Talking with kids: Answering “Why?”

One of the hardest parts of separation and divorce answering “Why?” to your self and to children.  Throughout this process you’ll hear it over and over from kids of all ages because it’s simply outside their understanding.  It’s not a natural process for children like getting taller or starting school, or loosing teeth is.  It’s something they need to explore and ask about and form opinions on.

This is a wonderful opportunity to set up your child to have a positive outlook for the entire process, because how you react is how they react.  You are their first and most important model in life, and this situation is no different.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect that this process is all sunshine and rainbows for you, I know it’s hard.  But there are some things that we can protect our children from, and ways we can help them cope so they don’t have major negative back-lash from watching their family change so dramatically.

So here are some ways to frame conversations so that you are providing useful information about what is happening without allowing negative stigma to color your child’s view of you, the other parent or the situation as a whole.

1. No partner bashing!

It doesn’t matter how horrible the other parent is, do not ever try to convince your child that he shouldn’t love them. Let me give you two examples:

  1. Sean’s parents have separated, his dad is an abusive alcoholic, his mom has sole custody, but dad has visitation. So his mom explains to Sean “Your dad is mean, you shouldn’t spend time with him, you don’t want to be around him. It’s for your own good.”  To Sean these sounds like “I think your dad is mean, I don’t want you to spend time with him, and I don’t want you to be around him. I’m controlling the situation”.  For a child, this can feel like Sean is being punished by not seeing his dad, because of his mom’s feelings toward dad.  Even though his mom’s feelings seem rational and justified to us, a child is simply not going to view it the same way.  Let’s look at a different perspective.
  2. Abby’s parents are in the same situation as Sean’s. Separated, Mom is an abusive alcoholic with visitation, and Dad has sole custody.  So Dad arranges for mom to come to a roller-rink and spend the afternoon with them, Mom doesn’t show up. So Dad sits with Abby and asks questions that let Abby examine her feelings “I’m sorry Mom didn’t come. How are you feeling right now? Do you want to try to plan another date? What can I do to help? I’m feeling disappointed too, it hurts me to see you upset.  By allowing Abby’s feelings to guide the conversation, and sharing his own feelings in a neutral way, Abby is going to be more aware of her feelings, and better equipped to reach out to Dad or a counselor when her feelings seem irrational or overwhelming.  I’m willing to bet that of her own accord, eventually she’ll choose eliminate Mom from her life for a while to avoid being hurt or disappointed.

2. Include your children in the process when appropriate.

So maybe mom is moving into an apartment, mom can take the kids with her while apartment hunting.  Ask them questions “Do you like upstairs or downstairs apartments?”  “Would you prefer a pool or a playground?” of course, they shouldn’t drive your decision making, but it will provide them with a positive experience, spending time with mom and allow them to feel included in the process. Plus, it won’t seem like such a foreign place when the kids go to mom’s new apartment for the first time.

3. Provide facts.

Use the truth or don’t discuss it.  If the truth isn’t age appropriate, find a way to talk about the situation without lying.  Take for example Joey;   Joey is a 4 year old boy, his parents have divorced after his dad had an affair.  Now I wouldn’t consider this to be an appropriate topic for a 4-year-old, so when Joey asks mom, “Why don’t you love daddy anymore?”  Mom has to choose how she will respond.  This is a good opportunity to re-inforce that a family can change shape, size or living arrangement, but that nothing changes how much mom and dad love Joey.

Please visit our resource page for links to books that can give more details on co-parenting and helping children adjust to separation and divorce. If you have a topic you would like to see a blog post on, or questions about the above post, you can send an email to Megan at

Warm Wishes,

Megan, BSFCS

This post is also available in: Spanish