How do I tell my two school-age children that their daddy has left us for another man? Losing my husband has been devastating, as you can imagine, but I'm also concerned and burdened for my kids. I haven't told them anything yet. It's hard enough to have to explain that their father is gone, and I'm afraid the whole same-sex aspect of the situation will only exacerbate their pain and confusion. How do I help them understand and cope?
Our advice would be to go slow, take small steps, and keep things as simple as possible. "School-age" kids (we're assuming yours are in the six-to-twelve-year range) don't yet have the capacity to understand homosexuality, and there's no need to burden them with too much information about that aspect of the issue. If they have specific questions, you can take the opportunity to talk to them in general terms about God's design for sex (always being careful to use age-appropriate language). But what they really want at this point are straightforward answers to three basic questions. First, "Why is dad leaving?" Second, "What happens next?" And last, "Is this our fault?"
In tackling the first of these, we suggest (as already indicated) that you steer clear of the sexual details. Stick to a relational explanation. Say something like, "Dad has decided that he doesn't want to be married to me anymore. He's been spending a lot of time with another person lately, and he says he wants to concentrate on developing that relationship." You can tell them that this wasn't your idea and that you don't agree with the choices your husband has made. Don't assume the responsibility of attempting to explain his actions. Just let them know that you're deeply saddened by this turn of events.
You should also make it clear that this is not God's plan for any marriage relationship. You might illustrate by focusing on concepts like "selfishness" and "want," since these are ideas your kids can easily grasp. Say, "Dad once made a promise to stay with the family, but now he's leaving, and that's painful for all of us. He says this is just something that he really wants to do right now – like when you grab Johnny's toy because you've decided that you want to play with it. When you do something like that, you're only thinking about yourself and your own desires. Whether we realize it or not, our selfishness can hurt other people. That's the way it is with your father right now."
Kids in a situation like this also have a pressing need for practical reassurance. They can see that life is about to change is some dramatic ways, and they want to know how that's going to look and what the next steps are going to be. Their heads are full of doubts and questions: "Will we be able to stay in our own house and keep going to the same school? Will we still have money for food and clothing? Do we have to leave our friends behind? Are you going away, too?" Your job at this juncture is to do everything in your power to shore up their sense of security. Let them know in no uncertain terms that their needs will be met. If necessary, explain exactly how that's going to happen – for example, "Daddy has promised to send us money," or, "I'll be getting a job." Stay in control and demonstrate your love for them. Let them observe your consistency and reliability in the midst of the crisis. Encourage them to express their feelings about what has happened – their anger, fear, and anxiety – and help them figure out what to do with those emotions. Make it clear that you have feelings too.
Finally, your children need to understand that Dad's decision has nothing to do with them. Kids tend to blame themselves when family problems of this magnitude arise. Make it clear to them that this is not their fault. Explain that while Daddy still loves them, he's forgotten for the moment that love means keeping promises and putting the needs of others ahead of one's own. Revisit the theme of personal wants. Talk to them in general terms about sin and selfishness and the pain that usually results from this kind of behavior. Then help them see that it's possible to survive that pain and come out stronger on the other side.
While honesty is crucial, avoid the temptation to make yourself look like a hero at your husband's expense. Instead of going that route, zero in on the needs of the moment and focus on healing your children's hurts. If possible, try to persuade your husband to participate in the process of answering the children's questions and mapping out a plan for the future. It would be a good idea for the two of you to sit down with a counselor beforehand so you can make sure that you're on the same page before talking to the kids. That's the best way to avoid sending mixed messages and confusing them even further.
Here at Focus on the Family we have a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to discuss your situation with one of them, you can call us for a free consultation. Our counselors can also provide you with references to reputable Christian therapists practicing in your area.
Helping Children Survive Divorce