Every divorce has a story. Most have two: the story I tell and the one my ex tells. The stories can be quite different, and in difficult divorces, the stories can be full of blame and judgment.
When children want to know what happened, parents may feel that it is their responsibility to tell the child their story as they may think it is important for their children to know the truth.
It might feel good to tell our children our version of the story, but does it really help them? If they hear a different version from their other parent, what is that like for them?
Children are made up of two parents; psychologically, it’s like they are half of one and half of the other. When the two halves are in conflict and telling different versions of the story, what is that like inside of a child?
So what do we do then? What do we do when kids ask questions about the divorce?
Consider this. Sometimes children’s questions are driven purely by curiosity. “Why is the sky blue?” “Where do babies come from?” “What did you do when you were a little girl?” When kids ask questions about the divorce, we assume they are asking because they are curious.
But sometimes children’s questions are driven by an emotion. “Why can’t I have a cookie!?” or “Why are there bad people in the world?” or “What do you care if I get an F?” These questions have an emotional energy to them, and a feeling that wants to be resolved. They are not interested in the literal answer, as the literal answer will not make them feel better. They just want you to make the uncomfortable feeling they are experiencing to go away.
When a child asks “Why do you care if I get an F?” they are not really looking for a literal answer. They are distressed because they failed, and they know you’re disappointed in them, and they want all those bad feelings to go away. What they’re really saying is: “I feel terrible and I want you to stop making me feel more terrible!”
Underneath the question “Why are there bad people in the world?” is fear. It’s scary to think there are bad people in the world. Do they really want a literal answer, or do they just want the scary feeling to go away? It’s likely that what they’re really saying is: “It is scary to me that there are bad people in the world and I want to not feel scared. Tell me something that will make me feel better.”
Although children might sometimes be curious about the details of divorce, more often their questions are driven by emotion. It is normal for children whose parents are divorcing, or whose parents have been divorced but are engaged in ongoing conflict, to feel insecure, uncertain, confused, scared, angry or sad. Often their questions about divorce are less about details, and more about their distress. In fact, in many situations, giving them the details can increase their distress.
We need to learn to listen on a different level; to listen to the emotional content. We need to think about where the question is coming from and then answer the question, or respond in a way that will help them with their emotional state and help them feel whole. Let’s say they ask the question: “Why did you and Mommy/Daddy get divorced” and they ask it because they are feeling worried and trying to feel more secure. If you give them a version of the story that makes their mom/dad look like a bad person, you are only going to make them feel more insecure.
You might say “Well they need to know that their mom/dad is bad!” Why? How does it serve them to know the ways that you think their mom/dad is bad?
People say if you don’t point out the other person’s bad behavior, it is like condoning it and then they will learn to be bad. But that’s really not how it works. Children behave badly because they’re distressed. The more you add to their distress, the more likely it is that they will behave badly. By being emotionally tuned into them, and helping them with their distress, the more they will feel healthy and secure, and the more likely they are to behave better.
So when it comes to answering children’s questions about divorce, it is important to be thoughtful and take care. Here are some guidelines, and then some examples.
- Consider what made them ask the question just now. Was there something that upset them? Did someone tell them something? Did they get triggered by something? Consider the context of the question, not just the question itself.
- Don’t take the question literally. What they really want to know is often different than what they are asking. They don’t know how to ask the real question, so they do they best they can. “Why did you and get daddy divorced?” can really mean “Am I going to be OK in the midst of all this?” “What will this mean for my life?” “Is this really happening?” Or it can mean a statement like: “I don’t want this to me happening!”
- Focus on the emotional content of the question, not the literal content. Usually they are asking the question because they are upset in some way and they want to feel better. They need you to help them feel better, and if you answer the question literally, you may wind up creating more confusion and upset for them. It is likely when children ask these questions, they are either feeling fearful, angry or sad. It is normal and common for kids to have these emotions around divorce or parental conflict. Ask yourself what emotion is driving the question? Are they scared, sad or angry?
- Acknowledge their feelings. Current research in child development clearly demonstrates that connection and attunement leads to healthy development. Connection and attunement mean REALLY feeling for and understanding children’s experience. That is, really tuning in what they are experiencing. When a child is struggling with a difficult emotion, it is important to acknowledge the feeling. You might say something like: “I can see you’re feeling worried” or “I imagine this situation is scary for you” or “you look sad” or “I’m sorry this is upsetting.”
- Validate and normalize the feeling. Don’t try to talk them out of the feeling. Let them know that it is OK that they are feeling the way they are feeling and that it is normal. In our culture, we tend to be “emotion phobic.” We are uncomfortable with feelings so we try to talk others out of them. This is the opposite of attunement and is NOT helpful. It is important to educate children that experiencing emotions is a normal part of the human experience.
