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FAQ: What should I tell my kids about my husband’s porn problem?

Last Updated: June 1, 2015

Lisa Eldred

Lisa Eldred is the Educational Content Strategist at Covenant Eyes, and has 10 years of experience in researching and writing about porn addiction and recovery. She has authored numerous blog posts and ebooks, including More Than Single, Hobbies and Habits, and New Fruit, which was co-authored with Crystal Renaud Day. Her writing about faith and fandoms can be found at Love Thy Nerd.

Josh had been losing a battle against pornography and adultery for years when he decided he wanted to end his marriage. He had met someone new and wanted to move out, leaving his wife, Serena, devastated and alone.

But Serena wasn’t the only one who suffered. He also left his children without their father.

What should I tell my kids about my husband's porn problem

Unfortunately, Josh and Serena’s story isn’t unique. When a husband’s porn use comes out, wives are left devastated…and even when the husband is repentant, there are often months (if not years) of tension and fighting in the home while both sides pursue healing. And all the while, the kids are on caught in the crossfire, watching how Daddy and Mommy treat each other.

This leads to one of our most frequently asked questions: “What should I tell my kids when my husband is hooked on porn?

Oof, that’s a big question, isn’t it? We could probably write an entire e-book just on that. These women want to protect their kids, but they also can’t just pretend like everything’s fine, either.

So, what should a mother say?

Each family differs so much, it’s hard to even know where to start. If you’re a wife in this situation, the best advice we can give is to get someone else’s advice. That might be a professional counselor, a mentor or spiritual advisor, or a couple of close friends who know you, your husband, and your kids well. If you’re still communicating with your husband, he should probably be brought into the loop on this as well.

Licensed counselor Kay Bruner offers several pointers for wives with this question. “The thing about children in a family is they know the emotions,” Bruner says. “They may not understand what the facts are of the situation, but they understand the emotions. And the thing that happens with children, especially younger children, is that they will make up an explanation in their own minds for what’s going on, and many, many times that explanation will be self-blaming.” Bruner offers some thoughts for distressed wives:

  • If there is any measure of visible marital distress in the home, kids need to be at least be told something. They need to hear from a parent so they don’t begin inventing stories on their own.
  • If the marriage is in real distress, such as separation or divorce, the children need to know the truth from you so they don’t hear it from another source.
  • Ideally, dad is the best person to have these conversations with the kids, disclosing the details of his porn problem. If dad is unwilling, mom should disclose enough information to make sure the kids know the truth without being overly slanderous.
  • Conversations need to be age-appropriate. This will depend on the child’s level of cognitive maturity (a five-year-old has a different ability to process information compared to a 10-year-old) and their previous understanding of sexual matters. Teens, for instance, need the straight up truth.

Regardless of what you tell your kids, keep an eye on their mental health. Your husband’s porn use brought trauma into the home, and they may need help as well.

Stopping the cycle before it starts

No matter what you tell your kids specifically, you do need to address pornography on a very general level. Start by protecting your kids online. Get a Covenant Eyes family account, and install this protective monitoring software on every computer, smartphone, and tablet in the home. You may also want to add Internet Filtering for your kids. The last thing you want right now is for them to accidentally stumble on your hubby’s browsing history and wind up with the same problem.

One of the things to emphasize to your kids is this: the Internet, while good, can be dangerous, and that pornography hooks people. It hurts people, and it’s very hard to stop watching once you start. Tell your kids you want them to keep from ever getting to that point. Make yourself a safe person for them to talk to about online temptations. If you have never had this conversation with them and they have already seen porn (which they may have), you need to provide support, not judgment. If this is the case for you—and we pray it’s not—you will find help in our e-book, When Your Child is Looking At Porn.

A happy ending

Remember Josh and Serena? Serena didn’t tell us exactly what words she used with her kids…but she made the choice to invite them into the family’s recovery process, and she prayed with them for their daddy:

The children and I just prayed constantly. I read to them from the Bible about the Prodigal Son, and how this was a picture of Daddy. Prodigals leave home and forget where they come from for a season. They leave home and live like the devil, and leave the ones they care about behind. They lose their senses. But when the prodigal comes home he is welcomed with open arms, completely forgiven.

Three months after Josh’s adultery came into light, Josh called Serena and begged her to pray for him. He had come to a personal crossroads, realizing how unfulfilled he was, and was ready to come home. And while it wasn’t easy, and while it took their entire family some time and major changes to heal, Josh and Serena have continued to fight for their family’s restoration:

The fight to keep our marriage wasn’t just about me and Josh; this fight is about the future generation. Josh and I have four boys and two girls. I want our boys to grow up knowing that pornography is wrong, and while it may be a temptation, God has tools and ways to fight it. Friends and accountability will help in the battle. I want our girls to learn how to pray for their brothers and their future husbands, because this is not an easy fight. Often we make so many excuses allowing this addiction to grow into something than seems unmanageable. I want hope to arise that this battle is worth fighting. The rewards for living a life free from the addiction to pornography is worth every battle.

  • Comments on: FAQ: What should I tell my kids about my husband’s porn problem?
    1. Xavier on

      Let me be diplomatic in regard to the question: What should I tell my kids about my husband’s porn problem? Answer: ARE YOU NUTS?

