theme. I envision the parents backing physically away from the actual events so they can view them from a greater distance, which often makes room for their spouse’s interpretation as well as their own wiser self. From that new vantage point parties come up with broad statements that capture the essence of the message they can impart without burdening their kids. Some examples are:
- Mom and Dad were no longer able to have the kind of relationship that we both believe is needed in a marriage.
- We care about one another; but our marriage was not healthy and we decided to support one another’s need to be fulfilled, even if it meant separating.
- Sometimes, for many complicated reasons, people are no longer able to be their best selves together or provide the best environment for their children, and sometimes the best thing is to make a change, even though it’s sad and hard.
The idea is to work out what’s true for both of you, and then refine and distill a version that is both authentic and child-friendly. It need not be detailed or exact. By maintaining your privacy, you provide your child with a sense of safety. While children may express curiosity and ask for details, their real need is to have boundaries held and to confirm that you are in charge. What they ask for is not necessarily what they need or even want. It’s okay to allow them to manage their unsatisfied curiosity.
So, just like we have movies rated as age- and subject-appropriate, we create a narrative that’s going to be true but also child-suitable. However much you want to blame or “out” your spouse for being bad or wrong, it serves no purpose in terms of the health of your kids. Nor does it hasten their adjustment to the divorce.
Most parent’s ultimate goal is to protect their kids and help them to grow through the potentially difficult and unwanted experience of divorce. A cohesive, shared narrative supports this goal.