But what do you tell your five-year-old daughter? Yes, what do you tell a very perceptive, intelligent, 5 1/2-year-old girl?
One thing that I did know was this: I would not lie to Nicole. I knew that she’d pick up on that, and it would make her feel worse, more anxious, instead of better. I remembered being perceptive as a child and I hated it if I wasn’t given an honest answer.
Exhaustion made it hard to think.
I could sense that Nicole waited for me to answer her and that she was not letting go of her question. I felt a hot tear from her cheek slip onto my arm as I lay down beside her.
“Honey,” I addressed her now, stroking her hair. “The important thing is this: God is taking care of us.”
“I want to know, Mommy!” Nicole cried.
“Okay,” I decided, “How about this? Honestly, I don’t know what to say. So what I’m going to do, Nicole, is to think about what to tell you and I promise we’ll talk tomorrow. But right now, we’re all okay and you need to get some sleep. Okay?” I asked her.
“Okay,” she accepted, unhappy with my answer.
How do you respond in a godly, dignified manner when your world has been torn apart and you are in a great deal of shocking pain? Especially, how do you have strength to respond when your children have great needs at the same time as you do?
It can be hard to think of exactly what to say in these severe circumstances. Here are some ideas to get you started in those first few days and months when you have those very first important conversations with the kids.
***NOTE: Consider talking to your lawyer about possible legal consequences that may occur from conversing with your children about what is taking place. Depending on your particular situation, the lawyer may have important legal advice about things that are said between you and your child that could affect your case if it is exposed in a court situation. Sometimes classes are available for parents to inform them of the court’s point of view in these matters. Get this information early so that you can make wise and prayerful decisions from the beginning about what you should say or not say.
Kids can see right through a snow job. And if they can’t, it is sure to occur to them in the future and then they will have to deal both with the situation and the fact that you were not truthful. Honesty still applies even when talking with your children in a situation where a parent leaves.
When my husband left, I had no warning or clue or time to prepare. Baby number three had just arrived, and boom: I discovered that my husband was in an adulterous relationship. He walked out the door without looking back and without any discussion.
What do you say to the kids in this situation? Be honest. Whatever you say, make sure that you remain a credible person whom they can trust as they navigate this new and difficult season in their lives.
Your mind is probably spinning with the details. I know that, for me, it seemed that I could not think of anything else, and it seemed like I would never think of anything else. But these thoughts and arguments and your own questions do not need to cloud your child’s mind.
Yes, be sure to answer their questions. But remember to keep it simple. If they want more information, then they will ask another question.
In some ways, it is similar to questions children sometimes ask about “the birds and the bees.” Wait for them to be ready. A telltale sign that they need information is when they ask the questions. Sometimes a child is struggling with a simple perception and when that is cleared up they are done talking.
For instance, when my daughter asked where her daddy was and I gave her an honest but simple answer, I was surprised when her only concern at the time was, “Will I ever see my daddy again?” When I assured her that she would and that he loved her very much, she was satisfied and returned to her play.
The older a child is, the more information they may require or demand. Again, be willing to give honest answers, but keep it as simple as possible. Protect them from wrestling in their own minds with all the struggles that you carry in yours.
And remember this: Kids do overhear the conversations that you have on the phone with a friend, or in the next room as you sip coffee with a neighbor. Do not let yourself believe that they are not listening or are not interested. They are.
Can there be anything good to say about a parent who leaves?
“I like his hair, I like his shirt, I like his shoes.” When I made a rule for my children as they were growing up that they had to find something nice to say after they said something insulting, this is what I would often hear. But seriously, can there be anything good to say to your children about your spouse who has broken his promise of marriage and left the family?
Well, yes. In my case, I found ways to speak to my children about how their daddy had been good at fixing things in the house that broke, and I encouraged them to try fixing broken things too. I reminded them about how he could play his guitar, fiddle, and banjo so well, and how special it was for them to listen to that kind of music. I pointed out gifts that he had given to them, or reminded them of special memories with him from the past that they could still enjoy.
Maybe you are not at a place where you feel that you can speak positively about the person who has torn your family apart and left your loved ones wounded and bleeding. That’s okay. Remember this: If you cannot say something positive, at least make sure that in the mean time you are not saying anything negative.
These are important gifts to your children that will last a lifetime. You may be gritting your teeth right now, but some day, trust me, you will smile once again. You will be glad that you did the hard work of speaking and doing good, and not harm.
Probably the most important idea that helped me was to be able to understand what was happening to me in light of how the Bible explained it. This helped my kids a tremendous amount as well.
In the Bible, people do bad things. There is no hiding it; everyone has and does bad things. God sent Jesus to rescue us because every one of us needs saved because of the bad things that we have done.
Kids can relate to this. They fight with their siblings, they are tempted to take another cookie when Mommy is not looking, and sometimes they want to hide or lie about something that they have broken.
Yet God loves us even when we do those wrong things. God tells us to pray for the people who hurt us. He tells us to forgive them. If we turn to God and ask for His help, God accepts us once again because He already paid the price for it all through Jesus’ death on the cross.
By explaining the gospel to my children often, they had hearts to pray for their dad and to love him even when it was very hard.
As an adult, you probably have others with whom you can discuss what is happening. But just think of it – your child may have no one. Of course, they do have you and that is very important, but it might really help for them to have another trusted adult as well.
When my husband left, there was a woman who worked at the church who knew what it was like to have her own father leave her. She had a small book about the subject for children and she asked my permission to meet with my daughter and read the age-appropriate material and to see if my daughter had any questions.
It could be somebody else in the family such as an uncle or a grandmother who might take your child out for ice cream and have a non-threatening chat, or even a grown-up friend who you trust and who thinks the way you do.
Many children are warned by their parents not to share information with others about the difficulties in their families. Think about how hard it is for a child to deal with his or her thoughts or struggles mostly on their own.
Pray about a person who might be an answer to prayer in meeting with your child to see if they have a desire to talk.
Remember, when a father leaves, it is just the beginning of a long journey for both you and your children. Laying the right foundation and acting in a way that brings peace and goodness into a bad situation will go a long way in the journey of healing for all of your hearts.