I’d picked him up from his summer program early – one of the perks of being unemployed – to drive over to the local pool to play with a friend and her son. I had no warning the question was coming. He’d been happily telling me about his latest Minecraft adventure when, out of the blue, he asked;
“Mommy, why did you stop loving Daddy?”
My son is seven. It’s been years since I filed for divorce. He’d been so young when we struck out on our own that I hadn’t had to explain much at the time. And I hadn’t expected it to come up later.
Your child’s questions will change and evolve as they age and learn about relationships. As younger children grow older they’re forming their worldview. Simply put, it’s what they believe is true about the world around them. It will encompass religion and spirituality, morality, laws of science like gravity, and beliefs about relationships and love.
It’s inevitable that your divorce will impact those beliefs.
The fact of your divorce is unchangeable. The choices you made during that time can’t be undone. Now you have to choose how to respond to your child’s questions.
Learning to meet our children where they’re at developmentally and guide their worldview is a part of good parenting.
Excited and happy to be going to the pool and hang out with a good friend, I didn’t want to answer his question and ruin my good vibe. But learning to meet our children where they’re at developmentally and guide and form their worldview is a part of good parenting.
“Well,” I took a deep breath, “Humans grow throughout our lives. Not just our bodies, but our brains. Sometimes we grow and make choices that lead us down a different path from the person we married. And we can’t always meet back up with them.”
He asked about how we grow and change, and I talked about a few of the things I’ve learned post-divorce. It wasn’t a long conversation, but my answer appeared to satisfy him. For now.
His simple question reminded me that it had been naive to think he’d never ask about my divorce again. My own life experience had already taught me that lesson.
My parents divorced when I was thirteen. I knew a lot of what happened in our household, though I didn’t put all the pieces together until I had the wisdom of adulthood. But when my first two adult relationships failed spectacularly, I had more questions for my mom.
It was probably painful for her to sit with me that day in the living room and answer questions about a life she’d put behind her. To dredge up painful memories. As a mom now, trying to shield my son from some of the worst of it, I’m sure she winced at how much I’d observed of my parent’s marriage. But she patiently answered and walked me through how those observations had led to worldviews now playing out in my relationships.
You might have thought that, after the first year or so, you’d be done with this part of the divorce process. Based on my own experience as a child of divorce and now a divorced mother, I don’t think we’re ever done. Given that, here are some tips to keep in mind when confronted with common questions.
It’s important to respond with sensitivity and tact. Take your time thinking through your response. You don’t have to respond right away or even in the next few minutes. If it’s been a tough night, tell your child that now isn’t the time but you’ll answer them later. And then follow through.
Choose your words carefully, and ask them how much they remember of your marriage. Their answers can be surprising, but also guide your response and possibly tell you what drove them to ask about it in the first place.
And then you can calmly answer that, while change is tough, your divorce is permanent thing. Acknowledge that it’s tough, but that you have to make the best of it. “Everything is going to be okay,” “We’ll make it through,” “Life will be different, but it will still be good.”
Tune in to hear Dena discuss the stigma of divorce on our podcast “Divorce and Other Things You Can Handle”
Do they fear that you’ll stop loving them? Because their questions and worries could be coming from this place I don’t think it’s a good idea to brush them off permanently, no matter how painful it may be for you to dredge up old memories. They could need reassurances about your love and their self-worth.
Always, always reassure your child that your divorce had nothing to do with them. Whether you use a phrase like I did, that you and your ex grew apart, or we’re happier in our own lives, pull the focus back onto your marriage and off your child. Explain the difference between romantic love and the love between a parent and a child.
“You are the best thing your daddy and I ever did together,” or “We both love you to pieces,” are great phrases to repeat, often, when these types of questions arise.
Your child might be scared of change, or sad. If they’re having to move, they could be losing friends and routines that provided structure in their old life. And this might be the first big event in their life to teach them how little control we sometimes have over our circumstances. Don’t be afraid to ask them what they’re feeling, and be honest (though age appropriate) about your own emotions.
“I know change is scary, honey, but we’ll be okay.” or “It’s hard when things don’t work out, isn’t it?” You can also point out times when change has led to good things in their lives, like getting a spot on the team or going on a fun trip.
Meet your child in their place of questioning and respond as best you can. It’ll probably come up again in a few months, or years, later. With time, you’ll get better at it. And your child will be the better for your willingness to meet their needs with love and understanding.
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