How do you talk to your kids about your marriage problems?
It’s Rebecca here on the blog today tackling that big question: what do you tell your kid when you and your spouse just aren’t getting along? We’re in the middle of a week talking about how to handle big marriage issues, and Mom asked if I would tackle this one since I’ve just done so much research into how a parents’ marriage affects their kids.
I’m not going to address this from the perspective of the wife, though–I want to give you a glimpse into what your kids need from their point of view. Because if you’re able to see this from your kid’s perspective, it can change the conversation entirely.
Here are 10 things to keep in mind when talking to your kids about your marriage problems:
1. Kids already know something’s going on
Kids can tell when something’s wrong between their parents. They hear their parents fighting, and they get scared. They feel there’s tension in the house, and they wonder–“Did I do something wrong?”
Many parents are scared to talk to their kids about why Mom and Dad are fighting because they want their family to seem perfect. But all that does for kids is leave them in uncertainty–they know something’s wrong, but they don’t know what or why. And when they don’t know why, they usually assume that they are the problem. So don’t be afraid to talk about it, especially if your kids bring it up!
2. Focus on age-appropriate conversations
Kids may already know something is wrong, but they often don’t know what is wrong. When telling them, sticking to age-appropriate conversation is key. You don’t need to explain the complicated inner workings of your relationship; it can often be as simple as,
“Mom and Dad are just fighting right now because we’re trying to make a big decision and disagree about what is the right decision. But it’s OK–we still love each other, and we will sort this out soon.”
All kids really need is an acknowledgement that something is wrong, a short explanation that it is between mom and dad and not their fault, and then reassurance that they are always loved.
3. Using your kids to get the upper hand is wrong
If you’re fighting and the kids are present, dragging them into it to prove a point is always wrong. Always. I’ve seen parents who are fighting (especially about parenting) pull in the kids and say, “What do you think, do you agree with mom, or dad?”
I cannot say how incredibly inappropriate that is to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re right and he’s wrong, putting your kid on the spot where he has to choose between his parents isn’t fair to the kid.
4. The goal is not to get the kids on your side against Dad
When you’re having marriage problems, it can be easy to get into a “me against him” mentality. And it can be easy to drag your kids into that, too.
When talking to your kids about marriage problems, make sure not to belittle your husband. Talking badly about your husband, especially when he’s not there to defend himself, will either make your children really uncomfortable because they love and respect their dad, or else it’ll make them choose sides. Neither of those results are healthy.
Their dad will always be there dad–even if he’s in the wrong. Belittling him isn’t a healthy way to talk to your kids. And John Gottman found that contempt is one of the #1 predictors of divorce. Rolling your eyes when your spouse says something, or letting the kids get away with doing that, is showing contempt. I have friends whose mom frequently jokes about how pathetic her husband can be with her kids, and they all share a big laugh. But while that makes her feel better, because the kids agree with her, it puts those kids in a terrible position. And it gets the culture of contempt in their home.
5. When telling the truth, stick to the facts
This can be difficult because marital problems are really emotional, but sticking to the facts is key. Explaining that dad said something that hurt mom’s feelings is very different than talking about every single thing dad has done wrong and how you’re just so annoyed at him right now.
6. Your kids can’t be your emotional support
This can be even more difficult as your kids enter the teenage years, because they can truly become your friends. But friendships need boundaries–and when it comes to your relationship with your kids, an important boundary to maintain is one of respect for their parents.
You can talk to your teenagers about what’s bothering you or the stress you’re facing without them becoming your confidant. That’s what your adult friendships are for, or adult family members!
Want to know the secret to having a healthy relationship with your teen?
And I put my findings and the interviews in a book called Why I Didn’t Rebel.
Your family doesn’t need to suffer through teenage rebellion–the teenage years aren’t doomed! In fact, they can actually be a lot of fun.
7. Watching you resolve conflict can be quite helpful for kids
Seeing parents fight and resolve isn’t always a traumatic event. When you are able to resolve conflict in a healthy, constructive way it gives kids the tools for conflict resolution they may need in future relationships.
So don’t only talk about marital problems while they are happening–you can touch base after, too. If your kids ask if you are still fighting, explain, “you know how Mom and Dad weren’t getting along earlier? We’re all better now because we decided to listen to each other instead of yell at each other. Sometimes it’s easier just to yell when you’re mad–but when you stop yelling and start to listen to the other person, you might learn something that can help.”
When Katie and I were younger, Mom and Dad would sometimes get annoyed with each other, especially when driving. There’d be a lot of tension in the car! But they always worked it out, too. So while we listened when they ticked each other off, we also listened when they got through it. It taught us that having conflict isn’t the end of the world, and it also modelled how to deal with it.
8. Give these conversations the respect they need
If your kid asks you, “Why are you guys fighting so much?” don’t brush them off because you’re running late for soccer. Sit down and have an honest conversation right then and there. This is something that is deeply affecting your child, especially if it’s gotten to the point where your child is bringing it up. Give that conversation the respect it needs by giving your kid your full attention, even if it means being 15 minutes late or leaving the chores for a few more minutes.
Often parents brush off these conversations with a pat answer or they get frustrated because they come at inconvenient times. But take a moment, take a breath, and put yourself into your kid’s shoes–he’s asking for a reason. He’s scared, confused, or feels guilty because of the conflict in the house. What he needs more than being at soccer on time is to know that he is safe, loved, and that it’s not his fault.
