Answering Kids’ Difficult Questions
Children in divorce and separation often have questions and they can arrive at the least expected moment.
For coParents adjusting to new challenges, such questions can strike at the heart of emotional vulnerabilities and trigger uncertainties: What’s going on with the other parent? Am I doing something wrong? Are my kids OK if they’re asking these things? Kid questions, if responded to thoughtfully, provide valuable opportunities to help children adjust to real changes while instilling confidence in both parents’ continued commitment to listen, guide, and give comfort.
Some questions may be:
“Can you and daddy get married again?”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but no, Daddy and I aren’t going to get married again. It’s hard for all of us to get used to, but it will get easier with time and working together. Just remember, we are still your family, even though we’ve changed to a two-home family.”
“Why can’t I stay with you all the time?”
“Oh, Buddy, I love being with you, too. So does Mommy. It’s hard to say goodbye but I know that when you’re not with me you are being loved and having fun with Mommy. I’m happy that you have both of us that love you so much. I’ll see you really soon, and we’ll have a great time on Thursday.”
“Do you and Mommy still love each other?”
“Mommy and I LOVE being your parents. We’re the luckiest mommy and daddy in the world. We don’t love each other like married people do, but I love that she’s your mom. We both love you and always will.”
How does any parent handle the difficult emotions that come up with these sorts of questions? With a lot of deep breaths and practice. We’re not going to suggest there’s anything easy about separating adult issues from kid questions, but we do know with thought, practice, and clarity that children don’t belong in the middle of adult relationship issues, you’ll find yourself much more successful than you ever imagined.
Expecting these kinds of questions can help you feel confident and prepared. Children often ask questions when and with whom they feel safe. Consider it as a sign of strength for your relationship. Children may be seeking information, deeper understanding, or simply reassurance — try to discern which it might be.
• Younger children often ask questions about their daily lives — changes or concerns that are causing anxiety. Provide simple, brief responses that reassure and clarify.
• Older children may ask direct questions about their parents’ relationships.
• They are often seeking reassurance for themselves — reassurance that they can continue being children, and reassurance that they don’t have to take care of parents or take sides.
• Older children may also ask questions about a parent’s relationship in order to form their own concepts and expectations of their future romantic relationships — they have more general questions about love and family.
• Because children don’t have the emotional maturity to understand adult relationships, be thoughtful that your answers are age-appropriate. Teens may ask very direct questions, seeming to be ready for the truth, and you may find it wise to say, “That’s something time and experience can teach you. For now, your dad and I…” (providing a simple, respectful answer).
When questions arise:
1. Center: Take a deep breath and calm yourself before responding.
2. Listen: For younger children get on their eye level and pay full attention. For older children, give signals that you are listening, but know that a little activity may make them more comfortable. You be the judge. Ask open-ended, neutral questions to get a fuller understanding of their feelings 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.”
3. Understand: 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? Sometimes children repeat the same question because they’re wondering if things will change again. They’re just testing (still the same today?).
4. Respond with care and follow with comfort: If the message is an emotional bid for comfort/reassurance, answer the question with a brief, direct response: “No we will not leave you. Either Daddy or I will take care of you even if we live in different houses.”
If they are asking for information that clarifies uncertainty or corrects a misunderstanding, give an honest, simple, and neutral (not blaming either parent). Answer: “No, Mom and I are not going to get married again: I know that’s what you want. I’m sorry, Mom and I have made this decision.”
If they are seeking a deeper understanding, first clarify your understanding of their deeper question and give honest, brief, and neutral information: “I think you’re asking if you were made from love — you were. Even if Dad and I care for each other differently now than we did then — our love for you will never change.”
If your answer to their question is possibly harmful or “adult business,” reassure them that it’s okay to ask, but that their job is to be a kid — not be involved in adult issues: “It sounds as if you are asking if anyone is to blame. I know you want to understand, but marriage and divorce/separation is adult stuff. We’re all going to be okay. Know that we love you; you don’t need to worry or take care of either of us.”
If the question is “adult business” (for example, an affair) asked by an older teen/young adult, they may be wondering about their own future. Clarify first and then provide an answer that instills hope and possibility: “I wonder if you are really asking if because we got a divorce/separation that you question if love lasts. Many times it does. 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/separation. With each question, children begin to build a framework of understanding. They learn what changes with divorce/separation and what remains the same. 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 surrounds a child with love and reassurance in times they need it most.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Karen Bonnell’s book, THE CO-PARENTS’ HANDBOOK. For more information on Karen or her book, visit http://coachmediateconsult.com/co-parents-handbook/