Q. How do I explain to my child that his father's pornography addiction is behind our marital separation?
A. When a father drinks or is physically abusive, the effects of his problem are painfully obvious even to children who often are both angry and relieved when their parents separate. But hidden issues like pornography and homosexuality can be incomprehensible to them.
Many professionals suggest that you and your husband talk through the different ways you might tell your son about your Christian counselor's recommendation you separate. A counselor can suggest questions like those your boy may ask and help you with your responses and body language. For example, what might you say when he cries, "No, don't go, Daddy!"?
Advance role–playing might help his father respond, "We're working on some hard things, Jimmy. It's best if Mommy and I do it in different places. I care for you, and that's one reason we have to do this." That's a great answer—but in an emotionally charged conversation, parents would rarely come up with it without practice first. Look what that practiced response accomplishes: First, it tells your son he's loved; second, he knows you'll continue working on the problem; and third, you've given him a rationale for the separation.
Consider where to tell your child the bad news, too. Should you tell him at home in familiar surroundings, or would the counselor or play therapist's office be better? As you both share, pay attention to the emotional impact you're having on your son. You'll probably need to stop to rephrase and to give hugs.
How much do you share?
Tell your son as much of the truth as you can without placing value judgments on his father's behavior. Instead of exclaiming, "Your daddy is a creep," you'd be wiser to say, "Daddy has made some bad choices. He's done some things that are not OK." Identifying the problem as pornography or homosexuality will depend on the age and maturity of your child. Certainly if your son asks, "Is Daddy gay?" you'll need to answer directly. Answer only the question your child asks. If he has a follow–up question, answer it. Don't overanswer the question.
Today's children are less innocent than they used to be. Don't underestimate what they're capable of understanding. If the child hints at the question he really wants to ask, be an active listener and answer him. Realize your son may already be aware of the pornography addiction and not have the vocabulary to phrase the question. (If he asks, "Is this because of the pictures Daddy likes on the computer?" demand further evaluation of your child to determine what level of exposure he's had to the situation.)
After your first conversation, give your son time to process what he's heard. Tell him, "If you have any questions today or any time, please ask." Be prepared for him to ask verbally or through his actions if this was his fault, and let him know the problem has nothing to do with him and with your or his daddy's love for him.
The most important thing you can provide your child is assurance. "We love you. It's OK to feel sad. We can talk about this again. We will always love you!"
Marlene LeFever, Cook Communications Ministries Director, consulted Christian counselors Dr. Jim Oraker and Chaplain May Hertel for their help with this difficult issue.
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