Notes From a Single Mom: How Much Should Kids Know About the Divorce?


When my ex-husband and I first separated, I spent a lot of time biting my tongue around my two children, who were 7 and 3 at the time. In those early days, I was consumed with poisonous, blood-boiling emotions: anger, hate, depression, fear and the overwhelming urge to share my ordeal with whomever would listen—friends, family, neighbors, even the woman who gives me pedicures. Never mind she didn’t understand one word I was saying. I was wronged, darn it, and I wanted everyone to know it!

But I had to be careful about what was said around my daughters. After all, they loved their father, even if I didn’t anymore. He was still a hero in their eyes. One day, I heard Dr. Phil say, “Never put the ex down in front of your children because demeaning him is like attacking their DNA,” since children see themselves as part of their parents. That really hit home with me. The last thing I wanted was for my daughters to feel badly about who they are.

So as much as it pained me NOT to blaspheme the ex 24/7, I said nothing around my girls.

Before long, the questions started coming: “When is Daddy coming home?” And, “Mommy, do you love Daddy?” Heartbreaking questions I didn’t know how to answer. The bitter ex-wife in me wanted to say, “Daddy’s never stepping foot in this house again!” And, “I’m not sure I ever loved your father.” But that DNA comment kept tugging at my conscience, leading to questions of my own:

How honest should you be with your children? How much should they know about the break-up?

Not much, according to John Jolliffe, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California: “Children should have short answers to their questions. Nothing more needs to be elaborated. If they’re prepared to know more, you will know by the questions they’re prepared to ask.”

If you’re a newly separated or divorced parent, Jolliffe suggests finding a counselor in whom you can confide. Blabbing to your kids may feel good momentarily, but will be costly in the end. Divorce is tough enough on kids. Statistics show that children of divorced parents are seven times more likely to suffer from depression. And according to a recent study, depression among American Indian and Alaskan Native children ranges from 10-30 percent.

In retrospect, I personally recommend telling one friend only. You don’t want to burden friendships unnecessarily with all your divorce debris. It may seem as though they’re interested in sharing your pain, but to even the best of friends, your continuous grumbling, no matter how justified, starts to get annoying after a while.

So for your children’s sake—and the preservation of friendships—share your divorce issues with one trusted confidant outside your home, preferably a counselor.

Then firmly implant your teeth into your tongue.

Lynn Armitage is an award-winning columnist and member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin. She welcomes your comments at