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Q&A: Talking to the kids

What to tell the kids

What should we tell our kids about a divorce or a separation affecting them? The answer is not always clear and parents struggle with the right way to answer simple questions their children ask. There is not one right answer because divorce is a very different experience for most of us. We do know that children need clarity and to feel like they are safe. We also know that the responses or explanations you give your children should be age appropriate and simple. Most importantly, your children should understand that whatever led the marriage to divorce is only a grown-up problem. Your children should know that it is natural to be sad or worried. Your children want reassurance from the answers you give them.

Use whatever resources are available to you: Books (for you and your children), therapists, schoolteachers and counselors. Choose whatever path seems right for you, the age of your children and the uniqueness of your situation. Don't hesitate to reach out to people who offer to help you. In another section of the site we will have recommendations and reviews on books on divorce for kids as well as parents.

Here is my conversation with Bryant, an artist in California who at 36 years of age remembers what he really needed from his parents as they faced their divorce.

What is the single most important thing your parents could have done for you when they got divorced?

Without a doubt, honesty. My dad moved out one day and they told us kids some story about how convenient this move would be for my dad's work.

“I would've had something real to understand. I would have known that my parents couldn't work out together”

— 10 years old when
parents separated

Didn't you know what was going on?

We knew something was awkward and not right but my dad came over frequently and we even had family vacations together. I was about ten years old when this started happening. Things didn't feel quite right but I just went along with it.

In retrospect, what do you think was going on?

I am not sure they knew what they wanted to do. I know my mom didn't want a divorce and perhaps was trying to hold on to the marriage. We had a lot of confusing signals from both of my parents. When they finally got around to tell us they were getting a divorce, it was obvious that there were things they never discussed between themselves. There was no real communication between them. We were having this family meeting and my older brother was visibly angry. He asked them if they were just then getting around to airing all those issues out. The other thing that was difficult was going to friend's homes and seeing how other parents were with each other, watching TV and holding hands. This was not what I had. My dad was absent and my parents weren't together.

Have you asked your parents why they didn't tell you the truth from the beginning?

They said it was to protect us. I think it was selfish of them. I think they were trying to protect themselves.

Do you think that your parents being honest with you would have made you less angry?

Who knows? Maybe it would have made me angrier. I do know that I would have had something real to understand. I would have known that my parents just couldn't work out together". In the middle of all of what was going on I knew that I could go to either one of my parents if I was in trouble and needed their help or support. We could have just been a broken family who was supportive of each other. Whatever taboos we have about discussing issues around divorce, could really destroy kids.

How were things different with your mom than with your dad?

My dad tried to overcompensate for his absence with money, or gifts. My mom was very strict about a routine of bedtime and schoolwork. Things would be hard while we all spent time together like a family and things would go back to being the same. We would come home from a vacation having had a great time and my dad would just say good-bye at the end. Then things would go back to being the same: Dad was gone and mom was depressed.

During that family time, did you think your parents would get back together?

Sure, but then the more you wish the more you get crushed. You get to learn eventually that won't happen.

So you had all these questions and not a lot of answers.

Yes, the human mind is scarier than the truth really is. In my mind things were much worse than reality.

Which truth? Which reality?

That this wasn't about us - the children - this was about my parents.

How do you deal with your parents now?

When I look back I realized just how dysfunctional things were but I still remember having a happy childhood. I think I still don't trust my parents to be completely straight with me, with themselves with each other. I spent a lot of time hearing one-sided stories trying to filter out what was really going on. I just wanted to know what was truth.

What do you think about marriage and divorce now?

When I asked my wife to marry me, I told her I was not going to get married unless she understood that this was forever. I probably felt like that before but the experience with my parents probably reinforced this idea. I feel that it sometimes it is much easier to quit a marriage when things are not working out. I also think it is our responsibility to teach our children about human life and relationships. If as society we don't make marriage and family one of the most important aspects of our lives, we leave room for other things to become too important.