How to Talk to Children When Sexual Sin Affects the Family

Written by Caroline Von Helm, M.A. and Brad Hambrick, Th.M.

This resource is taken from the “False Love: Overcoming Sexual Sin from Pornography to Adultery and “True Betrayal: Overcoming the Betrayal of Your Spouse’s Sexual Sin” seminar notebooks.

When sexual sin invades the life of a family, every member of that family is greatly affected. Not only is the impact large, but the impact is also unique upon each individual family member. The most innocent of the victims, and the ones who frequently received the least quality or quantity of care, are the children.

Children young and old need both honesty and hope during and after the crisis. The facts, which should be age-appropriately honest, need to be delivered in a way that is clear and as hopeful as the situation allows. As parents (both offended and offending parent), our instinct is most often to shield our children from this hurtful reality and to try to make things “less painful” for them.

“Less painful” is an appropriate goal as long as it does not come at the cost of being truthful or leaves a void for legitimate questions a child may have about his/her family, home, and future. If “less painful” compromises the child’s age-appropriate ability to know the truth or being able to anticipate the future (at least to the degree that is possible), then “less painful” creates more harm than it alleviates pain.

Case Study:

The following case study is a fictitious example of a family of six walking through the process of a mother slowly finding out that her husband is committing adultery with a co-worker. It is meant to help you apply the recommendations that follow, by having an example that is less personal than your current situation.

Caitlyn is three years old. She stays at home with her mom most days, enjoys being outside, and loves reading stories with her dad. She has older siblings who go to school. Caleb is six and in the first grade, Kayla is eleven and just entering middle school, and Jacob is fourteen and starting high school. From the outside, all looks good for this family.

They are active at church, have a small group that they love. The children are involved in sports, drama, and other extra curricular activities. Dad works hard to support his family financially. They look like your typical American family; the kind that you would want to have over for dinner.

Behind closed doors things are quite different. Dad is critical, and emotionally absent most of the time. He will do what is asked, but rarely seems excited and does not initiate family time or individual activities with the children. He asks the standard questions about grades, school, and friends; but seems uninterested beyond those topics.

Mom does her best to compensate for Dad’s lack of involvement by over-involvement. She tries to make sure they have everything they need… and want. This creates tension between she and dad, because they can never get ahead financially. For this and other reasons, Mom and Dad neither value time with each other.

The most recent tension has been created because mom found some emails from Dad to a co-worker that to her seem flirtatious and inappropriate. Dad quickly minimized them and then proceeded to berate mom for looking at his personal things and not trusting him.

Over the course of the next few months, mom continues to see emails, and eventually text messages that confirmed her suspicion that Dad was having an affair. After multiple attempts at confrontation and many arguments, dad admitted to his actions. Mom was devastated, Dad was angry, and the children were confused.

What Does the Family Do Now?

The scenario above is meant as a framework to use when discussing how to discuss sexual sin by a parent with children. There are many things to keep in mind as you prepare for this type of conversation. The points below are meant to orient you to how these situations affect a child, appropriate expectations of a child when he/she first learns of the sexual sin, expectations afterward learning of the sexual sin, and the type of assistance a child needs to process this information.

1. An event of this magnitude and the subsequent parental conflict / absence / distraction can be traumatic for the children involved, even adult children.

2. If your child has not reached puberty and/or has no knowledge of or exposure to sex, your conversations about what has happened should not describe what happened in sexual language.

3.As children age and develops sexually, they may ask questions about things that have happened during this time. Answering these questions in age-appropriate ways is an important part of helping them process the grief and trauma associated with these events.

4. Your child’s feelings may be more or less intense than the feelings of the offended spouse. Both parents need to accept whatever feelings surface, help the child to name those feelings, and understand how those feelings relate to the changes in their life, home, and family.

5. If a traumatic experience happens to children who are pre-school age or above, they will remember it and may need to process those memories at each developmental stage as they are able to comprehend more of their personal-family history.

6. Most children will not process (healthily assimilate into their life story) their emotions about a traumatic event until they feel safe enough to do it. Once you and your spouse have reached a “better” place and feel as if you are “moving on,” that may be when the children decide to process their own feelings. This will feel like it drags out the healing process for the parents, but you can not rush your children through their process anymore than the offending spouse could be rushed to repentance and the offended spouse rushed to forgiveness.

7. The biggest “damage” that has been done is undermining the child’s sense of security and definition of love. This is true regardless the age of the child. The care and aftercare for a child should focus upon providing a healthy sense of security and balanced expression of love.

8. When it comes to having the “what’s going on” talk, the ideal situation would be for both parents and a neutral third person to talk to the children together.

9. The content of the “what’s going on” talk should be decided before the talking to the child. If an agreement cannot be reached, then wait until an agreement can be reached. The time period that passes should be as short as possible, waiting more than four to six weeks becomes very confusing for the children.