- Once you are clear about the emotional content, determine what would be helpful. If you can identify the emotion that is driving the question, you will be able to answer the question in an effective way or perhaps not even answer it at all. Maybe they just need to vent their anger and sadness. Validating their feelings may be enough. If they’re fearful, calm their fears. If they are scared, what would calm their fears? Often children just want to know that they’re going to be OK.
- Children need understanding more than they need answers. Children need you to understand that they’re struggling more than they need you to fix it. Parents often “talk at” their kids with ideas and details that are not helpful. What really comforts them is being with them, understanding them, letting them know that you understand them and feel for them.
- Consider whose needs you’re meeting. Are you giving them details because it gives you the opportunity to tell your side of the story, or because they really need the details?
- If they do seem to need details, give them a little bit and see if they need more. It’s like children asking about how babies are made. Rather than pulling out the anatomical books, start with “When mommies and daddies love each other, they get babies” to start with. Same here. Simple and a little bit, not a long, detailed adult story.
- Be very cognizant of their age and stage of development. You may have a very mature, intelligent child, but they are still young and cannot understand adult relationship, romance, etc. Even teenagers, who look grown up are still developmentally immature. Don’t treat kids like adults and give them adult details. It will confuse them and make things worse.
- Always keep the blame and judgment out of it. If you are using their question as an opportunity to tell them how bad their other parent is, you are not helping them.
- Be confident and reassuring, and always let them know that they will be OK. Assume that every time they are asking a question, what they really want to know is: “Am I OK?” Do what you can to calm their fears.
- Take the high road. If your ex is bashing you, that’s all the more reason to rise above it. Your children need one parent to behave in a way that is mature, and that’s in the children’s best interest. Some parents worry that if they don’t “set the record straight” their children will not like them or will blame them. If you are grown up and you attend to your children’s needs, they will feel safe, secure and bonded with you. Playing the conflict game will disconnect you from them.
Tommy, age 9 comes to his mom’s home and says “Daddy said you got divorced because you were mean to him all the time. Is that true? Why were you mean to him?”
An automatic response might be: “Daddy said I was mean? Oh that’s really funny, because you know how mean Daddy can be! Sometimes he even makes you cry! Do you remember that time he was screaming at me so loud that the neighbors heard? The truth is we divorced because he worked all the time and never paid attention to either me or you. He has always blamed me for everything.” Would this be helpful to Tommy?
Ask yourself: What is Tommy’s emotional state? What does it feel like to have his dad tell him that? I would imagine he feels confused, and doesn’t know how to make sense of the negative information his dad gave him. It makes him uncomfortable, anxious. He’s upset because there’s conflict between his parents. It is upsetting and difficult for children to hear their parents say negative things about each other. It confuses them and makes them feel like they have to decide whose bad, which is not a choice they should have to make.
Does Tommy really want a literal answer to his question? Or does he just want to feel better?
You could say: “I know it is so confusing and upsetting when Daddy and I are mad at each other. (Acknowledging the feeling behind the question) Tommy, I want you to know that even though Daddy and I get mad at each other, we both love you more than anything in the world.” (Calming his fears, reassuring him)
Doesn’t that feel better and more to the point?
Susie, age 13 asks “Did Daddy have an affair? Is that why you got divorced?”
An automatic response might be: “You know, you might be a little young, but since you asked, it’s important to know the truth. Your daddy really has a problem, and yes, he had several affairs. It was wrong and you must never follow his example. It was very hurtful to me, and it broke our family apart.” Would that help?
Instead, think about why she is asking this question right now. (Context) Let’s say you ask her and she says “I overheard my friend’s mom telling someone that Dad had an affair.” What would you imagine her emotional state would be then? Hearing bad things about their parents cause children to feel shame and embarrassment. If their parents are bad, what does that mean about them? What would actually help Susie in this situation?
How about this: “Susie, it must have been very upsetting to have overheard this, and probably embarrassing” (Acknowledging feelings). Then Susie starts crying and says: “I’m so confused! Did Daddy really do that? How could he do that?” Now what would be helpful? How is it possible to give an answer that is not blaming and judgmental?
You could say: “Susie, mommy and daddy are adults, and there were problems between us. It’s complicated and it’s a private and adult matter. I’m sorry that people are gossiping and upsetting you, but you have nothing to be ashamed of. The bottom line is that we both love you and everything will be OK.”
It takes courage and wisdom to answer kids’ questions in a way that will be helpful to them. But tuning into them, taking the time to think about what they need will benefit them, and your relationship with them.