Why did you and Daddy get divorced?
Why don’t you love Mommy anymore?
Daddy said it was your fault that you got divorced. What did you do?
My friend said that Mommy had an affair. Is that true?
Co-parents can get baffled about how to answer these kinds of questions. It is important to know why children ask these questions, and what kinds of answers are helpful. Otherwise, you might inadvertently make things worse. These guidelines will help!
1. Take a breath before you answer. You don’t have to answer right away! We live in a culture where conversations are fast. One person talks and the other responds quickly. When your child asks a question, take a breath, or better yet, twenty breaths. Don’t answer until you have thought through what is going on for your child and what the best response is. It is fine to say “I need to think about this for a while before I answer.”
2. Focus on emotion, not content. Children are not asking the question because they actually want a literal answer. They are asking because they are distressed. Divorce can cause a great deal of confusion for children.
Think of it like this. Something triggers them. They overhear someone talking about one of their parents having an affair, for instance, or they hear their parent on the phone talking about how angry they are at the other parent. Or they see you argue at an exchange. These things cause distress because the two people who care for them, on whom they depend on, who they love the most in the world, are at odds with one another. That causes insecurity and fear. So they say: “Did you have an affair?” or “Why don’t you love Daddy anymore?”
It may sound like they want those answers, because, well, they are asking those questions. But they are asking because they don’t know how to ask the question they really have. Most children can’t say: “I am feeling really insecure and worried about myself in the midst of this divorce and need reassurance that I will be ok.”
They are trying to figure out if they are going to be ok. Plain and simple. They don’t really want to know about your co-parents affair, or whether you love Mommy or Daddy or not. Giving the adult details will not calm their anxieties. In fact, it can make things worse. Details that involve adult matters they cannot understand will be create more confusion for them.
So, instead of focusing on the content, focus on the emotion. Let them know you understand they are worried or scared. Assure them that everything will be ok. Hug them. Feel with them. That is the most reassuring thing you can do. If they press on the question, especially if it’s an adult content question, tell them that it is an adult matter and that the important thing is that everything will be ok. That life feels scary sometimes for everyone, but that you will all get through it. Hug them some more. Feel with them some more. Connecting with them emotionally is what helps them feel safe.
3. Children are children, not little adults. No matter how smart your child is, they are not mature enough to hear about adult matters. This is true for teenagers as well. Parents often mistake intelligence for maturity. They are two very different things. The brain does not fully develop until age 25. Expecting your child to understand adult matters is putting a burden on them that is likely to be stressful and potentially harmful. Don’t make children be adults. They need to be children.
4. Remember what actually makes them feel safe. The number one thing that makes children feel safe is CONNECTION. Simply allowing yourself to “feel into their experience,” to feel what it’s like to be them, to feel the truth of how distressing and confusing these things can be, is the best thing you can do. Children know when you are connected to them. Words are often not necessary. Give them hugs. (Have I mentioned that yet?) They will know that you are there for them, not because you tell them, but because they know when you’re really connected. Sure, you can say things too. Tell them you know it is hard. Tell them things will be better. But without real connection those words will be empty.
Connection can be difficult for parents because we hate for our children to feel bad, and we just want to make it better quickly. When they hurt, we hurt, and we want to make it go away. But by trying to fix it we are bypassing the connection, and that is disconnecting. Trying to answer a question literally is bypassing the emotions. Train yourself to connect to their emotional states. Don’t rush to fix it.
5. Don’t use their questions as opportunities to tell your child your side of the story. You might think “Well I wasn’t going to tell them about the affair, but since they’re asking…” or “I think it’s time to tell them why I don’t like their other parent.”
Telling your side puts children in the middle. It is subtly asking them to adopt your perspective. Your co-parent has a different perspective, so you are essentially asking them to decide whose perspective is right, which puts them in a position that only makes them more anxious. They can’t, and shouldn’t have to, sort out whose perspective is “better.” Never put them in the position of having to figure out which parent is to blame.
6. Pointing out your co-parent’s bad behavior doesn’t teach your children anything. Parents often feel like making an example of their co-parent’s bad behavior is a way of teaching children how not to behave. No. Children don’t learn this way. Hearing how bad their other parent is makes them feel anxious, because again, it puts them in the middle.
I am not suggesting that you condone bad behavior. I am not suggesting you sugar-coat things that you can’t sincerely sugar-coat. I am suggesting that you remember that your child is distressed, and telling them how bad their other parent is is not going to make it better. What will make them feel better is connection. And, if you want to teach good values and good behavior, role model these things yourself.
7. Be a translator: Get to the heart of what the child really needs. Learn to ask yourself what the child is REALLY asking. Detach from the literal question, and determine what the emotional question is. And, remember, that question is almost always “Am I OK?”