“Can you and daddy get married again?”
“Why can’t I stay with you”?
“Do you and mommy still love each other?”
“Whose decision was it to get a divorce?”
Children in divorce often have questions; they can come at the least expected moment. For parents struggling to adjust to the challenges of single parenting in a two-home family, such questions can strike at the heart of their own emotional vulnerabilities and trigger uncertainties regarding their relationship with the other parent, their own parenting, and the wellbeing of their children. However such questions, if responded to thoughtfully, can be valuable opportunities to help children adjust to real changes and instill hope and confidence in both parent’s continued commitment to listen, guide, and give comfort.
Be prepared before questions arise. Understand that:
- Children often ask questions when and with whom they feel safe and consider it as a sign of the strength of your relationship with your child.
- Children’s questions can be about needing actual information, but they can also be about a need for deeper understanding or simply a bid for a parent’s reassurance.
- Younger children often ask questions that have to do with changes and anxieties about their daily lives. They often need simple, brief responses that reassure their fears regarding change.
- Older children may ask direct questions about their parent’s relationships but are actually seeking reassurance for themselves. They may need reassurance that they can continue being children and do not have to care for parents, take sides and can continue their focus on independent goals.
- Older children may also ask questions about their parent’s relationships in order to form their own concepts and expectations of their future romantic relationships and their concepts of love and family.
- Don’t confuse intellectual understanding with emotional understanding in children. Intellectual maturity comes well before emotional maturity. Don’t give children inappropriate adult information.
When questions arise:
- Take a deep breath and calm yourself before responding.
- Resist the attempt to avoid the question due to fear or sadness regarding your child’s pain- Children are not immune from grief and sadness.
- Recognize your emotional reaction regarding the divorce, yet put it aside- you can process any feelings later with your own support.
- For younger children get on eye level and pay full attention
- For older children give signals that you are listening but know that a little less direct approach or a little activity may make older children them more comfortable- you be the judge.
- Ask open-ended, neutral questions to get a fuller understanding of their experience before offering a response:
“You sound worried/sad/mad is that right or is it something else?”
“That’s an important question, tell me more”
- Ask yourself what they are really expressing/wanting/needing.
- Are they primarily expressing emotion-do they need comfort/reassurance?
- Are they asking for basic information that they have a need to know?
- Are they asking information to gain a deeper understanding?
- If the message is an emotional bid for comfort/reassurance, answer the question with a brief, direct response:
“No I will not leave, both daddy and I will always for you even if we live in different houses”
- If they are asking for information that is helpful and not hurtful to them or their relationship with either parent, give a honest, simple and neutral (not blaming to either parent) answer:
“No mom and I are not going to get married again, but we both love you and will always be here to take care of you- we will always be your parents”
- If they are seeking a deeper understanding and the answer is not harmful, first help clarify their deeper question and give honest, brief and neutral information:
“I think your asking if you were made from love- you were. Even if dad and I care for each other differently than when we were married- our love for you will never change”
- If the answer to their question is possibly harmful or “adult business”, reassure them that its okay to ask but that their job is to be a kid- not be involved in adult issues:
“It sounds like you are asking if anyone is to blame. I know you want to understand, but marriage and divorce is adult stuff and we are okay. Know that we love you and you don’t need to worry or take care of either of us”
- If the question is “adult business” but for the older child, really about their own future, first clarify the question and provide an answer to that rather than giving inappropriate adult information:
“I wonder if you are really asking if because we got a divorce that you question if love lasts. Every relationship is different and you will get the chance to make your own choices about love and who you marry”.
Children’s ability to navigate the shifts of daily life and make sense out of the bigger questions are essential parts of healing in divorce. With each question, children begin to build a framework of understanding and learn what divorce changes and what it does not change. They develop a more flexible, durable, concept of family and love. Children’s questions can be hard, but listening and responding with care and gentle guidance is one of the most loving acts a parent can provide.