Family

How to Explain Divorce to Kids

Assure them they are loved, first and foremost — then take these other key steps

Divorce affects the foundation of so many families today. If it has not affected yours, it’s likely your kids have friends who have been affected — or perhaps you yourself are the product of divorce.

A few years ago, I discovered the unthinkable: My husband was having an affair with a person I knew and trusted. Though I was willing to reconcile in spite of other issues as well, my husband chose to move on and eventually married the woman he had strayed with. My children and I were left with a sense of loss and despair.

Related: Divorce with the Kids in Mind

I was always sensitive to our being labeled a “broken home.” Though I may have felt broken from the experience, our home was still stable — still intact — though it has taken quite a bit of therapy for me to see it as such.

When my son was in kindergarten, I volunteered at his elementary school one day, and at the time he was elsewhere with his dad. One of his friends asked, “Ms. Liz, where is your son?” I told him he was at his dad’s house. The child, coming from a family not affected by divorce, seemed confused. I explained to him, as his mother stood nearby, that my son’s father and I lived in separate houses, and that families take various forms. His mother sat back and allowed her son to ask questions, and allowed me to answer them honestly.

I was blown away — not just by the sheer curiosity of this child, but by the willingness of his mother to allow him to interact with me as he explored his curiosity about this different kind of family. This was a growing experience for me, and allowed me to address within myself the idea of answering questions from my own children about our household.

Don’t shy away from pertinent and meaningful conversations.

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How do you explain divorce? How can it be explained to younger children, especially when it goes so far beyond one’s own worldview and belief system? The reality is that in some situations, it is unavoidable — I couldn’t make my husband stay. And that stung. It stung for me as a mother as I explained it to my own children and as I made peace within myself. And because I was able to honestly address it, it began to sting a bit less each time we talked about it.

When your children come home with concerns about their friends’ parents — and that day will come — they will rightfully have concerns about their own family, too. It is important not to shy away from these pertinent and meaningful conversations. Children desire stability, and when there is fear it could be taken away, it shakes the very core of their being.

The best thing to do is to really hear them. Ask them how they might love and encourage their friends. Let them know that while this may happen a lot (my daughter frequently reminds me of the growing statistics — that almost half of American children come from divorced homes), it does not mean it is going to happen to your family.

Related: Most Surprising Expectations from Wives

You can reassure your children that you and your spouse are fine — that no one is going anywhere. You can simply vocalize this to them, saying, “Daddy and I are very happy together,” or, “Even though we may argue from time to time, your mother and I are committed to loving one another.”

What is even more powerful, though, is living a life of love with your spouse that is evident to your children. Go out of your way to help your spouse — clean up after dinner, pick up a small gift, hug one another in front of the kids. And when you argue, be sure to show them how you reconcile.

‘While divorce is common, there is a real fear in children that must be addressed and comforted,” Rhonda Huthmacher, a Charlotte, North Carolina, marriage and family therapist, told LifeZette. “Children need and deserve to know that no matter what happens, they will be taken care of.”

Huthmacher also conveyed the importance of showing children your capacity for reconciliation as a couple. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, on the base level, tells us that security is one of the most basic human needs. Children need to know their lives are stable and that you as a parent are committed to providing that for them.

Related: When Divorce Isn’t Ugly

If, however, you are in the unfortunate situation of having an unstable marriage, it can seem nearly impossible to still function as a parent. The best way to do this? Care for yourself. Like the instructions given on an airplane, you can’t help those around you during time of emergency if you aren’t first fitted with your own oxygen mask first.

Remember you are not alone. Remember your responsibility is to your children. Remember they, too, need to know they are loved.

So, whether you are in a phenomenally functioning marriage, one that may seem to be dissolving — or if you have already experienced divorce — the first goal is stability for your children. Show them love by letting them know that “all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord.”

If you or loved ones are in a struggling marriage, reach out. It’s OK to say you’re not OK. Many therapists accept health insurance and many universities offer either free or inexpensive counseling through their residency programs. Many agencies offer 24-7 counseling hotlines. Don’t be afraid to seek help.

Liz Logan lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her growing family. She is pursuing a master’s degree in creative nonfiction.

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