“Why do Tommy’s parents live in separate houses?”
“Why does David’s dad live in Missouri, but his mom lives in Iowa?”
“What’s a stepsister? Why does Betsy have a stepdad?”
Perhaps your kids have asked you questions similar to these. Being a parent often means answering some tough questions and helping little ones understand things even we as adults might find confusing. Divorce can be difficult for anyone to understand, and even if you’re not going through a divorce yourself, it’s likely that your children, at some point, will hear the news that someone—a friend or family member—is getting divorced. When children hear about divorce, they will likely have questions about what it means and if it could happen to your family.
When I was eight years old, my parents separated and then divorced within the year. You can read more about my “dysfunctional” family here. I clearly remember the night my parents sat us down to tell us my dad was leaving and they didn’t know when or if he’d be back. I wasn’t a stranger to divorce—another family from our church had recently gone through a divorce—but I remember being in denial, assuming my dad would be back home in time for our church Christmas program later that month. But that night, I didn’t ask many questions and I showed almost no emotion.
Now, as a parent myself, I think about how difficult it must have been for my mom and dad to plan for how they were going to deliver this significant news. My kids have not only been exposed to divorce in our church and our community, but I’ve also had to explain to them my own somewhat complicated family tree. They understand that some of their grandparents used to be married but now they aren’t anymore and that they’re each remarried to another one of their grandparents. They know that some of my siblings and I have the same parents, and some of us don’t. And you know what? They don’t care about those details. All of their grandpas and grandmas, aunts and uncles, and cousins are all the same to them—we don’t use the term half or step when referencing our family members. To my kids, and to all of us, we are just family.
Here are some of my thoughts for how to tell your kids about your own divorce:
If this is your own divorce:
Be prepared for a variety of emotions. Kids will respond differently to the news. Not all kids will be sad right away, and some may have emotions we might consider inappropriate. The range of emotions will likely change daily and weekly. Be ready and willing to walk with your child through all the emotions, and if you feel like you can’t, enlist the help of a professional.
Plan ahead. Think about what you’re going to say ahead of time and know how you’re going to explain what is happening.
Present a united front. Both parents should be on the same page and communicate the same message to the children. Co-parenting will be your main priority for a while and your kids need to see, right away, that you can put aside your differences to communicate as their parents. This is not a time for blaming or pointing fingers.
Answer questions as honestly as possible. If you’re not sure what the future holds, tell them that. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. If you’re taking a temporary separation, don’t promise that you’ll get back together. Don’t promise that your children will see each parent equally after the divorce. Again, be as honest as possible and if there are things about the logistics related to custody and visitation that you don’t know the details of, be clear with your kids that those details will be worked out as soon as possible and with their best interests in mind.
Reinforce that the divorce is not their fault. Young children especially often assume that a divorce means they did something wrong, or they start to think they could have done something differently to prevent their parents’ separation or divorce. Children need to hear that this decision has nothing to do with them and that both parents love them and will continue to love them regardless of their marital status.
Recognize that the age of the child(ren) makes a difference. My brother and I were little—seven and eight with fairly limited developmental understanding of the ways of the world. But my sister was fifteen, a teenager with a different way of interacting with and understanding her world. By the time they sat down to tell my brother and me, they had already told my sister.
Be united as parents. Divorce can often be painful, and the hurt it causes can lead spouses (or former spouses) to feel very angry and resentful toward each other. The best thing you can do for your kids is to put that anger and resentment behind you and work on your co-parenting relationship. Put your kids’ needs ahead of your disagreements with your ex-spouse. Your kids need to see that even if you’re no longer together or married, you can put aside your differences and get along for the good of your children.
If you’re trying to help your kids understand divorce in general, try to refrain from judgment. Even if you have an opinion about the relationship status of the couple or family your child is asking about, it’s best to keep those opinions to yourself. Pray for the family—for the spouses and the children—and teach your children to as well. Be a listening ear to them rather than a judgmental spirit.
Ultimately, it’s important to teach your kids that even divorce is able to be redeemed by the grace of God. Any family, no matter how broken, can experience God’s redemptive mercies. Isaiah 61:3 says, “… provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Our God is in the business of making beauty from ashes. Family brokenness and divorce are not beyond God’s redemptive plan for his creation.
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Thanks, Erin. This is a difficult issue that families need to address in life. I appreciate your advice and wisdom from your personal experience.
I don’t disagree with this advice, but I can’t help but think it suggests an ideal scenario that is typically contradictory to the reality of divorce as well as the traditional ideal of marriage in its moral and sacred dimensions. If a united front free of expressed conflict, guilt, shame, and resentment is the healthiest response for the children and adults, doesn’t a successful outcome very likely mean repressing and denying the fact that the marriage has in fact failed at sustaining these qualities even if it is a “no fault” situation? If the couple appears capable of an ideal, amicable breakup, it’s hard to explain why the marital bond cannot be preserved. Either the amity is a veneer and there are real rifts that need to be acknowledged and dealt with somewhere or the couple is splitting up for reasons that are shy of a complete breakdown of trust and good will. Either way the idea of marriage shifts in the direction of a merely legal contract that can be formed and dissolved at will. If we do not take Jesus’ statement on the matter (divorce for reasons other than adultery is adultery) as definitive for all time — and I personally do not think we can — we also cannot ignore the challenge it poses.
I understand our situation today is complicated historically by a past in which marriage and divorce laws significantly disenfranchised women. For instance, marital rape was “not a thing” and therefore legal in all fifty states, a position explicitly upheld by the supreme court in the 1950s-60s. Our corrective reaction as a society ushered in the era of no-fault divorce where a maximum of freedom replaced a minimum. It’s good to focus on the well-being of the children and diminution of conflict, but in the process we appear to lose and have not replaced or reformed the old, albeit faulty, sacred ideal of marriage. How should we affirm the sacredness of marriage while also trying to minimize the stigma and divisiveness of divorce?