10.There may have to be more than one conversation depending on the age differences in your children. If your children are in the same age / developmental range, then one conversation can be had with all family members present. If your children are at different age / developmental stages do not try to talk to everyone at the same time. But do make sure that what you say to everyone is as consistent in content and language as age-appropriateness will allow. Older children should be told if there are things their younger siblings do not know, and do not need to know at the current time.

11. Make sure there is someone in your children’s lives who will be their support. This is especially important for the older children and even children who are out of the house who often get overlooked in this process.

12. If the sexual sin is not resulting in lifestyle changes (i.e., parental separation, legal action, job loss, pregnancy, etc…) seek counsel about what to disclose to your children. All the information your children may need is that you and your spouse have encountered problems because of hurtful choices by a parent, and that Mom and Dad trying to make things better.

13. Encourage children to ask questions as they have them. It is unreasonable and unhealthy to expect children to formulate their questions at the “information meeting.” When you give them the freedom to ask questions, it is wise to also tell them you don’t have all the answers and that there may be some things that will stay between mom and dad.

14. Remember that children will process at a slower pace and may ask questions years after the occurrence. Being prepared for this prevents the emotional processing of your children from setting you back or giving you reason to be unforgiving. A negative emotional response by the parents to a child’s questions, is a factor that reinforces the common false belief that the child has some responsibility for what happened in the marriage.

15. Guard yourself from feeling the need to “make up” for what is happening in your family. Neither gifts nor penance-love will make up for the offense or alleviate the impact of the offense. If anything they will teach a distorted view of the gospel, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and family. Patiently submitting to the reconciliation process is the most helpful thing for your children (when possible). Only God can heal the hurt in your children not things or imbalanced love.

If the sexual sin is resulting in a lifestyle change, then consider the following:

Birth through Five Years

While you may think that at these ages children are not be able to tell something is going on, children are very perceptive at reading emotional changes in their environment. If mom is always crying, dad is always angry, or there is bickering and fighting, children in this age group can tell. They may become more “needy,” experience developmental delays, or regression in already learned skills as expressions of how changes in the home environment are affecting them.

The goal for parents is to be both real (fake calm when you think the child is looking is not enough) and reassuring. Although your spouse may have had an affair, you still have to be a parent. You cannot spend days crying, angry, or searching for more/new information. If restraining these behaviors is hard for you, ask for help. Take time to see a counselor or ask a friend to work through these True Betrayal materials with you.

No conversations should be had with your preschooler unless a decision is made for the offending spouse to leave for an extended or indefinite period of time.  If spouses are staying together and no one is moving out, then preschool children do not need to know what has happened.  Later in their life (as adults or older teens) there may be an appropriate time to share what God has done or what happened, but preschool children have no way of comprehending what you would tell them.  The main goal at this age is to provide consistency, love, and safety.  This is their greatest need.  Leaning on friends and trusted caregivers will be important during this time.

If the offending parent leaves the house and the child is between two and five years old, you should give some explanation as to where the parent is going. The most optimal plan would be for this conversation to be factual and done together with a third party present. The person leaving should be the primary one speaking and communicate the following information:

“I am going to stay with (location – the child will need to know because it can cause more anxiety to say he or she is just “going away”) for (duration – it is important to tell the child the duration so they know an ending point. If a time period can not be determined, then be honest and tell them you don’t know how long). I know it will be hard for you to be away from me, so I will come see you (give visitation plan).”

Notice in this conversation, you did not give the preschooler the answer to the “why” question. Most will ask, but some may not. Do not try to answer the “why” question for pre-schoolers unless they ask since it is hard for them to spontaneously transition to abstract thinking based upon a conversation prompt, especially in an emotionally powerful setting.

When they do ask “Why?” the offending parent should tell them:

“I made some choices that I should not have made, and when we make bad choices that really hurt people we need to give the person we hurt time and space. So, I am going to (location) to give Mommy/Daddy some space.” Reiterate your love for them and that you will miss them.

There will be tears, shock, and an inability to comprehend what you are saying. Their brains are not developed for this type of transition. They do not have the life experience to grasp what it means or know what to do when a parent is absent for punitive reasons (“punishment” is the category they do have to comprehend a marriage “time out”).  Be patient. Prepare for tantrums and disruptions to their sleeping and eating patterns.

The experience of children (at any of the ages discussed) will look a lot like grief, because they are grieving the loss of what they have known as “normal.” For this reason the parenting tips and family devotion appendix will be an adaptation to the “Taking the Journey of Grief with Hope” seminar. That seminar is based upon the same nine steps of suffering as this study, so you should be walk with your child through his/her experience based upon what you are learning in this study.

If the parents stay together, then keeping preschooler’s routine as normal as possible is vitally important. Enrolling in programs like Mother’s Day Out or preschool for a couple of days a week may allow the offended parents time to work through what has happened.

