Children are experts at asking all the difficult questions pertaining to life, often ones that parents are most unsure about themselves or most reluctant to answer. The subject of divorce is no different. Parents should expect to field some difficult questions and even hear some hurtful comments. Here are some of the more prominent ones, along with guidelines about how you should respond to them.
Common Questions Children Have About Divorce
Why Can’t You Just Say You’re Sorry and Make Up?
Perhaps one of the biggest social scars divorce leaves upon children is the newfound comprehension of irreconcilable differences. Children are under a couple of important impressions: 1) Family is forever, and 2) When you hurt someone, you say you’re sorry and the other person forgives you and everything is fine again. After all, the latter is a concept children are taught by virtually every adult around them, especially parents and teachers. So especially among younger children, the idea that a situation should arise that can’t be smoothed over with the proper apologies violates a core tenet in their view of the world. To say this revelation is frightening would be an understatement.
There is no easy way around this, and certainly no easy explanations that will smooth it over. But here are some guidelines to help you field such questions:
- Expect this to take time to sink in. If you’re in the process of overturning a child’s core assumptions about life, their perceptions won’t change overnight. They may ask the question again and again. You may have to explain again and again. Be prepared for this, and be patient.
- Explain that it’s not just one thing, one fight, one argument, etc., that is leading to the divorce. It’s an ongoing escalation of conflict and a steady deterioration of the relationship between you.
- Explain that while neither of you intend to hurt the other person, that’s what keeps happening. Saying you’re sorry and forgiving is great for past hurts, but sometimes that doesn’t prevent the same problems from recurring over and over again in the future. You’re not divorcing because of what was said or done in the past, but because you each want a better future; one in which you’re not hurting each other and being angry with each other all the time.
- Reassure the child that they are not a source of hurt for either parent, but a source of love and affection, and the best part of their marriage together. Therefore neither parent will ever get a “divorce” from the child. They may do things wrong from time to time, and may make mom or dad disappointed on occasion, but there is no possible way they could ever become a source of continued hurt for either parent. They are a source of love and joy to you, and neither parent will ever want to divorce them.
- Reinforce the principles about adult relationships being different than child relationships, as outlined in our section on explaining what divorce means.
Difficult statements or accusations children may make about the divorce
When a Child Blames One Parent for the Divorce
This is all your fault, Mom / Dad! It’s not unusual for a child to break down in tears and start blaming one parent or the other whom they feel is responsible for the split-up. Divorces usually come out of family conflict that has been escalating for a while, and children often develop ideas during this buildup to the divorce about who is more at fault. Older kids may even be aware of one parent’s infidelity or other transgressions. If you hear such a statement, it’s important you do the following:
A) Don’t lose your temper, if you’re the targeted parent. Regardless of how hurt you feel, the worst thing you could do is get upset at the child. This will only reinforce her views and further create a disconnect.
B) If you’re discussing this together as you should be, the other parent needs to step in and accept half the blame. As gratifying as it may feel to hear your youngster blame things on your soon-to-be ex, it isn’t helpful, and it isn’t accurate. Even if one parent did contribute more to the disharmony, it always takes two to divorce.
C) Make it clear (if you can) that this is a mutual decision, but don’t lie to them if it isn’t. By mutual, we mean that both partners have decided it best to end the relationship; not who is more at fault for the relationship ending.
D) If one parent is demanding a divorce, but the other would like to stay in the marriage, be honest to them about this. But don’t turn it into a blame game to attack the other partner or send them down a guilt-trip. A marriage is two people, and if one feels they can’t continue, those are their feelings. It doesn’t mean they should shoulder all the blame.
E) Let kids know that sometimes things just happen. The reality is that nobody needs to be “to blame.” Explain to the child that neither of you intended for the marriage to go like this. When you got married, both of you had the desire to stay married. Since neither of you intended for things to turn crappy, it also means that neither of you were trying to make things crappy. Since there is no malicious intent involved, it does no good to cast blame on accidents. More importantly, it accomplishes nothing more than to make everyone feel worse.
When Children Say:
If You Loved Me, You Wouldn’t Get Divorced
Children say things like this because you’re hurting them, and parents need to understand and acknowledge this. You’re hurting them more than anybody has ever hurt them, which is why they have a hard time remaining neutral about it. It’s hard for them to reconcile ideas of parental love with the hurt they feel inside over the actions their parents are putting them through, especially in the case of young children.
So in response, you need to find ways to depersonalize the hurt that they feel. To begin with, you need to provide lots of empathy. It’s important to acknowledge and accept their feelings:
- “I can see this is hurting you.”
- “I wish I could change what’s happening, but I can’t.”
- “It makes me feel horrible inside to know how much this is hurting you.”
- “I know you’re feeling upset, and I can certainly understand why.”
- “I remember how upset I felt when my parents got divorced.”
- “I cry and cry when I think about how this is making you feel.”
Such statements provide reassurance that their feelings are important to you, and that you haven’t simply stopped caring abut them.
Next, redirect the expressions of love in ways you can follow through with: “While I can’t stop this from happening, what I can do is show you how much I love you in other ways.” Then proceed to do so. Even if you feel you’re a loving and affectionate parent to begin with, which you very well may be, go out of your way to double it up. Hug them twice as much as you normally would. Tell them you love them twice as much. Tell them what you love about them. Spend more time with them at bedtime. Set aside special time to play with them. Make arrangements to do special activities with the kids. Whatever you can do to express your love and affection, go out of your way to do it.
Parents often assume that their love for their children is obvious, and that their kids surely know how much they love them. I can tell you from working with thousands of kids: children aren’t as secure in their love as parents believe them to be. Children are extremely sensitive to any signs of lost affection. It’s hardwired into their nature. When times are good, kids know their parents love them and would readily tell you so. But it doesn’t take much turmoil for them to start to question this and become insecure about it all. Because a child’s very survival depends on maintaining their parents’ affection, children are hypersensitive towards any sign of possible rejection or abandonment in the same way that rabbits are sensitive to the shadow of a hawk.
Kids may also say such things as a way to test a parent’s love for them.
You just informed them that family isn’t forever, (or at least that’s how they often take news of a divorce), and that people who love each other can just stop loving each other and leave. This is a message that uproots their very foundation for life. Divorce is a perfect storm to throw their attitudes about parental love into question. This leaves them feeling extremely insecure, and so when children say such things, they may only be looking for additional confirmation to quell their insecurities and affirm that you’re always going to love them.
As a consequence, it’s also important to stress that you’ll love them when they’re naughty as well as when they’re good, and that there is nothing they could do that would cause you to abandon them. Tell them you’ll always love them, no matter what happens. Explain that a parent’s love for their child is stronger than any other type of love there is, and that there is nothing they could ever do to break it. This is especially important when family conflict preceded the divorce. Kids may become terrified that if they do something wrong or fight with their parents, it might result in mom or dad leaving them, too, just as was the case in the time leading up to the divorce.