Trying to decide if, when, and how you should tell your kids about your/your partner’s sex addiction are complicated decisions. There are many factors that impact the decisions including: what they already know, their age and, what your partner thinks about telling them. This is something that many parents wrestle with out of a desire to “protect” their children. If a parent is dealing with sex addiction, it is healthy for parents to be honest with their children in an age appropriate way about what is happening in the family.
The children may already know.
Parents are often naive to what information their children know about an existing sexual addition of a parent. Kids usually know more than adults think they know. If things are at all tense in the home, they have most likely noticed! If any changes have been made in their parents’ relationship, they have most likely noticed. In some situations, children have even met the addict’s acting out partners or have found the addict’s pornography. If things are tense or different in the home, regardless of a child’s age they can usually sense that something is wrong.
Disclosing vs. Discovering…
Discovery of a sexual addiction is more painful to children than their parents disclosing the information to them willingly. Ironically, parents often choose not to tell their children about sexual addiction out of fear causing emotional pain. Parents have an especially difficult time disclosing the information if the child is already hurting emotionally. But, the same information is still true, it will be more hurtful for the child if it is kept a secret. Sometimes the reason the child is feeling emotional pain is related to information they know about a parent’s addiction that they are not discussing.
What do I tell them?
Kids probably already know something is up and not telling them is only hurting them more, but what in the world do you tell them? Well, it depends on their age and developmental maturity. Preschool aged kids can sense something is wrong but they may not even know what sex or an addiction is. So telling them specifics in most cases is not helpful. They know something is wrong with mommy and daddy, so their sense of security is shaken. You might tell them something like:
“Daddy broke a promise and lied to Mommy, so Mommy is feeling sad. Daddy is trying to tell the truth now because he feels sad that he broke a promise and lied to Mommy. Even though we are sad. We love you very much and nothing will ever change that.”
It’s ok if they feel sad too.
You can also reassure them that it is okay if they feel sad too. Additionally, it is good to remind children that it is not their fault and they did nothing wrong. Allow children to ask questions. You disclosing your addiction/pain associated with your partner’s addiction, will help them to feel more comfortable with telling you when they are struggling with something or are having negative emotions.
Considerations for older kids.
For older kids, you may consider telling them that you are struggling with a sexual addiction, and explain to them what that is, without telling any specific detail about the sexual acting out. If you do, also explain your recovery plans like therapy and 12-step program.
This can be helpful because it is common that addictions are passed down in families. They may also be looking at your pornography stash or know about your affairs. Not addressing those things specifically, may only pass along the message that sex addiction is okay and must be kept a secret. Promoting openness and honesty will encourage your children to do the same if they are struggling in the future. If your children ask questions, do your best to answer them, even if the answer is not what they want to hear. Honesty will help the whole family heal. If you aren’t sure how to answer without giving hurtful details, tell them you will get back to them with an answer.
Additionally, it is the addict’s responsibility to disclose and part of the recovery process to disclose to loved ones. It also helps children see that their parent is taking responsibility for his/her actions and willing to change. It is the best case scenario if the other parent is also present and can be honest about their feelings without putting down the addict. Neither parent should take the victim role during conversations about sex addiction, that will only lead to children feeling like they have to pick side. Before talking to children about sex addiction, both parents should decide together what is going to be said.
It ultimately depends on your child.
Navigating what information to share about a sexual addiction is always a difficult decision that ultimately depends on your child. It is recommended that you work with a therapist who has a sex addiction specialty to help you plan your conversation. In some situations, you could also take the child to a therapist you trust to facilitate the disclosure conversation. Also, remember disclosure is not a one-day thing. If they have questions later, you should try to answer them. If you want to provide them with more information as they get older, you can. Parents and children, alike, do not like the disclosure process — but later, all family members are usually glad it took place.
Much of this information is taken from “Mending a Shattered Heart – A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts” by Stefanie Carnes. The book has a whole chapter devoted to this topic and can be helpful in when navigating discussions with children about sex addiction.