Mike: Once the worst suspicions are confirmed–that there is an affair going on–how much do children need to know, how much can they handle, and I would imagine it varies tremendously on age groups and maturity.
But are there some rules that you try to lay out at the beginning when, if you’re talking to a parent about this and they’re saying, “I have to hide this, I have to cover it up. My children can’t know about this.”
Kristine: Like you said, age and maturity are certainly contributing factors. My own research and experience has told me that it’s almost never appropriate to tell a child about an affair, especially if it’s something recent because there’s too high of a risk of the emotionality and the blaming coming out.
So if at all possible, having the parents collaborate on some kind of story that’s not necessarily untrue, but that allows them to deal with the adult issues separately from the children is kind of what I work on with parents, especially because like I said, there’s risks of blame coming out and more negative feelings than are necessary and it’s certainly–it’s not appropriate to tell a child a version of this story that’s not been fully agreed upon by both parents.
It’s tempting to let kind of our anger at the other parent compromise your integrity as far as making sure you check on that every story is 100% true, like you might feel as though you have to say, the parent’s definitely coming home, or they’re staying away when you’re not really sure if that’s what you’ve agreed upon, and that’s very confusing for children.
And it’s really important not to compromise the child’s view of their own parent.
So if you do–if someone does choose to tell their child about the affair, it’s really important not to assume any information or specifics that haven’t been fully confirmed or fully agreed upon that are appropriate for parents.
So the other piece to it is that it may seem noble to keep your pain a secret, like you said, “I can’t let anyone know,” or “I can’t let the kids know that this has happened,” but that being sort of the blanket approach may cause more confusion for the child that this is where another part comes in as far as making sure that you have a therapist or you have someone to confide in because I know something about sharing your pain with your child, but if you have unaddressed suffering that’s going on, that will definitely distance you from your child.
So because kids pick up on body language and clues in tone of voice. Like I said, it’s a survival tool. So we can’t always hide from the kids that we’re in pain, but it’ll be easier to manage that and healthy ways to have that outside support.
So, and again, the kids aren’t the ones that you confide in. So that’s why the risk of telling the kids about the affair without both parents agreeing on the story, it just opens the door for so many other repercussions and problems.
Mike: Now I would think it’s not possible, really, I mean just from what you’re saying and from my own experience, it’s not possible to hide your distress from children.
There’s got to be a positive way of dealing with that and rather than constantly covering it up or sugar-coating it, is it a positive approach maybe to say, “Mom and I” or “Dad and I are having some problems and we’re working through them.
We’re working to do the very best we can to make everything right again.”
Is that kind of approach?
Kristine: Right, kind of the message and even speaking just for yourself as a parent is just “Sometimes I’m sad, but it’s never because you’ve done something wrong and I’ll always love you and sometimes there are adult problems, but I promise I will do my best to deal with them and I’m not angry at you, basically.”
Mike: You mentioned that you worked with children a lot on this and it’s so easy for children, I’m sure, to see themselves as the cause of these problems if there isn’t some positive explanation for what’s going on because it’s very easy to sink into this thing of saying, “Well, if it wasn’t for me, they’d be happy.” or “It’s all my fault because I didn’t get an A on my test” or things like that.
And how do you reassure children when you’re talking to them about this? And they know that there’s a problem. They may not know the specifics of it, but they know that there’s real tension and real problems. So they wouldn’t be talking to begin with.
How do you try and approach that topic with them?
Kristine: Do you mean from the standpoint of their therapist or from their parent?
Mike: From the child’s standpoint and the therapist looking at it and saying what do you tell them as a therapist that maybe can reassure them that whatever happened didn’t happen because of something they did?
Kristine: I think part of it is creating a safe space for them to have those feelings, because a lot of what comes up is some confusion because the feelings are so conflictual.
Because they inherently love their parents and yet there’s so much tension that exists. So letting them feel as though they can express all of those feelings, and then confirming to them that it would be nice sometimes if we could fix adult problems but we can’t.
Sometimes we feel like it’s our fault because we feel like there is something we can do to fix it, but it’s not always going to go the way we want. However, what’s never going to change is that your parents love you and that they put you first.
Mike: Now, two, is there–something that just occurred to me–is there something that you can offer the children as a way to perhaps be a positive influence at a very difficult time?
Because it’s certainly–I’m not implying that you should say, “Children, you need to do this to help them fix things up,” but are there things that you can offer them and say, “This is a time where you can be very helpful to your mom and dad if you’ll do this.”
Kristine: I think the way that I approach it is empathising the joy and love that exists in the relationship with each parent individually.
Talking about–asking them to generate ideas and things that they do together or things that are important to them, tend to face them with each parent individually and to let the parent know that these things are important to them because for parents, we’re always giving them the opportunity to feel and so they can be loving and nurturing to their children even through the times, that’s really helpful for them.
So if the child–and it also helps the child, too, because if they let them know “This is what I love and appreciate when we go to get some ice cream,” for example, that helps the children feel like their needs are being met, they’re being responded to, and it also helps the parent feel like, “Even if I can’t solve everything, I know that this has meaning for my child, and that they have my love being confirmed to them.” If they read a book together at night or something like that.
Mike: Now after an affair is uncovered and it all starts to come out, then basically everybody involved has to make a decision as to which path to take and either try to repair the relationship and put it back on track, or decide the best thing to do is to separate. And if in either case, what are some of the considerations that need to be taken into account as far as how either path might affect the children?
Kristine: It’s the rule of making sure not to compromise a child’s right to love and respect their parents. So helping parents learn to let their child express their feelings about the situation, doing their best to have outside support as well is important.
It’s important–this is why it’s important to keep children out of the initial emotionality of dealing with the affair, too, because if you decide to stay together and work it out, if the child doesn’t know that there was maybe a risk of divorce at the beginning, there doesn’t have to be as much of trust re-established if the parents do decide to stay together.
But if the child did know about the affair and the parents decide to stay together, let the child know that they’re allowed to have their own opinion and feeling about it, but the point is the goal is keeping the family together and having more loving closeness rather than continuing to drift apart.
That being if the parents choose to stay together, and I guess if you decide to end the marriage, explaining that to children, “It’s not because of anything you’ve done,” and it’s crucial for parents to make sure that there is as much consistency in the child’s daily schedule as possible and also making sure that living arrangements and transportation arrangements are very clear.
This surprises some parents, but the first question that comes up for a lot of young children is, “Where am I going to live?” like they feel as though their whole world is being destructed.
So reminding a child that there is enough structure and it’s really important to eliminate some of the basic fear that comes up when their safety feels as though it’s being threatened.
And making sure that both parents have a lot of opportunity to express love to their child and to show them with their actions that they do still love them, even if they’re not together.
Another important thing is making sure that the children are very clear that the separation is permanent.
This has come up in a lot of cases where maybe the parents aren’t even sure, but I help them to be very sure, because it’s really difficult for children when one of the parents is sort of coming in and out and it’s really unclear if the separation is actually there because kids will hold onto the feeling that they can do something to bring their parents back together.
So being very clear that there’s nothing you can do that will get us back together, and there’s nothing you can do that will stop us from loving you. That is a really important message if parents decide to divorce.
About the author
Kristine Gottesman is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern who offers psychotherapy to individuals, adolescents, families, and couples.
She specializes in working with parenting issues, transitions of adolescence and young adulthood, anxiety, stress and depression. Her private practice office is located in Sherman Oaks, CA.
Kristine is under the supervision of Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT, and offers a sliding fee scale. Please visit her website: www.kristinemft.com
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