Talking with Children About the Reasons for Your Divorce

Father talking with daughter on park bench.
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Caitlin and Sarah's mom and dad have been divorced for a couple of years now. It was hard on their girls to have to change so much of their lives and lifestyles. But fortunately, their mom and dad are still both involved in their lives and both still feel loved by both mom and dad. But lately, Caitlin has started asking questions about why they were divorced. She will be starting junior high soon, and her dad is wondering what he should tell her when she asks about the reasons for her parents' divorce.

Caitlin's dad has a tough call to make here. Tell her too much or in the wrong way, he will drive a wedge between Caitlin and him, or between Caitlin and her mom. Ignore the question and he runs the risk of having Caitlin's mom share her perspective and perhaps make him seem less in her eyes than he should.

Most parenting experts conclude that what you tell a child about the reasons for her parents' divorcing depends a lot on the age and maturity of the child, and whether or not some of the reasons are obvious.

So, here are some good general rules and things to consider when preparing for one of those "Why did you get a divorce?" discussions that are sure to come.

Why Did You Get a Divorce?

Behavioral therapist Steve Kalas divides the reasons for divorce into three general categories:

  • Divorce as a moral demand. If your spouse was abusive, degrading, or a criminal, the divorce was necessary to prevent self-destruction or further evil to others.
  • Divorce due to betrayal. If you or your partner had one or more affairs, announced she was gay, robbed you blind or was mentally unbalanced and refused treatment, the divorce was likely due to a lack of trust and a desire to be free from such behaviors.
  • Divorce due to marital malaise. In these cases, spouses simply grew apart, fell out of love, failed to meet one another's expectations, gained weight, got lazy, or took some other similar action which resulted in the divorce.

    How what and when you tell the children the reasons depends entirely on which scenario is most reflective of your divorce. Generally speaking, the reasons for the divorce, if it is in the "moral demand" category, will be obvious and should be shared with the children. In the other two categories, it largely depends on the child's age, awareness and maturity.

    For Younger Children, the Discussion Should Stay General

    When the question comes up, try not to get really specific with your younger children. You can say things like, "Dad and mom just couldn't seem to get along well, and we thought you kids deserved not to have parents fighting all the time." Or "Mom and Dad's jobs took so much time that we didn't have much time to keep our marriage strong."

    If Possible, Agree With Your Ex on What You Will Tell the Kids

    Particularly when they are younger, children can be confused with too many details, and even more confused when the parents share different reasons for the divorce. If you can agree on the details you will discuss and share, it will help the kids process what is going on.

    Don't Disparage the Other Parent

    Telling your child that their mom kept getting drunk or had an affair with the neighbor will generally not be helpful, especially for younger children.

    Even if the other parent was in your mind primarily to blame for the breakup, keep the attitude positive. This rule would not apply in cases where the divorce was a "moral demand," in that case, it would be OK to suggest the divorce was needed to keep the children safe.

    Encourage Them to Talk With You About It 

    If the parents are not willing to talk with the children about their feelings about the divorce, they may go to other parties like friends, neighbors or grandparents, who often only have part of the story. If you avoid the discussion, change the subject or just refuse to answer questions, you will drive them to others for the answers.

    As the Children Get Older and Ask Questions, You Can Be More Specific

    For example, it might be inappropriate to tell a six-year-old that Mom had an affair, but when an 18-year-old asks, you can answer more specifically.

    Be sensitive to the needs and concerns of the child.

    Answer Specific Questions Specifically 

    When your children are old enough to ask specific questions, you can answer them specifically. "Mom told me that you and Susan had an affair and that was why you and mom divorced. Is that true? Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

    "Yes, honey, that is true. It was wrong of me to do that and I owed your mother total loyalty. I'm sorry that it broke up our marriage and hurt your children so deeply. I didn't say anything about it sooner because I wasn't sure that you needed to know. But now that you do know, I want to make sure that I am honest with you."

    Focus on the Real Reasons Rather Than the Symptoms

    Sometimes it is hard to look beyond the symptoms of a bad marriage to see some of the root causes. If you can look a little deeper, you will often find causes like not making enough time for each other, not being able to talk in a meaningful way about money, not listening to each other, or not being willing to get help when needed. Sharing these kinds of reasons for a divorce will be less incriminating and will also help your child see the need to do these things well when they are married later in life.

    Talking with the children about the reasons for divorce is one of the toughest things for a father to do. But being as honest and straightforward as you can, while still respecting the child's age and emotional maturity, is the best way to approach a difficult challenge. And this kind of communication, with love, respect, and credibility, is the most important kind of communication a father and child can have.