“Mama? Where is Daddy?” Myra’s five-year-old son tugged on the hem of her sweater as she cooked dinner. She looked down from the bubbling pot of macaroni and cheese — the only thing she had the energy to cook that night — into her son’s wide brown eyes. Those eyes were swimming with tears. “Why isn’t Daddy home? Is he ever coming back?” Myra bent down and hugged her son tight. How could she answer her son’s endless questions about why her husband didn’t live with them anymore? She never dreamed she’d have to talk to her kids about a marital affair, an absent parent, and a pending divorce.
Myra’s husband had told her about how he was having an affair a month ago. He had packed a bag and moved out the same night and was now living with the other woman. Myra’s young children were confused about why he wasn’t living with their family any longer. Her husband had been lying to the kids about where he was living and why he had left. This only confused them further. Myra’s brain spun as she tried to navigate these new circumstances. And she had no idea where to begin when it came to talking with her kids.
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How to Talk to Your Kids About Divorce, Marital Affairs, and Absent Parents
A marital affair can be devastating to a family. The sudden absence of a parent can significantly impact the children, and they will ask a thousand questions as they try to make sense of the changes in their family. There is no one easy answer for talking to your kids, as every child and situation is different. If you are facing this difficult situation in your family, here are some things that could help as you talk to your kids after any sort of marital crisis has occurred.
1. Keep Adult Conversations Private
Many conversations and details are not appropriate to share with children. Keep the adult conversations between the adults. Your children do not need to carry the responsibility for the information shared in those conversations any more than they would if the conversation were about a difficult financial situation. Just as you wouldn’t share those financial details with your kids, keep discussing the tough stuff between you and your spouse, a counselor, or other trusted adults.
2. Don’t Badmouth Your Spouse
As you’re navigating how to talk to your kids about divorce, marital affairs, and an absent parent, resist the temptation to badmouth your spouse. While your relationship with your spouse may be in jeopardy, your kids may have the chance to maintain a good relationship with them or restore a broken relationship in the future. You don’t want to do anything to alienate your spouse even further from your kids. Furthermore, badmouthing your spouse will not only impact your child’s relationship with them but with you as well. Stick to the facts, rather than emotions, when talking to your kids about the absent parent. Focus on how the situation impacts them, not you. Try to maintain a positive relationship between the kids and both parents if at all possible.
3. Limit the Details
When your children ask about why there is an absent parent, limit the details you share with them. You do not need to share intimate details of the affair, get down to the nitty-gritty, or share your emotional response to the ordeal. Informing your children of your own emotions can be harmful to their relationship with the other parent. Focus less on the details and more on the fact that your child still has two parents who love them and care about them. If your spouse is entirely absent from your family’s life, reassure your child of your continued love for them.
4. Respond to Emotions
Make it clear that you understand how painful this situation is for your children. As you have opportunities, encourage them to be open about their sadness and anger, but don’t allow them to engage in aggressive or destructive behavior. Writing and journaling are good emotional outlets for older kids. Younger children sometimes find it helpful to express their feelings by drawing pictures. Watch out for the signs that emotions are significantly impacting your child. Some signs could include not eating or sleeping. If you notice these signs, you may consider reaching out to a counselor.
5. Set Appropriate Boundaries
Kids will ask all sorts of questions and often make inquiries that are not appropriate for the parent to answer. As you learn how to talk to kids about divorce and marital affairs, set boundaries for what type of questions you will respond to. Decide with how much detail you will answer them. These boundaries will largely depend on the child’s age and maturity level; however, there will still be details you will not want to share with your kids. If your kids ask a question that crosses these boundaries, you may choose to answer with, “That’s not something I can discuss with you right now, but there may be a time in the future when we can talk about it.”
6. Be Honest
Regardless of age, it is essential to be honest with your kids about what is going on while adhering to the previous suggestions. For example, if your spouse is now living in another state, you can be honest about that. However, you do not need to talk about a new person that he or she is now involved with or living with if he is having an affair. If your spouse shares that information, you can refer them back to the spouse for follow-up questions.
In all cases, if you fear that information that is being shared is damaging to your children or if you are confused about how to respond to ongoing questions, it might be helpful to speak with a counselor with experience and expertise working with couples and families in crisis. Be as open as you can be in view of their ages, maturity, and capacity to understand.
7. Seek Support As You Learn How To Talk to Your Kids About Divorce and Marital Affairs
Realize that you are not alone as you try to navigate these difficult circumstances. Seek out support from pastors, friends, family members, and others who will help you focus on being a loving and nurturing parent and helping your children cope with the effects of a marital crisis.
If you need more help to figure out how to respond to your children, feel free to call the counseling staff here at Focus on the Family for a free consultation session. If the counselor you speak to believes that you would benefit from continued counseling, he or she can refer you to a licensed Christian counselor in your area. You can call 1-855-771-HELP (4357) M-F 6 AM to 8 AM MST to request to speak to a counselor.
The information above can be a great starting point in talking to your kids about a marital affair, absent parent, and divorce. The way you navigate your children’s questions about these circumstances can make all the difference in your child’s future.