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Kids' Questions on Divorce

When parents separate, it can be more important to affirm kids than factually answer some very tough questions

Answering our kids' questions can be daunting. But it's even harder for single parents, who are confronted with: "Why do you have to get a divorce?" or "Why can't we stay together as a family?"

When we see our child's hurt and pain, our first instinct may be to either defend ourselves or the other parent – or express our anger and frustration.

For instance, when a child says, "Why didn't Mom call me last week like she said she would, Dad?" a father may respond in defense of the mom, saying, "Well, she probably got busy, but I know she loves you." Or, he may be angry and say something like, "I think your mom is more interested in her boyfriend these days than in you – you're better off without her."

One answer tries to unrealistically protect the child's feelings. The other answer is simply a response in anger that makes the dad feel better, but is going to add to the child's feelings of hurt and pain.

How should parents answer these difficult and very adult-like questions?

A kid's perspective

First of all, understand your child's view – and what they're really asking. Children are self-centered by nature. In their minds, the world revolves around them. So, when anything is going right or wrong in their lives, their natural conclusion is that it must have something to do with them.

That's why kids so easily think that divorce is their fault. Their thought process goes something like: "If I am the center of the universe and something is going wrong in my world, I am at the center of the problem." Adults know nothing could be further from the truth. But kids' logic differs greatly.

Likewise, when they think or hear bad things about their parents, they internalize the negative and wonder what their parents' behavior says about them.

So, when a child asks, "Where has Dad been for the last three months, Mom?" he's not really wanting a rundown. If Mom says, "Well, I think he spent two weeks in rehab and now I think he's living with his girlfriend," she's not getting at the heart of the real question – and is probably causing additional pain and suffering in her child.

Given what we know about a child's perspective, he's is really asking, "Doesn't my dad care about me? Have I done something wrong?" Ultimately, all of these questions are really asking, "Am I OK?"

The right response

If the real question is, "Am I OK?" then the correct answer needs to send the messages, "You are OK. You are lovable. You are worthy." When a child asks, "Why do you have to get a divorce?" he's more likely asking, "What did I do wrong? Don't you love me enough to stay together?"

Instead of listing reasons, say something like, "I know this is difficult to understand and I am sorry you are feeling sad (or angry, confused) about this. But no matter what decisions the adults are making, it says nothing about who you are. You didn't cause this and you cannot make it better. You are a great kid and I love you no matter what."

When a child asks, "Why did Mom have to leave?" or exclaims, "Dad never tells me the truth!" it's very important to respond, "I don't know why Mom made the decision she did" or "I can't tell you why your father did that, but I can tell you had nothing to do with who you are." In other words, "I cannot speak for the other parent, but I can speak about what I know and that is you are an awesome child."

Kids who grow up not knowing – or feeling unworthy of – unconditional love struggle with self-esteem as adults and will likely make poor future choices. That's less likely when parents protect their kids' self-worth by answering questions sensitively.

When kids ask tough questions, they aren't looking for complicated answers. They are looking for affirmation, not information.

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