The answer is as little as possible. Children may require an explanation if they see or hear evidence of infidelity or if they are going to read about it online or in the media. In some situations, talking with your children is the only way they can understand what is happening in the family. However, children should never be told details of an affair and asked to keep it secret. Share only with your children what you are comfortable with them sharing with friends, teachers, and relatives. If you and your spouse are working to repair your relationship rather than separating or divorcing then it is usually better to keep the matter discreet.
Consider the psychological and emotional burden it would place on a child to overhear his mother accusing his father of loving another woman. Imagine a father, feeling hurt and betrayed, blurting out to his children that their mother is having sex with a coworker. Exposure to such information can create fear, confusion, and insecurity for the child.
There are times when parents do find it is necessary to say something. For example, your children may ask, “Why are you and dad going to counseling every week?” or “Are you and mom getting divorced?” When this happens, it is best to sit down with your children together and answer their questions simply and honestly. Here are a few examples of age appropriate responses:
Preschoolers: “Mommy and Daddy have a problem that has nothing to do with you. We both love you so you don’t have to worry.”
Grade-Schoolers: “What have you noticed that has made you worried?” “Mom and Dad are having difficulty getting along, but we still love each other and want to work things out.”
Teen and Young Adults: “Yes, your mom and I are going to see a therapist every Monday night for the next few months. I made a mistake and got too friendly with a woman at work, but your mother and I love each other and want to stay together.”
What children want to know most is that their lives will not be disrupted and that they can count on their parents to be accessible and responsive to their needs. By limiting exposure to details, discussing fears, and constantly reassuring children of your love and commitment to them and your marriage, you create an atmosphere of safety and emotional security for your children.
For further information, a book I frequently recommend to my clients on this subject is “Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity” by Shirley P. Glass, PhD.
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