9. Whenever possible, you owe it to your kids to sort out your marriage problems
Marriage problems take their toll on the kids. It’s just the truth–it doesn’t matter how well you handle it, it adds stress and fear into kids’ lives. And the unfair part is that kids never asked for any of it to happen! So when marriage problems come up, it really does feel like they’re happening to the kid, too–but the kid feels powerless.
It’s like in the movie The Incredibles when the children Violet and Dash are fighting, and Dash yells,
“Don’t you realize that our parents lives may be at stake! Or even worse, their marriage?!?”
To Dash, divorce was worse than death. This is serious stuff. And kids often assume that if you’re fighting you’ll get divorced.
So if you are experiencing marriage difficulties, you owe it to your kids to put your all into fixing them–even if that means admitting that you’re in the wrong or making some really hard sacrifices. I watched so many of my friends struggle after their parents divorced for selfish reasons, and that is never fair to the kids.
10. Your kids can survive even the worst case scenario
However, not all marriage problems can be resolved. If you’re in a marriage that needs to end for your safety or because your spouse has completely disregarded your vows, know that your children can survive this.
As Christians, we are commanded to live in truth–and sometimes the truth isn’t easy. Sometimes the truth is that a spouse has had multiple affairs, has a gambling addiction that they refuse to deal with, or is emotionally abusive.
If this is happening and you’re talking your kids through it, focus on what the truth is. The truth is, your family is hurting right now. The truth is, you wish it wasn’t this way. But the overwhelming truth is that God is still with you, with your family, and with your children.
Talking to your kids shouldn’t be scary.
But often parents are at a loss when it comes to discussing the hard things with their teenagers.
I interviewed 25 young adults, asking them what made them choose to rebel or to stay on the straight-and-narrow, and I got an overwhelming amount of information about what parents can do to talk to their kids effectively, building that relationship that is so great we believe it only happens in cheesy movies!
I put the secrets to forming a great relationship with your teen in Why I Didn’t Rebel, which is pretty much a hand-guide to understanding your teen–written from the kid’s perspective! Parents, this is about as close as you can get to peeking into your teen’s brain.
My number one dream with this book is that parents and teens are able to reconnect and build that relationship that can withstand anything. My parents are some of my greatest friends–and I want that for your family, too.
What do you think? Have you ever had to talk to your kids about what’s going on with their parents? How did it go?
Thank you Rebecca. That was a really well-written post, and I can imagine, not the easiest one to put together.
When I was little, I still remember a few “doozies” that my parents had. But when they calmed down, Dad would come back to us and apologize for his bad response. And then, he would look at each of us in the eye, and remind us that he still loved Mom and that he loved each of us.
Now that I have kids, I still reflect on those memories and am very grateful for a father that owned up to his mistakes, asked for forgiveness, and reminded each of us of his love for Mom. ~ Johanna
That’s actually very lovely.
Thanks for this, it’s well thought out. I remember hearing my parents yelling as a kid and being afraid they would divorce.
For me #6 is a big one – it’s so important for parents to have healthy friendships outside the marriage, for their own sake and for their kids. My parents have had marriage problems their whole marriage, not crazy fighting or anything like that, but I always felt I’d rather not get married than have their marriage. I remember mum first talking to me about it when I was a teenager, and it was helpful to know what was going on and it helped me to understand where she was coming from better. But since then she’s brought it up a few more times, especially since I’m married now too and I find it super awkward because I don’t want to be my parents marriage counsellor and I know my mum’s hurting but I also don’t want to be hearing that stuff about dad, especially because he was always the parent I got on better with. I’ve tried encouraging her to build some female friendships but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.
Beautiful post, Rebecca! Well stated and so many truths pointed out from the kids’ perspective – which is the MOST IMPORTANT.
My parents are happily married, but I’ve been through two divorces, both due to repeated infidelity. Taking the high road was crucial to the kids’ sense of well-being and safety, not to mention for future co-parenting successes. Age-appropriate conversations were key, as was an honest, non-belittling approach.
Again, well done! You are so wise beyond your years….
Thank you for the post, especially # 10. unfortunately that is where I almost am. The thought of what divorce will do to my kids is almost paralyzing. There are just so many unknowns and none of them can be answered. But I also know that things can’t continue the way they are. It is killing me and I know that it is taking a horrible toll on my kids.
I’m so sorry. I hope you can get a good group to support you and some friends around you, because it’s very hard to walk through this alone.
Thank you Rebecca! I needed to hear this from the kids’ perspective. I can’t stress how important #6 is. Growing up my parents had an extremely volatile relationship. Screaming, cussing, punching holes in walls, threatening divorce on the regular & I’ve had a lot of baggage from that to work thru in my own marriage. My mother always expected us to be on her side, & my dad worked on the road so we typically were. Now that I’m an adult, she still expects me to be her best friend, to support her every action & to be able to complain about my father whenever & however she pleases, including their sex life. My dad wasn’t a great dad but he became a Christian a few years ago & is trying to improve. Now anytime I ask her to please refrain from belittling my father to me she attacks me saying that I love him more even though he was absent thru most of my childhood. Although, I logically know that she is in the wrong, emotionally it’s very exhausting & leaves me feeling like a terrible daughter & trapped – like I have no choice but to hurt one parent with my actions.
Thank you for verifying that I’m not in the wrong for loving both my parents.
Please, to the parents out there struggling in your marriages, unless the other spouse could harm your children, please, please leave your sweet babies out of your arguments. Like Rebecca said – confirming that there is an issue that will be resolved is very different from dragging them into the gory details of the disagreement.
Thank you for this well done and thoughtful article.