Elin Nordegren doesn't need to decide whether to tell her kids why she divorced their dad, Tiger Woods. Her daughter, Sam, 4, and her son, Charlie, 3, will read about it when they're older.
But how do moms and dads whose divorces aren't front-page news figure out what to tell their kids? Think about "how much information about the failure of the parents' marriage is in the child's best interest right now?" says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, author of Raising Kids with Character. "A child's endless 'why?' questions are not really a request for information but an expression of bargaining and protest."
Should you tell a child that a spouse was an addict or an abuser? "It is difficult to make a one-size-fits-all response to this question," says Berger.
Whatever you choose to say, avoid putting down an ex-spouse. "Every child knows they are half mom and half dad," says Beverly Hills, Calif., psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent. "We cannot stimulate hatred or rejection of either half. It does create a self-hatred in the child."
Some advice, regardless of the cause of a divorce:
Think about what your kids would like to know – not about what you would like to tell them. "You're wanting to explain to them what happened in the marriage," says Nashua, N.H., psychologist Carl Hindy, co-author of If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure? "The whole proposition of what went wrong in the marriage, whose fault is it, probably is much more your concern than the child's."
Put yourself in your kids' shoes. "They want to know what's going to happen for them," says Hindy. "How will their life change? Will they be moving? Will they need to change schools? Friends? When I have asked kids after divorce what's the worst part for them, the answer has nearly always been that they have to go back and forth between residences, and it disrupts their activities and their friends."
Explain why you need to live in separate homes. Say, "Mom and dad grew apart, and as you know, there was too much fighting in the house, and we decided we could all be happier living in two houses," says Walfish. If arguing wasn't a problem, she suggests saying, "Mom and dad grew apart and never learned how to talk about differences."
Listen to your kids. "They are not empty vessels to be filled passively with one or the other parent's views," says Hindy. "Support your divorcing spouse in being the best parent he or she can be. Avoid questions and answers that cast aspersions."
Don't give too much information. "Treating a child (even a child of 40) as a divorce confidante is generally exceedingly stressful for the child," says Berger. "Complaining to one's offspring about one's ex, or — a particularly destructive pattern — using the child as a go-between or messenger or diplomat — is horrible for children. Parents must find their own best friends or therapists or confidantes and let their children work out their own feelings, which are bound to be quite ambivalent and confused."
Know that divorces differ. Some are amicable, but others are not. "Often both husband and wife feel abused by the other, and can't wait to involve onlookers in a pitched battle that often involves argument focused on sexual escapades, money, substance abuse, lawyers, and general hullabaloo," says Berger. "The typical outcome in these situations (including children of 40) is the powerful and enduring sensation that it is all about the parents and that the children's feelings and lives are barely an afterthought."
Seek help from a therapist. It's important if one parent is truly an abuser and the other is truly a victim, says Berger. "Abusers can be exceedingly charming and sly, and accomplished liars. The victim, on the other hand, can be frazzled and fragile and appear much less sympathetic and convincing than the abuser. In this situation, the children are being manipulated by the abuser and may need help grasping the reality of the situation. Here, it is best that the victim seek professional help along with the children as a unit."
What about specific offenses?
Cheating. Usually it's best to avoid mentioning it, says Walfish. "It's hard to love a mother who's a betraying cheater. And it's also very disturbing for a kid, even teenagers, to imagine their parents as sexual beings." But if a child knows and asks for confirmation, she says, "you must tell the truth."
Substance abuse. Many kids know perfectly well if a parent is struggling, and if they do, the other parent can be honest about it, says Walfish.
Gambling. "Just say, 'Mommy and Daddy had differences in big areas – things like how to manage finances or money,'" says Walfish. "I would be very general. Don't say, 'Dad blew away all the money.'"
Most important, parents need to make their kids feel adored. "Every child needs to know they were created and born out of love," says Walfish. "'Mommy and Daddy met, fell in love, and loved each other so much they wanted children. We wanted you, and you were born."
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