Hi Dr Justin,
I am divorced and my 6 year old lives with her dad. He recently got married but my daughter does not know about our divorce. We live in different cities so we told her we have jobs in different cities and that’s why we live separately. How can I tell her about her second parent? She is so confused. What should I explain to her? I am so confused and upset about how I can make her understand the whole situation. My ex does not understand how to this to explain to our kid. Please help. Thanks
Dr Justin responds:
The first thing I thought of as I read your request was the famous couplet from Marmion, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.”
It seems that we live in a world where people are regularly deceptive. The reasons are many and varied, but it seems that nearly everyone lies. Particularly parents. The reasons I see parents lie to their children usually fall into a handful of obvious categories:
- we are trying to protect our children from information that may hurt them;
- we are trying to manipulate their behaviour (if you don’t be a good boy, Santa won’t come);
- hiding things from them (like when they ask, “What are you eating? as we hurriedly swallow the chocolates we’re sneaking, and we respond, “Nothing.”)
These responses, while often (though not always) well-meaning, are not what children need from their parents. So my suggestion is pretty simple: tell her the truth.
Our children rely on us to tell them the truth. When we do not tell the truth, the consequences are significant:
First, children whose parents lie to them are shown to be significantly more likely to lie. We set the example. We show how we value honesty by our fidelity to it. If our children see us being dishonest it should come as no surprise that they will similarly have a flexible arrangement with the truth.
Second, telling lies deprives children of the opportunity to grow and develop through the adversity we are “protecting” them from by lying. While we don’t need to dump the whole truth on them in one unflinching load, they do need us to deliver truth in age-appropriate ways. They need us to be supportive as they come to terms with some things, but lying to them will typically only offer short-term relief.
Third, lies can actually create worse anxiety and pain for the child than being told the truth. Put yourself into your child’s shoes for a moment. While your motivation has naturally been to protect your daughter, how confusing has the situation become for her? When she sees one of her parents being ‘unfaithful’ to the other parent by spending time with others, what does she think?
There may be short-term protection or benefit from dishonesty, but ultimately truth demands her dues. The anxiety and confusion that come from dishonesty bring a burden heavier than the short-term alleviation of pain justifies.
Fourth, if your child lied to you, there is every chance you would punish her for her dishonesty. Aside from the fact that research shows punishing children doesn’t work – especially when we punish them for lying – we simply expect our children to tell the truth. Our society and our families function on trust. It seems hypocritical that we accept dishonesty in ourselves, but refuse to tolerate it in our children.
Finally, and poignantly, when we lie to our children we are actually lying to ourselves. We may say, “I’m lying to them to protect them.” But the truth is we are lying to protect ourselves. We don’t want to see the look of pain or betrayal in their eyes as we tell them something we know will hurt them. We are acknowledging by our lie that we don’t want to deal with the distress or anger or confusion they’ll feel if we are honest with them. Our lies betray our personal pride. They teach our children that it is not ok to be vulnerable. Such attitudes harm our growth and development, and that of our children.
In saying all of this, please remember: our children do not need to hear the full truth to every question they have spelled out in R-rated detail. Our responses to them should be truthful, but they should also be age appropriate.
If a couple is separating, then parents should be truthful about this separation with their children. But the degree of disclosure regarding the separation depends on the age of the child. Discussions of issues that might injure a child’s relationship with one parent should be approached with consideration. If infidelity, or pornography, or gambling, or drugs are the cause of a split, the parents might divulge that they are separating because they didn’t treat each other well, and leave it at that. The extent to which additional information is shared may change as the child gets older.
You have been through a lot, and are right to want to protect your daughter. But right now it is time for you to come clean with her. A lie is like a wound dressing. If we put it on, it has to come off at some point. If it doesn’t, the wound will fester and become infected, leaving many more deep problems than if we had treated it appropriately at the outset. Your conversation should include the truth. You should answer her questions to the extent possible without unloading baggage, and you need to remember her age. Your daughter also needs you to apologise for not being honest sooner. Then your little one needs love, reassurance, and ongoing honesty as you rebuild trust in your relationship with her, and as your ex-partner does the same.