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How do I tell my 8-year-old daughter that the man she’s always known as her father isn’t her biological father?
Clinical Expert: Amanda Greenspan, LCSW
Q I have an 8-year-old daughter. The man she has always known as her father isn't her biological father. He is my soon to be ex-husband and has stepped out of her life as well. I would like to tell her the truth about who her father really is but need some advice on how and when to go about it. My 4-year-old son doesn't know the truth either.
Thank you for reaching out. This is a difficult situation, and it takes a lot of courage to have this conversation. First, set aside a good time for it. It’s best to have this conversation in a moment of calm. Ideal times might look like: a weekend, a day off from school, or after school, when your daughter has had some time to relax and complete her homework. This conversation should not be initiated before bedtime, before the school day, or during a time when your daughter might not have privacy to express her emotions. You’ll also want to allow time to answer any of her questions.
Keep in mind that the way you deliver the information is just as important as the information itself because it will shape how your daughter will interpret it. Try to speak in a calm, neutral, and confident tone. Do your best to avoid showing too much of your own distress; this can lead her to experience the information as something “awful.” When you share the information, be brief, honest, and clear so that she understands what you’re saying. It might also be helpful to speak slowly and pause, giving her time to process and ask questions. You’ll want to be prepared for a range of potential responses. Some children may not seem fazed, while others may become very upset or withdrawn, or ask a lot of questions.
After you’ve told her, avoid asking leading questions, like, “Are you sad or angry?” Instead, ask more general questions, like, “How are you feeling about what we talked about?” It’s important to validate and normalize your daughter’s reaction — whatever it may be — and let her know that any feeling she experiences is acceptable. For example, if she’s angry, you can let her know that you understand, and that it’s okay to feel angry. Follow your daughter’s lead and answer her questions as clearly as you can, but also be mindful not to overshare details that may be difficult for her to understand. If she asks a question that you don’t have the answer to, it’s okay to say that you don’t know. It’s even okay to give yourself time to respond. Let your daughter know that she asked a great question, and that you’ll need some time to think about how to best answer her. Just make sure to check back in to discuss the question.
With regard to your son, it may be helpful to speak with each child individually, so that they each have time to ask their own questions.This is a big and important step, but your children’s responses will be a process. Let them know that this is an ongoing conversation, and that they can ask more questions later. Be mindful to take care of yourself during this time so that you are best prepared to support your children as new thoughts, feelings, and emotions arise.