What happens when you tell your spouse, "Oh, by the way honey I had an extra-marital affair and did I mention I had a child too". It leads to some difficult dinner conversations to say the least. As a creative parenting expert my concern is how to help children cope with such a family bombshell of betrayal or infidelity.
This story resonates with so many, as it is likely you have experienced someone you loved sharing a betrayal or you have revealed a family secret to your loved ones. Regardless if you are the one betrayed or the betrayer, breaking someone's trust or having your trust broken often stirs up feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness and blame.
Arnold, Maria, and Arnold's mistress are all impacted by this public revelation, and as adults they have the opportunity to make decisions and communicate what they feel, but what happens to their children? How will they process this monumental moment when their lives have dramatically shifted and they have little control over the circumstances?
Here are 3 tips to help your children when their lives are in upheaval because of a betrayal or infidelity:
1. Communicate as a couple with your children and let them know what's happening and why. Children will intuitively pick-up on when there is a problem in your relationship, and it does not help to perpetuate a lie or secret. Share with your children what is happening in a neutral way, without yelling, blaming or shaming the other person. Be aware of your child's developmental age and how much information is too much. If it is possible, have both parents present when you are sharing information and allow your children an opportunity to ask questions. It may be difficult to share information when you are feeling angry and hurt, so ask for support from a therapist to help you share information in the best interest of your children. Here's my advice for Maria and Arnold: sit the children down and calmly share what has happened and allow the children to ask questions.
2. If you are the one who has been betrayed it is essential that you seek out support and allow yourself sometime to process your experience. Your family will be impacted by this information and it's helpful for children to know what will happen next. If you are still reeling from emotions it will be difficult to make a rational decision that best serves you and your children. Children desire to feel safe and secure and when a betrayal occurs they may become anxious and easily overwhelmed. They will likely want to know what's next, so be prepared to talk with them about what will happen next when you and your partner discuss the situation. Here's my advice for Maria and Arnold: be clear on what will happen next and relay this to the children. Be concrete if at all possible, such as where they would be moving to, when, if it is permanent, what will happen with their schooling, would they have their own bedrooms, and when they would be able to see their mother or father. The more information your provide the more you can introduce a sense of control and normalcy into this time of transition.
3. Provide your child with outlets for self-expression outside of your relationship. At times they may want to talk with you and ask you questions, and other times they may seem like they don't care at all. Children will often mask their feelings, especially if they are worried about upsetting their parents or they feel like when they talk you put their other parent down. Every child is different, and if you notice changes in their behaviors or grades then it is time to seek out additional support. In the meantime, tell them you are willing to talk and listen to whatever they have to say. Allow your child an opportunity to talk without interrupting and take time to actively listen by stopping what you are doing and giving them your full attention. During this time it may be helpful to encourage your child to express themselves through art, play or sports- these are natural ways children process emotions and experiences. My advice to Maria and Arnold: no matter where they are living, ensure that their children are able to attend their regularly scheduled activities, even if it means driving them across town; while you are driving your children turn off the radio and listen to them instead.
In life there are moments when your life as you know it shifts completely, and what you once believed to be true changes dramatically. During this most difficult experience there is an opportunity to help your children learn to cope with change and upheaval. These 3 tips will help your child when your lives are turned upside-down by betrayal and infidelity.
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