After the decision was made about our divorce, my ex-husband and I had the looming task of telling the children. Luckily, our youngest child was only 1, so there was not a whole lot of explaining that needed to take place with him. But, there was still the 5-year-old; a very mature and smart one at that. So, I did what most parents would do in any uncertain situation and diligently searched the internet for tips on approaching this topic with our son. All of my education and career experience went out the window, as I was not entirely confident that I would actually know how to handle this with my own child and with my own divorce. From several different sources, I hand-picked the options that seemed to fit the best for our family and I went for it. He asked a few questions and when he felt informed enough, he ended the conversation and continued with his previous activity.
I remember thinking that while it was a painful conversation, it did not appear to be nearly as painful for our son as it was for the two of us. We offered him an ‘open door’, leaving plenty of space for him to come to us anytime he had a question about the divorce. The questions came; they were few and far between and quite a few of them only had to do with his toys and other items that he cared about most. While some of the questions were a bit more difficult to answer than others, I remained confident in my ability to provide what he was looking for at each particular moment. What I was not prepared for was the ‘why’ that came later.
There will always be the ‘why’-if there is one thing that I am absolutely sure about, it’s this. Coming up on the two-year mark of our divorce, I naively assumed that the hardest part at the beginning- the news of the divorce followed by the series of Q&A that followed for several months after- had ended. What I did not anticipate was the continuation of questions around our relationship as our children grew older. So, here is my contribution to those looking for answers around divorce and what to say in response to the ‘why’s’ that will inevitably make their appearance throughout your journey as a divorced parent.
Development happens in stages My biggest mistake was assuming that my sons would no longer need to ask questions around our divorce after everything had settled and our ‘new normal’ had been set into motion. Children develop in stages, especially the ways in which they process and understand things. This means that your children may ask you the same question several times, but in slightly different ways. This is not an attempt to annoy you or trick you into providing a different answer that they like better, but rather a way for them to get a deeper understanding through the lens of the particular development stage they are in at that particular time.
Patience is a virtue Those same questions asked in slightly different ways, as mentioned above, can wear on you after a while; especially when you think you have answered the question in a sufficient manner. Try to exercise your patience and understanding with them. This may mean that you tell them that you need to get back with them when you are ready to answer the question they have just asked for the ONE HUNDREDTH time (!!!). But, always remember to go back to the question once you have taken a few deep breaths and obtained your mental clarity. The practice of patience will continue to be your saving grace while raising your children, so welcome the opportunities as they arise and you will thank yourself later!
Some things are better left unsaid/Too much detail can be harmful Has anyone ever told you something about someone very dear to you that changed your feelings about them? Depending on how bad it is, the information you are given can leave you confused, hurt, angry, feeling betrayed, and an array of other negative emotions. Imagine what this would be like for a child if you were to share negative or hurtful information about their (other) parent. If your child is their biological child, they may even feel like you are insulting them, as they carry a part of their DNA.
It’s easy for some people to get caught up in the ‘blame game’ with their ex-spouse and inadvertently put their children smack dab in the middle of it! It is not necessary to go into detail about the dynamics of your relationship or point fingers at the other for their mistakes or transgressions. You want to be careful to keep your relationship with your ex (their other parent) separate from your relationship with your children. Divulging too much information can cause confusion and harm to your child. It can also put them in a situation where they feel they have to choose sides.
Kids like examples that are relatable Children need examples. In order for them to understand or relate to concepts, they need a frame of reference. Providing them with examples they can relate to when you are answering complicated questions can be the difference between leaving your child feeling confused and uncomfortable and leaving them feeling confident and relieved. When you are providing examples, make sure that they are relatable to your particular child by using things and/or people that are familiar to them.
You may just not know the answer or how to answer… and that’s okay Take this one with you in EVERY aspect of parenting. I promise you that your children WILL ask questions that leave you feeling helpless because of your inability to answer them. This is okay. And, it is also okay to TELL them that you don’t know the answer. This will assist them in seeing your ‘human’ side and provide them with a wonderful example of how to handle a situation that they don’t necessarily know how to navigate.
The suggestions shared above are merely pieces of the puzzle that seemed to fit for me through my personal journey. Some of them may fit for you and some may not. The most important thing to do is to consider what fits for you and your family. Tailor the way you handle talking to your children in ways that you think are best for them. After all, you ARE the expert on your life and your children.
If there are things that you have found helpful in ways to discuss divorce with your children, please share in the comments below. Or, if you have found resources such as books, articles, videos, etc. that have been helpful, share those as well. We always welcome your wisdom as well!
This post was written by Bari Sobelson, MS, LMFT, the Social Media and Programming Coordination Specialist for the MFLN Family Development Team. The MFLN Family Development team aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about the Military Families Learning Network Family Development team on our website, Facebook, and Twitter.