I am divorcing an abusive spouse, what do I say to the children?

Q – I am planning to ask my abusive husband for a divorce. My children ( 8 and 10 yrs old) have witnessed his outbursts and as a result have experienced nightmares and anxiety.  What should I say when I am explaining why I am asking for the divorce? 
 

A – Telling children about your decision to divorce is no easy task. When the primary reason for ending your relationship involves the abusive behavior of a spouse, it certainly changes the landscape of that conversation.  Unfortunately,  many parents feel a strong urge to either tread lightly and gloss over the abuse or portray the abusive parent as a “bad” person.  Neither approach is helpful to kids.   

To avoid these pitfalls, I would recommend having an open yet age-appropriate conversation with your children and talk about what has happened in a way that focuses on the problem not the person.  Since the children have witnessed his outbursts, you won’t be doing them any favors by sweeping it under the rug.

First, let them know about your decision to end the relationship, in a simple and straight-forward manner. Initially, what they most need to know is:

  • What divorce means
  • How life will change for now
  • If, when and how they will be able to see Dad
  • It’s okay to ask questions or talk about what has happened

 
It’s essential to emphasize how important it is that everyone in a family is safe.  When addressing Dad’s abusive behavior, let your children know that handling your feelings by hurting other people is completely unacceptable. Again, the key is to make a distinction between the problem and the person.

For example, you might say something  like, “When Dad gets angry, he doesn’t handle his feelings in a safe way.  Hurting people with words or hands when you are upset is never okay.  Because being a safe family is so important, I’ve decided that things need to change. One of those changes means Mom and Dad will be getting a divorce.  That’s what it’s called when parents decide not to be a husband and wife anymore.  It also means we will be living in two different homes.”

Because children in this age range often feel personally responsible for family problems and issues, reassure them that what has happened is not their fault. They also need to hear that they can’t fix or change how Dad behaves when he is upset.  Send a clear message that children are never responsible for how adults behave, feel or they choices they make.  

Also, keep in mind while your children may find Dad’s behavior upsetting, they will probably feel very conflicted about the situation.  Do your best to help them maintain a balanced view by affirming that you can love or care for someone and also not like how they act or behave.

Lastly, be sure to carefully weigh out how contact will take place between the children and their father from this point forward. Depending on the dynamics of the situation it may be necessary to evaluate the need for supervised contact between your husband and the children.  Stay mindful that not all situations warrant that kind of response.  If the abusive behavior has been directed at you and doesn’t involve physical violence then it may be appropriate for Dad to have unsupervised contact.  If you have any reservations about your children’s well being or safety I would strongly encourage you to speak with a family lawyer about options for protecting them.

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