When “Stay In A Child’s Place” Doesn’t Cut It: Not Speaking To Your Child About Divorce Is Emotionally Detrimental

July 1, 2019  |  

Sad African American girl listening to her parents arguing.

Source: skynesher / Getty

Earlier this month, news leaked that Wendy Williams’ son, Kevin Hunter Jr., was arrested following a physical altercation with his father, Kevin Hunter Sr. The reason for the altercation depends on the outlet from which you get your gossip. Some sources reported Kevin Sr.’s request for both spousal and child support from Williams was the impetus. Others claimed it was the use of the b-word. We’ll never truly know because we weren’t there. However, here’s what we can all agree on: One way or another, the couple’s highly public fall-out was negatively affecting their child.

Divorce tends to have that effect on kids. Approximately 50 percent of American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Studies have shown that children who have experienced multiple divorces tend to have lower grades and are less pleasant to be around, according to their peers. Children of divorced parents are twice as likely to drop out of high school. They are more prone to psychological issues than children who have lost parents to death. And studies have linked children of divorce to lower paying jobs and less college education. This, according to Very Well Families. I don’t highlight any of those statistics to instill fear or suggest that children are doomed because their parents’ relationship didn’t work out. The point is divorce affects children far more deeply than the sadness of not being able to see both parents every day.

I noticed a particularly disturbing pattern in our comments section regarding the Wendy story. Over and over again, I saw people of color suggesting that Little Kev “stay in a child’s place” and that his parents’ divorce is none of his business. Sir or ma’am, please stop. Should Little Kev have gone all “knuck if you buck” on his daddy? No. However, to pretend as if this mess his parents are going through has nothing to do with him is hurtful and damaging. Furthermore, it’s reflective of a problematic cultural mindset that has been emotionally injurious to Black children across several generations. We should absolutely be speaking to kids about things that directly affect them — even when those things make us uncomfortable.

“It’s not about a child staying in their place,” licensed marriage and family therapist Marissa Nelson told Madame Noire. “We really need to eradicate that. What does that even mean? That only shows our own cultural discomfort around difficult conversations.”

Nelson went on: “Kids are smarter than you make them out to be — even the little ones. They’re very sensitive. Kids are very observant. They may not say anything, but they know when you have a fight. They know when parents aren’t happy. They know and they see it. So when people think they’re hiding things from their kids, what they’re actually hiding is the discomfort of having that conversation with your child. What people are hiding is their discomfort with naming what’s happening in their home, their relationship, their family. If you have that conversation, what would your child say? And does that make you have to make a decision that you’re not ready to make?”

Sure, most parents only want what’s best for their kids and the assumption is that by attempting to hide our relationship woes, we’re protecting them. Unfortunately, this is more damaging than anything else.

“The illusion of the life that people knew, when it’s pulled out from under them, it’s even more devastating than understanding what’s happening and the reality of the situation. The illusion is much more devastating,” added Nelson. “When they look back at their lives, they wonder ‘Was everything a lie? How do I know what was true?’ The foundation of their world is shaken.”

Should we divulge the dirty details to our kids? Definitely not. No child needs to hear that dad is an adulterer or mommy is a control freak, but age-appropriate conversations where children and teens are given the space to express how they feel about what’s going on within their home is crucial. In fact, failing to do so often results in behavioral issues.

“While you shouldn’t make your children a part of [the dissolotution], it’s important to check in with them periodically to see how they’re feeling. Find out what they’re going through,” the therapist advised. “Sometimes relationships don’t work out and we are trying to figure out the best way to move forward so that we can continue to love you as parents. And so that we can continue to be the parents and people we can be for ourselves and for our family.”

According to the Intimacy Moons founder, some of the questions you can be asking your child to open the lines of communication include:

  • Does this make you upset?
  • What have you seen?
  • How have you experienced us as parents?
  • Are there things that have come up that have scared you?
  • Are there things that have come up that have made you feel afraid of what’s going to happen?
  • How do you feel about our family?
  • Do you feel like as a family we’re in a good place?
  • How do you feel your relationship with me?
  • How do you feel about your relationship with your other parent?
  • How do you feel about our relationship as parents?

“They hear things. They observe things,” said Nelson. “But they don’t know how to bring the topic up. They don’t know how to have these conversations. Do you think that child doesn’t have an idea about what’s happening? They never see their parents hold hands. They never see their parents show affection. They see the reactions between their parents being short, snippy, critical, maybe even aggressive. They live in the same house. They know whether the feelings between their parents are warm or very, very cold. They may not know the full extent of what’s happening, but they have an idea.”

By pushing through the discomfort and opening the lines of communication, we are better able to support our kids through these difficult transitions.

“You can understand what your child’s fears are. You may think that you’re protecting them from your relationship by hiding things or not talking to them, but they end up thinking it’s their fault,” said Nelson.

Having open, honest, age-appropriate dialogue with your kids about difficult subjects isn’t going to make them grown. Just because mama’nem said it doesn’t make it gospel. Kids have feelings too and they are directly impacted by divorce. Give them the space to express how they feel.

Follow Jazmine on Twitter @jazminedenise and visit her blog Black Girl Mom.

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