      There’s stuff that’s your business with your spouse, as the other ADULT in the relationship, not grist for the kids to sift through. So Mr. up and left the missus, and for some other dame? That’s the problemo that needs to be parsed out to the tykes, keeping it age-appropriate, claro, not every sordid detail that contributed to that particular impasse.

      Turn it around. Maybe it was the wife who was into kinky sex, met who she thought was her real soulmate in some cesspool of an affair, and left Dad with the offspring. So, is the abandoned husband to let on to the kids about their mother’s propensities behind closed doors? Suffice it for them to know that she went for some loser of a guy over good, old Dad AND left them all to their own devices!

      People, do regain some old-fashioned discretion, will you? Or have we all been infected by the talk show, tell-all ethos prevalent in the world today?

      Reply
      • Luke Gilkerson on

        I see your point, but it might be more helpful if you tell me what elements of the article you find disagreeable. I think the general tenor of your point is good, but I fail to see why how it is different from the opinion expressed in the article. First, the article stresses the need to seek professional advice. Then the article seeks to be sensitive to the emotions of the child that has inevitably picked up on tensions in the home. Then the article stresses the need for age-appropriate conversations, not getting into needless nitty gritty details. Nowhere does the article endorse the idea of telling children mature details for which they have no grid. Can you elaborate what you mean?

      • Xavier on

        Okay, here goes, although I thought I had stated my opinion quite clearly already.

        “Ideally, dad is the best person to have these conversations with the kids, disclosing the details of his porn problem. If dad is unwilling, mom should disclose enough information to make sure the kids know the truth without being overly slanderous.”
        Need I say more, Luke? Talk about a statement – in its first sentence – that shoots the idea of discretion and sensitivity for youthful mentalities in cold blood. Yeah, Dad, you have an immoral, shameful and identity-sapping addiction BUT please, “disclose the details of (your) porn problem” with the kids; share the shame and stigma with them: that’ll give them something to ponder and try to make sense of when they go to bed that night. Maybe they’ll also want to confide in their best friends what sensational revelations their Old Man made to them the day before, ha!

        But, guess what? “If dad is unwilling, mom should disclose enough information to make sure the kids know the truth without being overly slanderous.” Well, what do you know? The Maternal Information Service can be counted on to unmask the fiend who the kids until then have looked to for leadership and guidance. But, Mom, kindly refrain from being “overly slanderous”, okay, there’s a dear. After all (and the following meme recurs incessantly on this blog), you’re the snow white innocent victim of that pervert you’re married to, your character flaws eclipsed totally by the latter’s uber-heinous habit.

        Under the circumstances, one of the problems that affects Mom, especially in regard to marital intimacy, is her “husband’s porn problem”; the major problem that confronts the kids is Dad leaving Mom (and them at home) for someone else. THAT is what the children need support dealing with. Would you burden them with something that is not their place to shoulder? Remember, there is something called: need-to-know. And if and when Dad returned, would they also help keep tabs on him to help him kick the habit? Should they spend their time wondering what on earth he might be up to in the den, or what might be going through his mind, or if he still has the hots for the Old Lady? What lunacy, eh, Luke?

        Come on, I thought a statement as inane as the one I quoted above didn’t need this degree of elucidation.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        The very basis of your statements shows that we’re coming from very different presuppositions (or at the very least still misunderstanding each other).

        1. You seem to think “disclosing the details of his porn problem” must necessarily mean mentioning details for which children are not ready to hear. This isn’t true, because we also said, “Conversations need to be age-appropriate” based on cognitive maturity and previous understandings about sex. I wholeheartedly agree that a children need to be told what they need to know. That’s is exactly what this article is about.

        2. You seem to also think that voluntary disclosure of the problem—specifically to the very people for whom your problem has harmed—is somehow reinforcing shame. I personally believe shame, when felt about something that is truly shameful, is a good thing. It is only when that shame is accompanied by the belief that our sins are somehow irredeemable or that we are irreparable that shame becomes toxic. It is in the act of disclosure and seeking forgiveness that this kind of shame can be lifted. I make a habit of confessing my sins to my kids all the time—specifically when I know my sin has impacted them—and I believe our relationship is stronger for it.

        3. You seem to think that knowing the shameful cause of an obvious rift in the home is worse than not knowing the cause but feeling the rift anyway. This is the very reason why disclosure to children can be important (provided they are given only the details they need to know): the presence of a porn-induced rift is already harming the household, so it is better the children not invent their own erroneous reasons (that are often self-blaming).

        4. You seem to believe that because it might be hard for a hurting wife to follow this advice, that it is best not to give the advice at all. Can a woman disclose information about her husband’s sin without being overly slanderous? Sure. Would it be hard not to seek revenge through slander? Yes. Does this mean we shouldn’t mention that slander is a bad idea? Absolutely not.

        5. You seem to think we cast all wives as innocent victims and all porn-using husbands as perverts. This overlooks the many stories from women who talks about how their husband’s personal porn use awakened in them (once they got past the shock of it all) their own sins and unhealthy proclivities. If we chose to merely typecast all marriages this way, we ought to leave these stories out.

