Communication Currents

Divorce Disclosures: Why do I say these things to my kids?

April 1, 2007
Interpersonal Communication

Divorce is a painful and stressful process for everyone involved. Parents sometimes disclose negative things--intentionally or unintentionally--about the divorce to their children as a way to cope with the stress of the divorce. These disclosures, however, can be inappropriate for children to hear or unsuitable for their age. The impact of these disclosures on adolescents' well-being depends upon the purpose and type of disclosures; not all disclosures are harmful for children. In fact, certain kinds of disclosures are necessary and beneficial for children. Children need some information about the divorce in order to reduce their uncertainty about the state of their family. If children are uninformed about the divorce, they can feel deceived, which can produce mistrust and dissatisfaction with their family relationships.

Disclosures that make adolescents especially uncomfortable are those that are negative and targeted toward the other parent in some way. When one parent talks badly about the other, it places children in a difficult position as mediators. Adolescents are often uncomfortable with information that demeans the other parent or forces them to choose sides. Many parents make disclosures to their adolescents on a variety of topics related to the divorce, some of which are fairly sensitive, including financial issues, the reasons for the divorce, personal concerns, and negative information about the former spouse. Even topics that may seem relatively neutral, such as discussions about the inability to afford certain household goods, can produce anxiety in children and often occur in relationship to negative disclosures about the child's noncustodial parent (e.g., lack of child support).

Often times parents are unaware that some of the things they say to their children about the divorce are inappropriate. But, even if parents know that their disclosures are inappropriate, why is it that they sometimes disclose the information anyway? In addition to knowing what parents reveal to their children about the divorce process, it is imperative that practitioners and family members understand why parents reveal inappropriate information to their children about the divorce. Research by Afifi, McManus, Hutchinson, and Baker examined three factors--a lack of social support, the severity of the divorce stressors, and a lack of control over the stressors—that were likely to create a context in which parents were more likely to disclose inappropriate information to their adolescents about the divorce. In their sample of parent-adolescent dyads, they found that parents' inappropriate disclosures about the divorce and the other parent were associated with adolescents' diminished physical and mental health. However, the only factor that influenced custodial parents' inappropriate disclosures to their children was whether or not the parents believed that they had control over the stressors or control over how stressful the issues they faced became for them.

Divorce is a unique context in which to study stress because some of the stressors associated with it are relatively controllable (e.g., loneliness) and others are not (e.g., former spouse's negativity). Some custodial parents may feel as if they have little ability to change the source of their stress, primarily because the former spouse or other external circumstances are inhibiting their ability to change it. For instance, many parents are frustrated by their lack of control over custody decisions and financial support. When parents believe that their divorce stressors are out of their control, they may be more likely to turn to their children for emotional support. The occurrence of these stressors may increase the likelihood that parents confide in their children in order to provide a sense of stability in an uncontrollable world. The act of emoting one's frustrations through disclosures may provide catharsis and a sense of control when control is lacking. However, when parents who felt they were not in control disclosed inappropriate information to their adolescents, the disclosures had a debilitating effect on the adolescents' well-being.

Parents and children may also have different perceptions about whether or not the information that is being disclosed is inappropriate. Afifi and her colleagues found that adolescents thought that their parents' disclosures were more inappropriate than the parents believed them to be. They also discovered that adolescents' perceptions of their parents' disclosures had a stronger impact on adolescents' well-being than the parents' perceptions of their own disclosures. Whether parents believe that they are disclosing appropriate information to their children about the divorce may not be as important as what the children believe that their parents are communicating to them. The fact that parents are often unaware of the extent to which they disclose inappropriate information about the divorce to their children further demonstrates the importance of building educational programs that help parents understand how their communication influences their children's well-being. It demonstrates the need for parents to be very aware of what they are saying to their children about the divorce and how they are saying it, especially if it involves the other parent. Even if children do not respond to a parent's negative divorce disclosures, the disclosures may be affecting them physically and mentally.

Clearly, the degree of stressful interparental conflict may influence the extent to which parents disclose inappropriate information about the divorce to their adolescents, especially when the parents feel as if they do not have control over their stressors. When parents felt like things were out of their control, those who had a healthy or less strained relationship with their former spouse appeared to be distressed by their inappropriate disclosures to their children. Alternately, former spouses who had a strained relationship were not personally affected by their disclosures. Former spouses who have a stressful relationship with one another may be less mindful of their disclosures and their inappropriateness over time. If their conflict is on-going and they feel as if their stress is out of control, primarily due to the lack of ability to influence their former spouses' behavior, these parents may become accustomed to their conflict and be less mindful of the inappropriate disclosures that accompany it. Former spouses who have a turbulent relationship may also have certain interpersonal skill deficiencies that make them less cognizant of the inappropriateness of their disclosures.

Parents with less stressful conflict may also have different rules for what information is acceptable to disclose to their children. When inappropriate disclosures occur, they may feel distressed by them because they violate certain standards for privacy and respect that the parents set out for one another. The disclosures may foster rumination and regret and, consequently, anxiety because they have violated these rules. Former spouses who have a stressful relationship may also be less worried about the appropriateness of their disclosures than other parents because they have more negative attitudes toward their estranged partners and are not as concerned about damaging their child's perception of the other parent.

It is also important to remember that parents may have many other, very important, reasons for disclosing inappropriate information about the divorce to their children. Parents may disclose information about the divorce, even if they know it is inappropriate, in order to reduce their children's uncertainty, promote honesty, and educate their children about relationships, marriage, and divorce. Many parents may also feel justified in relaying their account of the divorce to their children, especially if their former spouse was the one who initiated the divorce or the circumstances of the divorce involved relational transgressions (e.g., infidelity). What this research suggests, however, is that parents, researchers, practitioners, and educators need to be aware of the conditions that might influence parents' disclosures, the impact of these disclosures on parents' and children's well-being, and potential differences in perceptions about the amount and impact of these disclosures for adolescents and parents alike.

About the author (s)

Tamara D. Afifi

University of California, Santa Barbara

University of California, Santa Barbara

Tara McManus

PennState University 

Doctoral Candidate