Children of all ages are aware of their parent's actions. Often, parents think that the kids are young and that they don't understand—but they do.
When parents are unhappy with one another, the kids know it. Parents often think that they are "protecting" their children from the reality of their situations by not talking to their spouse about issues in front of the kids. But even if a couple doesn't overtly fight in front of their children, they can pick up a chilly vibe, a tense environment, or a hostile feeling.
Children know their parents very well, and are generally very tuned in to what is going on in the household. After all, they are dependent on their parents for love and support, and they want to feel secure.
Be honest with them. Taking their ages into account, parents should be honest and tell children the truth, as best they can understand it. For example, even a three-year-old can understand basic issues. If daddy is not around much, a three-year-old will notice, and will ask for daddy. The answer that daddy is working, when in fact he has another apartment, is dishonest. These parents need to tell the child that daddy is living in another apartment and will be coming over tomorrow (or whenever) to see you.
If children are lied to in one area, they will not trust you at other times. They will not know when you are being honest and when you are not. This is particularly true with older children, who are very aware of relationships. Since the divorce rate is 50%, most children know other kids who have divorced parents. It is not uncommon for kids to ask parents who are fighting a lot if they are getting a divorce. And parents should not say, "oh no," when it may be a real possibility. A better answer is, "we are trying to work on our relationship, and we're not sure if we're staying together; but no matter what, we love you and you have nothing to do with our issues."
While being honest with children is very important, being wise about what is said is also vital.
Children should not be given information they will not be able to understand and process. For example, if one partner in a couple had an affair and that precipitated the break up, it is not advisable to share that information with a child. Chances are if there was an affair, there were many problems, and speaking more generally would be helpful. It is important to help children not take sides in a break up. Children love both of their parents, and it is healthy for children to have relationships with both of them.
Reassuring the children that they are not the cause of the problems is of primary importance. Children often feel guilty, particularly if they are disobedient kids and get yelled at. They may feel like if they behaved better, their parents would not be fighting. It is so important to let kids know that this is not the case. Parental issues are grown-up issues and do not have to do with the children.
The other important factor in helping the children is to reassure them that they will always be loved by both of their parents, even if the parents don't seem to love one another. It can be scary for kids to see a parent withdraw love and affection from their spouse, feeling that might happen to them. To reassure children, it is important to give the kids extra affection and tell them how much they are loved.
It can also be said that love for children is different than grown-up love; and that sometimes grown ups don't love each other so much, and aren't so nice to each other, but parents will always love their children.
Written by Barbara Rothberg
Barbara Rothberg specializes in working with clients to help them resolve conflicts and navigate transitions in their lives. She is a couple and family therapist, divorce coach and child specialist, and mediator. She received her MSW in 1975 and her DSW, doctorate in Social Work in 1984. Throughout the years, she also received advanced training at the Ackerman Institute for the Family and The Family Institute of Westchester, as well as completing the EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) externship. Barbara completed Mediation Training from the Institute for Mediation in Law. Learn more at BarbaraRothberg.com.