Divorce - Does Your Child Need to Know Everything?

How Much Truth Can Kids Handle?

Posted Sep 12, 2011

The Value of Truth:

Truth is a great value, but it is not the only value by which we live. When it comes to kids, their health and well-being trumps everything else. We bring them into the world fresh and innocent. If you're going through a divorce, your children were probably born into an intact family. This is what they know - a solid, caring team who loves them.

Much will change with a divorce. A child is no longer able to be with both of their parents at the same time, and under the same roof. Their sense of security is challenged as they are forced to adapt to a new way of life.

Children Require Protection:

Do you really want to tell them all of the truth? Do you need to tell them all of it? Should they know that their father had an affair and left their mother (and them)? Do you want them to know about their mother's alcoholism, or that Mom and Dad haven't had sex for the last ten years? I'm not so sure.

There are two key assumptions that underpin the relationship between truth and an intelligent divorce: there is a lot in life that should be private, and parents need to protect their kids' innocence. This means that they need not know everything, and that explicit details are often better left unsaid. In my mind, their mental health often trumps the truth.

This opinion is not always embraced by parents, particularly by those parents who feel victimized in a divorce. This is understandable. If you are hurt or angry, you may want your child to carry the same opinion about your ex-spouse. Your child should know that his father is a bad man, and, most importantly, that he did wrong by his family. But here's something to remember: your children are not you. They are entitled to their own opinions. Twenty years from now, your adult child will have perspective to reflect on what happened. In the meantime, a childhood spent with both parents, unencumbered by information that is too hot to handle, is the best recipe for a good life after divorce.

The Truth of Innocence:

So what about the truth? In most cases, it's best to keep the full truth to yourself because it's safe to say that the truth hurts. A thirteen year old obviously processes information about her parents differently than does a thirty year old. Yet, when you come home late at night, tired and upset, there she is waiting to talk to you. Just be careful what you say.  We have an obligation to provide our kids with a childhood that is as innocent as possible. It is not a perfect world, but innocence is a principle that really counts.

Now, if a parent is violent, disturbed, or grossly mismanaging a child, his access needs to be limited. That's what the courts are for. If your child is exposed to wonton and dangerous behavior - like an alcoholic rage or abuse - there will be a need for her to understand what's happening, including that Mommy or Daddy has a problem. In these dire cases, when a parent is periodically out of control, it is wise to have a therapist work with you and your children. They may need a neutral adult with whom to share their worries; this way your children will not feel like they have to choose sides. In these unhappy scenarios, you too may benefit from a therapist in order to gain some perspective on what needs to be said. You don't want to poison the kids against their other parent, but you do need to keep them safe and psychologically grounded.

Children will ultimately come to their own conclusion about their parents. If a parent is selfish and withdrawn, most children will eventually understand. And if a parent is heavy handed in criticism of the other parent, it may come back to haunt them many years down the road. It's simply their call whether your children have negative opinions about their mother or father, not yours.

At the end of the day, it's their relationship. And that, my friends, is the truth.

Morten says:

I agree that explicit details sometimes are better left unsaid, however I think that often the truth is to be preferred to either a “white lie” or, even worse, to completely ignore a situation. “Do you want them to know about their mother’s alcoholism?” Why not? Depends on a lot of things of course, the children’s age, the consequences of the alcoholism and so on, but why not give a truthful, children adopted, explanation of mom’s irrational behavior? Ignoring the problem just makes the children confused and frustrated – why is their mother behaving like she is?

I agree that children shouldn’t be told everything and definitely not every detail, but lying or avoidance is not the solution.

Leanne says:

Thank you yet again Mark for your wise (and I believe) thoughtful and sensible analysis. Most parents have the capacity for some degree of insight, and so over time, and with some assistance, they are able to put the mental health of their children first. Unfortunately the problem is when one or both parents exhibit some form of pathology (usually in the form of personality disturbance). When this happens, there is no insight, and the disordered parent acts out by justifying that they are telling the child “the truth”. They really do believe that the child “deserves to know the truth”, however fabricated or inaccurate this may be. The manipulation and splitting can make it extremely difficult, especially when the child begins to internalise the pathological parents beliefs. In these instances, it is even more important that the child is not confronted by counter allegations and further negativity. The hard bit is for the parent to contain their frustration and anger, and let their child experience a safe and conflict free environment…over time, they will see where all the bitterness and negativity is coming from!!!

Carrie says:

I think this is an excellent post. It is so true that the ex that feels wronged or hurt by the divorce is usually the one that lashes out and says things (in an emotional state) that is often unnecessary and even harmful to the child. While he/she does not think what they are doing is hurting anyone but instead sharing the “truth” with their child, they really should think twice about it.

When my mother and father divorced I was 7 years old. My father took a stance where he would not speak of my mother, he would only say “that is your mother”. My mother on the other hand took every opportunity to tell me how bad my dad was and all of the things he had ever done wrong. Ironically my mother was the one who caused the divorce. Anyway, as a child I believed every word my mother said and her words hurt me and my relationship with my dad. As I grew into an adult I formed my own opinions and sorted out in my own mind what my “truth” was. A whole lot of pain could have been avoided if words had been kept to a minimal.

Less Pain is Also a Truth:

The point is kids are hurt by many of our “truths” and in reality as they mature they are going to discover and determine what they believe to be the truth all on their own. Y

For me, in my divorce that is what I have stood by. When the kids say anything about their father I just say, “that’s your dad” and leave it alone. They will figure things out and in the mean time I am not going to cause them more pain.


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