To begin with, we’d suggest that since these are your husband’s parents, he should be the one to explain the situation to your kids. You can participate in the discussion, of course – no doubt he’ll welcome the moral support. But it would be best if he takes the lead.
Children at this age don’t have the capacity to understand sexual infidelities and marital affairs. So it would be wise to avoid getting into the details unless they are already aware of what’s been going on and want to raise specific questions of their own. In that case, you can respond on a need-to-know basis. It would probably be a good idea to keep your comments as generic as possible. For example, you might take this opportunity to discuss God’s design for sex and marriage (always being careful to use age-appropriate language). But on the whole it’s best to stick to a simple explanation, such as, “Grandpa doesn’t want to be married to Grandma anymore,” or “Grandpa has made decisions that will keep Grandpa and Grandma from living together.” There will be plenty of time to elaborate on the moral implications of Grandpa’s actions as the kids move into their teen years (chances are that they already have a deep intuitive sense that something’s seriously wrong). For now, it’s better to focus on healing their hurts.
It’s also important to let the kids see how you, as the adults in their lives, feel about what has happened. It’s never a good idea to sweep something like this under the rug. Your husband in particular should be open about his emotions – not showy or overly demonstrative, but honest and straightforward. He can tell the children how much it hurts to see his mother and father breaking up and how disappointed he is in the choices his dad has made. If you’re uncertain as to how much emotion is too much, the key is to avoid foisting adult feelings onto the kids. Don’t make your problem into the child’s problem. Instead, say something like, “This is what I’m feeling, and this is what I’m doing about it. I’m trying to be healthy so that I can be here for you when you need me. But none of this is your responsibility.”
From here you can bridge into a discussion of the unexpected changes life often brings our way. Help your kids understand what it means to embrace change and cope with it successfully without necessarily liking it or approving of the circumstances that have occasioned it. Tell them that while you can’t control Grandpa or “fix” the problems his decision has entailed for the whole family, you can still love him, keep up your relationship with both grandparents, and adjust to new patterns of staying in touch with them.
You can also talk about the concept of the “ripple effect” – that is, how the decisions we make in our lives often end up affecting other people in ways we might never have imagined. You can say something like, “All of us here are feeling the impact of choices Grandpa has made. It hurts us to see what’s happening to him and Grandma, but we have to remember that no one is intentionally trying to cause us pain. Our lives are all closely interconnected. Nothing we do is ever completely ‘private’ or ‘personal.’ Keep this in mind when you grow up and start making big important decisions of your own.”
It might also be a good idea to get beyond mere feelings by asking your children what they think about Grandma and Grandpa’s situation. Confusion, anger, and sadness are normal emotions in a situation like this, but it’s important to bear in mind that there are other dynamics at play as well. In particular, the whole concept of sin and its consequences is coming to life right in front of your children as a result of their grandfather’s choices. You can bring this idea home to the kids by asking them what happens when a person wants something and goes after it without thinking carefully about how his actions might impact others. This is something children can relate to from their own experience.
If you’d like to discuss your concerns at greater length, contact Focus on the Family’s Counseling department for a free consultation.
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