Infidelity under any circumstance is difficult. However, when children are involved it becomes exponentially more challenging. Guilt, anger, and shame, common feelings connected to infidelity, are expressed. No matter how hard a parent tries to manage these feelings they are displayed, they are just too big. This means children sense something is going on, maybe mom or dad reacts faster, has less energy to play, is on their phone more often, or makes changes to the usual routine. Quite simply put, it’s hard to keep parenting consistently and thoughtfully when you’re either engaging in an affair or when you are hurt because you’ve discovered one.
Parents have a responsibility to be aware of their feelings so they can parent their children. Here are a few things to keep in mind about parenting when dealing with infidelity:
1. Infidelity breeds anxiety. Anxiety triggers all sorts of problematic behaviors. Once our system has had enough anxiety we become overwhelmed and need to release. Spurts of it flow out through yelling, impatience, and stone cold shutting down silence. At its worse, anxiety causes parents to engage in neglectful and abusive patterns.
2. When we are anxious our instinct is to get others involved. The famous family therapist Murray Bowen believed that anxiety was the catalyst to problems in relationships. Very few people can manage anxiety on their own. Our tendency is to speak about our anxiety so we feel relief, and so we feel like people are on our side. It’s inappropriate for a parent to talk to their child about the feelings they have towards their partner or the situation. The need to do so will be higher during an affair, but a parent must stop themselves.
3. Don’t try to get your child on your side. Don’t talk bad about your partner and don’t work at getting your child to empathize with you. People engaging in the affair will want to use their children to help them manage their own guilt, and the person on the other side of the affair will want to express their anger to their child. Neither behavior is acceptable.
4. You and you partner need to set your differences aside and get your story straight. How are you going to explain the changes in the family to your child? Your language should be similar, clear, and concise. The information you provide to your child should be clear about what changes have occurred and what else can be expected, without disclosing inappropriate content. Even an older child will struggle with the truth. This is not a situation where they need to know all the details.
5. Seek help. Typically the feelings are so strong it is hard to manage parenting. I would recommend seeking professional support. It’s not just for you; it’s also for your child.