The offended spouse will often say to the offending spouse, “Your relationship with your child is your relationship. I’m not getting in the middle of it.” This is a deadly message to send your child. Children have not yet learned the intricacies of relationships; they have not learned to talk about their feelings.

As a parent, the offended spouse must model the journey of forgiveness. This includes encouraging the child to express their feelings and telling the offending parent what they are thinking. You are not responsible for the other parent’s behavior, but you can teach your child in the midst of this difficult time how to handle conflict and express emotions healthily.

It is important to think about what you are teaching your child through modeling at this time. Children will learn more about emotions, reconciliations, and relationships from what they see you do with/towards your spouse than what you “teach” them during this time.

Elementary Age Children

At each stage in the developmental discussion, all of the previous material should be considered still relevant unless the next maturation level material says something contradictory.

Elementary age children are more verbal and have more cognitive ability than pre-schoolers, but they should not have sexual knowledge or understanding yet. Unless you want to explain sex to them, you still do not reveal the nature of the conflict.

When talking with your elementary aged child about what has happened, it is wise to say things like:

“Mom/Dad made choices that hurt me.”

“Mom and Dad are working on making our marriage better.”

“Mom/Dad is working on forgiving….”

“Mom/Dad is working on building trust with….”

Children at this age will ask lots of questions, like “What did you do? Are you getting divorced? Do you still love Mom/Dad?” Be honest where you can, but when the answer to their question is not age-appropriate or is undecided it is appropriate to say, “Some of what happens between Mom and Dad is not beneficial for you to know,” or, “Those are things you can know when you are older.”

Reassurance of your love for them is important during and after each of these conversations. Pointing them towards God and prayer is essential. Pray with your child after these conversations. But when you do pray speak in ways that express where they are, not trying to “teach” them what or how to think instead of talking to God on their behalf.

These conversations are a great opportunity to talk about how even parents may let them down, but God that is faithful and will not let them down.

If the decision is made that the offending spouse is going to leave the home for a time period, then a conversation much like you had with your two to five year old will be necessary.

Middle / High School Children

By this age, children are becoming sexually aware and likely know what sex is. You as their parents may have already had “the talk” with them. If this is the case, then being factually honest about the sexual sin is appropriate. You would rather your child hear your confession from you than from someone else.

If the sin is adultery or an emotional affair, you should not give details about the sexual relationship. They may want to know how long the affair went on, and it is important to tell them. They may ask questions about the other woman or man: what they look like, if they have children, how old their children are, and similar questions. These are the details that are important for pre-teens and teens. It is appropriate to answer these questions.

The biggest thing that children in these age categories will be thinking about is “How does this affect my life?” They are at an egocentric time period in life so their fear is that somehow their standard or norm of living will be altered.

The other tendency for children at this age will be for them to take on the role of protector for the offended spouse. It is vitally important to not let the child do this. It will be tempting to want a “team” against the offender, but in the long run will only do more damage that has to be worked through.

If the situation extends and children are not kept informed as to the general things that are happening in the restoration process, some children may begin to defend or excuse behaviors of the offending parent.  Most times this happens is a child’s attempt to just want things “back to normal”, or because they feel sorry for the parent that has had to leave.  Affirming your child’s care for that parent, validating the “hardness” of the situation, and reassuring them that you both love them is what is needed.  Do not try to get them on a side, give them time and space to continue processing their own feelings, ask if they have questions, and provide the freedom to appropriately share what they are experiencing.

Adult Children

Sometimes children who have moved out of the house are thought to be okay or unaffected. This is simply not true. Children, regardless of their age, will feel like their basis of security is shaken when their parents marriage is traumatized or dissolved.

Adult children may feel like all that they knew growing up was false. They will question if the offending parent was really who they thought they were, and may even question the validity of marriage. The disclosure of sexual sin can be used as an excuse to turn from God and how they were raised.

It is vitally important for children in this age group to have an adult who knows them and is aware of the situation to reach out to them and check on them regularly. Unless someone reaches out to them, they are forced to process things alone and without the benefit of seeing what their parents are going through. An objective opinion, not just what their mom and dad are saying, will be an important part of them processing these changes in their home of origin.

When the Children Find Out First

What do you do if your child comes to you because they saw a parent looking at things on the internet, or flirting with someone in public, or with questionable magazines?

In this situation, it is important for the offended spouse to assure the child of the following things:

  • They did the right thing by coming to you.
  •  You will do your best to find out what happened.
  • Once you do have an answer, plan a time for both parents to talk with the children.
  • Continue to validate that they did the right thing in speaking up, they are not in trouble, and they did not get any one else in trouble (witnesses don’t cause problems; they only observe them).

If a child is in the position of witnessing the sexual sin and then reports it, it is very likely they will feel responsible for the disruption in the family which ensues. They will need consistent reassurance that they did not cause the disruption. Ideally, this reassurance should come from both parents as well as the adult individual identified as supporter of the children.