The Elephant in the Living Room is a concept drawn from alcoholic family system treatment that sometimes applies in divorcing families as well. The idea is that everyone in the family sees the elephant that has come to live in the home but no one talks about it. They just walk around it, flattening themselves against the wall to get by without acknowledging their discomfort.
While some divorcing or divorced parents talk to their children too much about the adult level court proceedings and angry feelings of the parents, there are some who talk too little. What should adults say to children about the divorce? What is appropriate for them to know? How can you answer the difficult questions they may ask?
What Are Children Thinking About the Divorce?
Part of the answer is based on the developmental level of the child. For example, preschoolers may have difficulty understanding what marriage is, let alone divorce. They will need very simple explanations.
All children, however, will be most interested in the fundamental issue of, “What will happen to me?” They need reassurance that parents cannot divorce children and that both parents will continue to love and have contact with the child even if they no longer live together. Having answers about at least the initial arrangements for this contact and a plan for where the children will reside is essential as soon as the kids are told about there being a separation.
Many children are afraid that they have done something to cause the divorce, particularly when they have heard parents fight about their discipline or privileges. Even if you don’t think that’s likely, reassure them, just in case. Often, younger children are afraid to voice this fear because they think that if they call attention to their role in the split, the parent may be angry and get rid of them, too.
Encourage Communication About the Divorce
Keep the lines of communication open when it comes to the divorce. When a (very real) seven year old is calling it “The ‘D’ Word”, as if divorce were a forbidden swear word, how can he possibly ask questions about the things that worried him? If kids aren’t asking, parents must raise and answer the issues for them.
One easy way to do this is to read children’s books about divorce together. The children’s librarian at your local library can suggest some titles for your child’s age. Dinosaur’s Divorce is a classic for younger children. Dr. Richard Gardner’s Boys’ and Girls’ Book About Divorce covers many topics for kids who can read. There are many additional possibilities. Reading such books together gives you an opportunity to discuss the issues and find out whether your child shares the ideas presented.
Answering the “Why?” Question
Most children will at some point ask the dreaded question, “Why?” You may be tempted to blame their other parent for causing the divorce, particularly if he or she has been unfaithful or otherwise displayed poor behavior. Breathe deeply, count to 20 (or 2000, if necessary) and take the high road.
Children need to love both of their parents. Regardless of how badly your spouse has treated you, his or her relationship with your children is separate and different from the relationship with you. He or she didn’t leave “us”, he left you. Children feel criticism of their parent as if it were criticism of themselves. After all, half of their biological makeup came from that other parent.
If you can’t talk badly about your spouse to the children, how do you explain the break-up? A simple and truthful answer may be enough, at least initially. “Your mother/father and I weren’t happy living together. We disagreed about many things. You may have heard us arguing sometimes. Even though we loved each other very much when you were born, that changed, and now we will be living apart and will no longer be married to each other.”
With time, especially for older children, you will need to be more specific. This does not mean you should tell them all the dirty details of what went wrong. Often, it is difficult for us as adults to really understand what went wrong and we may need time and a therapist to clearly recognize our own role in the marital deterioration.
Some short, general summary of the problem may be useful to your child. A few possibilities are: differences in values, different ideas about how to manage money, alcohol or drug problems that kept the spouse from being a good husband/wife and parent, one person fell in love with someone else (careful here, no bashing and remember that children should not know about their parents’ sex lives), mental illness that interfered with spousal and/or parenting roles. (Don’t make assumptions based in your anger. Use this last one only if there is a professional diagnosis.) There could be many others.
The idea is to avoid a lot of blaming. Problems such as substance addiction or psychological issues should be described as illnesses rather than as moral shortcomings. Most professionals involved in treatment of these areas would agree that this viewpoint is accurate.
Talking About the Other Parent
By now, you are conscientiously avoiding put-downs of your child’s other parent. But what do you say when the child comes home and complains about their Mom/Dad? Or, even more tempting, their Mom or Dad’s new love interest? First, you remind yourself that, in spite of your golden opportunity, this child needs to get along with his other parent and with whomever that parent has chosen to become involved. Letting the child vent may be helpful to him, but joining in his complaint can backfire on you. He may change his mind tomorrow or continue to like that person even though he is angry at the moment. If you take a negative position against the person, the child will no longer be able to come to you to talk about them.
The best thing to say is usually something like, “It sounds like you have a problem with Dad/Mom. I think you will need to sit down and have a talk with him/her about this. Do you think you should do it over the phone or wait until you see him/her again?” If the child doesn’t feel he can do either, ask if he’d like to write a letter instead and take care of making sure it gets mailed for him. If you have a good relationship with your ex-spouse, you may be able to say to him or her in a non-blaming way, “Joshua seems angry about ___. You may want to talk to him about it.” This leaves an opening for your ex to explain the situation to you if he chooses, or at least to be alert to your child’s feelings.
It is inevitable that you and your ex-spouse will disagree about some parenting decisions. Barring actual reportable abuse or neglect, you have no control over what happens on the other parent’s time with your
child. When Brittany comes home and tells you, “Dad/Mom lets me…” your response should not be a criticism of parental behavior. (You can vent later when you are alone with your friends or relatives.) Your child cannot control what their other parent does any more than you can, so your reply needs to be something like, “Your mother/father and I disagree about that. When you are at my house, this is how we will be doing it. When you’re at his/her house, you will do it his/her way.”
With care, you can talk to your children about the divorce in a supportive, open way that will help all of you to grow and heal from this difficult transition.
Thalia Ferenc, LMSW is a clinical social worker in private practice in Kentwood, Michigan, a suburb of Grand Rapids. She developed and for twelve years led an eight week repeating program for children of divorce and their parents at a time when there were no services specific to this population in Western Michigan. She holds Diplomate status with the National Association of Clinical Forensic Counselors and frequently is involved with court related issues such as custody and parenting time decisions. This article is adapted from her monthly e-newsletter for parents of divorce and separation. No charge, spam-free subscriptions are available by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org