If you are in a marital crisis, do you say anything about it to your kids? While the answer to this question is extremely personal, I think there are some rules of thumb. Some of these are based in my personal feelings about how you foster trust in relationships, including the parent/child relationship. I would love to hear what you think and your own approaches.
My overarching philosophy that underlies all of the ideas below is that trust is built upon honesty, albeit honesty that is appropriate to the age of the child in question. In the worst-case scenario, it seems far worse to me to try to “hide” your marital discord from a child (could you, really, in any event?!) and suddenly pull the rug out from under him by announcing you are getting a divorce, than it is to have the child understand that you weren’t getting along for some time, tried hard, but just couldn’t make it work. How would a child ever learn to trust what someone was telling them again, if his parents weren’t even honest with him? No, I do not, philosophically, believe that children need to be shown some sanitized version of relationships. Rather, I think that they can, to varying degrees as they age, accept that relationships can be complex and observe that effort needs to be expended to keep relationships healthy.
So, that said, here are my rules of thumb about how to talk to kids about your relationship:
The younger the child, the less answer he is looking for. A four year old who asks “why do you and mommy fight so much?” does not need a lesson in marital relations. A simple “we are having some trouble getting along right now, but are trying to work it out” is enough. On the other hand, if your teen throws “Why don’t you just get divorced?! You seem to hate each other!” in your face, he deserves a more thoughtful response.
Keep it simple, but thoughtful. I’ve always believed that kids have a “bullshit-o-meter”. Though they may accept what you are telling them, mine, at least, always can tell when an adult is glossing things over. I think it shows respect to be honest and thoughtful, without going into a lot of detail. Or, put another way, when they ask questions, they are probably looking for confirmation that what they think they are seeing is real, and reassurance that you are trying to deal with your problems. They are not looking for a blow-by-blow recap of why your spouse is a monster.
Keep your explanations as positive as possible. I would not tell a child I was considering consulting a divorce lawyer to try to decide whether or not to get a divorce. This would create anxiety, without providing much reassurance or, in fact, any real direction (you might decide not to use the lawyer, or get the divorce, for example). But I might say “your father and I are having a tough time in our relationship right now. We are trying very hard to work things out if we can.” This acknowledges your issues, tells the child you are trying to work things out, and also suggests you may not be able to, without bringing in the concept of a lawyer.
Make sure they know your problems are not their fault. Kids sometimes personalize family issues. Make sure that they understand that your issues are adult issues with each other, and that you love them unreservedly (and always will).
Keep from blaming, and personalizing, ADD. This is tricky because much of the conflict in your relationship may be around ADD symptoms. But in a household where at least one adult is diagnosed with ADD, then often at least one child is diagnosed (in part because usually the kids get diagnosed first). This means that any personal invectives hurled at each other about ADD can also be taken personally by an ADD child who overhears them. For example: “You are so lazy – I can’t believe I ever married you!” yelled in anger not only unfairly attacks the adult by not acknowledging some of the challenges faced by people with ADD, but also could make a child wonder “but I have trouble doing things, too! Will my mother reject me, too?” Or consider, “I just want you to not have ADD – then I could love you!” While your spouse may understand this as shorthand for “I want you to get your ADD symptoms under control so our life together is easier,” a child would not necessarily get this (not having been part of your other conversations). He would only see that ADD=unlovable.
It’s okay to admit you are having problems, and that you are sad, angry or upset. Your child already knows this through observation of your behavior. In fact, I personally think it is better for your children to see you “own” your feelings, rather than hide them. This sets an example for them to “own” their own feelings and, hopefully, share them with you.
Every once in a while, check in. You want to make sure your child has an opportunity to discuss her feelings with you. Particularly with middle and high schoolers, look for opportunities to ask "are you okay?" or "I know things were kind of tense around here last night. Do you have any feelings you want to talk about?" Make sure this is done in private, and that you don't take advantage of that privacy to push your own agenda. Listen, and listen some more.
Keep your relationships with your children healthy, but don't rely on them as a surrogate for your marital relationship. If you are having a tough time with your husband, it may be tempting to focus all of your attention on your kids (particularly if they are very young). Relationships with kids, are often more straightforward than difficult relationships with spouses. But if you spend all your attention on your child, you are not allocating enough time to do positive things with your spouse. In fact, I've seen numerous examples where women (usually) so devote themselves to their child's needs that their spouse becomes very resentful. Ultimately, not spreading your love around can put pressure on your child and undermine your marriage.
Your child is not your friend or your therapist. Therefore, do not go to him/her for advice or reinforcement. It does not help your child if you say “don’t you think Daddy was awful when he….(fill in the blank)?” or "I can't believe your mother forgot to pick you up from school again today!" This is asking the child to take sides – a big no-no.
Professional help is always an option. Don’t forget that a family or individual therapist can help a child work through the emotions he is feeling about his family situation. Position this help as a healthy outlet for his feelings, not someone you go to as a last resort.