One of You Cheated, What Should You Tell the Kids?
What, if anything, should you tell your kids about infidelity?
Posted Sep 11, 2019
After infidelity is uncovered in your relationship, one of your biggest questions, if you have children, is likely to be, “What do we tell the kids?” No matter how ashamed or defiant or betrayed or aggrieved you feel, you need to think about the impact that cheating and potentially talking about it might have on your kids.
For many parents, the initial reaction is, “We’re not telling the kids anything about this. They’re not involved, and they don’t need to know.” For other parents, especially rightfully angry betrayed partners, the initial thinking might be, “Heck, yes, we’re telling the kids. I want them to know exactly what a horrible SOB you are.”
Neither reaction is especially healthy.
When something is amiss in the home, kids sense it. And because children are naturally self-centric, they assume that somehow the problem (whatever it is) is their fault. It doesn’t matter if you are dealing with infidelity or financial problems or addiction or any other adult life issue, your kids will pick up on the stress and emotional pain, and they will know that something is wrong. And unless you make it clear that yes, something is wrong but it’s not their fault, they will blame themselves.
They will have thoughts like:
- Mommy and daddy are always fighting. If I wasn’t such a bad boy/girl all the time, that wouldn’t happen.
- Mommy and daddy don’t pay as much attention to me as they used to. I must have done something wrong.
- If I’m really nice and do all my chores and don’t complain or make too much noise, then maybe things will go back to normal.
Children naturally assume they are the cause of family strife, even if they have no real idea about what they did to cause that strife—because they didn’t do anything. If this thinking is not corrected, they will start to feel defective, wrong, and unworthy of love and affection. Their self-esteem will plummet. They will develop a negative self-image. They will feel shame about who they are. And here’s the kicker: Unless you nip this thinking in the bud by letting them know that the stress and tension is not their fault, they will live with this flawed belief for the rest of their lives.
So letting your kids know at least a little bit about what’s happening is not optional; it’s a necessity of good parenting. The question isn’t whether you should tell them, it’s how to best go about it.
What to Say (and Not Say)
First and foremost, your kids don’t need (or want) to know specifics about your sex life, especially if it’s gone awry in some way. Usually, a general statement that one of you crossed a relationship boundary and the other is upset about it is more than sufficient.
NOTE: Anything you say to your kids cannot be unsaid. If you let something fly in the heat of the moment, you might regret that for the rest of your life.
In terms of what to say, I generally offer a slightly amended version of guidelines provided by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics. (They’re amended because infidelity and alcoholism are very different issues.) Basically, you need to let your kids know that, yes, something is wrong between mom and dad, and that:
- They didn’t cause it.
- They can’t fix it.
- They can’t control it.
- They can care for themselves by communicating their feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating themselves.
These simple talking points can stop your kids from blaming themselves for the dysfunction that is free-floating through your household. This will not stop their needfulness, their feelings, or their concerns, and that’s OK. The goal is to validate their experience and let them know it’s OK to talk about their feelings.
In all cases, I suggest that you agree in advance on what you will tell your children and the language you will use, and that you stick to that script as closely as possible. If you are struggling to agree on what to say and how to say it, seek advice from an experienced couple’s therapist. I also recommend that you speak to your kids together. No matter how angry you are, you need to put your kids first, and presenting a united front in terms of the current situation not being their fault and not being their problem to fix is a must.
No matter what, the information you share with your kids should be age appropriate. If your kids are more than a few years apart in age, you may need to have multiple conversations. If your children are very young, your disclosure might stop with a basic statement that mommy and daddy are mad at each other right now because of something one of them did. Then you can let them know that it’s not their fault, they can’t fix it or control it, and it’s OK for them to talk about their feelings. If you are actively working to heal from this issue, you can tell them that as well.
Older kids may ask questions about the specific nature of the situation and the possibility of divorce. If so, I suggest general but honest responses. If your kids have inadvertently found sexts or porn on the cheater’s laptop or phone, heard rumors about the infidelity at school, or walked in on the cheater in the act, you may need to confirm that, yes, there was infidelity. If so, do not get into specifics, and make sure you use age-appropriate language.