What to tell kids about father’s past

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Q: My ex-husband died two years ago. My children are 11 and 8. Their dad and I were married for five volatile years. He abused crack cocaine and created an environment that was unhealthy for our children and myself. Because of his erratic, threatening behavior and drug use I moved miles away. I did not have any family or friends. My children were 3 years and 3 months old. After my ex-husband finally became sober, I allowed him to live in my basement for four years. Unbeknownst to me he was dying. He had three drug induced heart attacks before he moved where I was. My son, who is 11 in particular has always wanted to know why I left his father. My ex-husband had adult children from a teenage marriage. One of them has promised, threatened, to tell them about their father. He was on drugs almost all of the other kids’ lives and was physically and emotionally abusive as well. He was also financially neglectful to all of his children. Because I was educated, my children never sufferred like the older children. How much should I tell my children?
My children are going for their first counseling appointment for grief and loss next week. I plan to keep them in counseling as long as necessary. My concern is that finding out this negative information will greatly exasperate their grief and loss. I forgave my exhusband years ago. I do not want my children to be hurt any further by their father. He was a decent father to my children because he was sober for the last four years. Though he was depressed and only marginally functional. I will await your answer.

A: I’m very glad you are taking your children to a counselor. That person has probably already told you that the most important thing for you to do is to find a way to be honest with your children within the limits of their age-levels and understanding. They need to know that they can trust you.
The adult child from the other family is clearly still angry with his (her?)father and is threatening to tell. It’s a shame that he thinks that spreading his anger and hurt around is going to help him. It won’t. But at least he has given you warning. Secrets like these are seldom kept for long so it’s essential that you get to your kids first. It’s far better that your kids hear from you that your ex-husband had a past than to hear it from their angry half-sib. You can emphasize that their father had straightened out by the time they knew him and that people can, and do, change. You can help them understand that they had a different dad than their half-siblings had. You can remind them that he was always decent and good to them and that their father loved them. And you can help them understand that their half-siblings deserve sompassion for their feelings. Your kids got the father they desparately wanted and never had.
I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 13 Aug 2006

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2006). What to tell kids about father’s past. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2006/08/13/what-to-tell-kids-about-fathers-past/