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Perhaps a scenario is in order here.

        I know a woman who recently packed up her belongings and took her children out of their home. The reason is because her husband is constantly indulging in porn, and after repeated attempts to solve the problem, the situation as only worsened. It got to the point where the oldest child (10 years old) started stumbling on pornographic content on the computer. After continued attempts to safeguard the home, the husband communicated that he didn’t care much what the children saw and he will continue to look at porn all he wants.

        After leaving the home and setting in at her parent’s house, she pulled the kids aside one by one to talk with them. To the 10-year-old she said, “We left home because Daddy is making some choices right now that I don’t agree with. You remember those pictures you saw on the computer? Part of the problem is he is looking at those pictures and he’s also leaving them out for you and your brothers to see. As much as I didn’t want to go, I didn’t want to continue to live in that situation anymore. When you’re married, you make a promise to be faithful to someone, and when Daddy looks at those pictures, he’s not being faithful to me. I’ve already talked to your father about this, and he knows I am talking to you. I hate that our home is broken up, and I know you miss your father. I just didn’t want to you wonder what was going on and blame yourself. This is a problem between your father and I, and it is a problem we will continue to talk about. I believe your father is a better man than this, and I don’t want to give up on our marriage. Just as I have sinned against your father in the past, he sometimes sins against me, and this has become a problem that I know we couldn’t resolve while we were living with him.”

        For the younger siblings the conversation was briefer and didn’t include information about the pornography specifically, as they have no grid for what pornography is.

        Now, I’m probably paraphrased her comments to her 10-year-old some, as I’m sure the conversation was longer and perhaps more nuanced, but you get the idea.

      • Xavier on

        10 Things I Learned From the Article (and comments for) “What Should I Tell My Kids About My Husband’s Porn Problem?”:

        1. Luke and I are still at loggerheads over it and most likely will remain so.
        2. We are indeed “coming from very different presuppositions”, with me growing up with mores in which you had “unmentionables” among your garments, euphemisms for bodily functions/anatomical parts (so?), and in which pornography was, and still is, a TABOO topic. You just do your best to sidestep it and avoid mentioning it; and, of course, you do your utmost to shield MINORS from it. Adults should be able to take care of themselves.
        3. The article is poorly worded, necessitating a barrage of explanation from good old Luke.
        4. Lisa Eldred is a closet feminist betrayed by Freudian slips.
        5. The real-life scenario provided at the end is quite apropos and I find myself agreeing with the implication that it was the best way to handle the situation in THOSE PARTICULAR CIRCUMSTANCES.
        6. Any man who exposes his children, through design or neglect, to pornography is an untermensch who deserves to be left with his computer as his only companion until he croaks.
        7. The woman in the scenario demonstrated remarkable restraint, perhaps because:
        8. Luke can PARAPHRASE excellently when the need arises.
        9. Shame is cool when earned, meaning you AND your spouse are fair game if you’ve left the straight-and-narrow.
        10. I admire Luke for ‘fessing up to the kids and asking for their forgiveness, since I do, too, the caveat being that it must not pertain to pornography (see 2.).

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        1. Agreed.

        2. Thanks for agreeing with me about our differing presuppositions. I, for one, am happy to not have grown up in the world you described.

        3. Guess we’ll have to aim more to your standards next time. I am happy to hear, however, that I am “good old Luke” in your book.

        4. Not sure what you mean by “feminist,” as that is a pretty loaded term and is associated with multiple movements. I think it’s fair (based on all Lisa has written for us) to say she would agree that certain feminists, a various times, do get some things right, and I would be inclined to agree with her. But then again, a lot of movements get some things right, at least occasionally.

        5. Good to hear. I would also argue that the multiple scenarios encased in the same story (as each child would need to be dealt with individually) are direct applications of what the article states. I could paint other scenarios where the children aren’t told the details about pornography use, again applying the details from this article.

        6. Harsh, but true. So glad there is grace in the Gospel, even for the most wicked of folks.

        7. Agreed.

        8. Why thank you.

        9. Agreed.

        10. Knowing your upbringing, I understand your rationale, even if we must remain at odds.

      • Xavier on

        Opbringin’, eh? Aright, Couzin Lukey, no fus-no fret. Nohow, afer awl det jawin’ off wi yer, reckin ah needs me a lil sip o’ ‘shine dung by de baink. Maw, wer’s mah pipe? An’ yew hawgs, git op offn dis porch, ya hear??

      • Luke Gilkerson on

        Now yous bein’ jus crazie.

      • Xavier on

        HA!

    2. Poppy on

      What if you just found out a year ago that after 17 years your husband had a porn addiction because you got covenant eyes for your sons. And trying counseling once said he hated it and never went back now a year later…your 9 year old son walks in on his father viewing porn while mom is at work more than once. Then one day he can’t keep this secret anymore and breaking down crying begs you not to divorce his father. Now what?

      Reply
      • Kay Bruner on

        Hey there.

        Well, there is no one way to answer this question as far as the outcome of the marriage. I believe that is completely your choice, and there are many factors which only you can weigh.

        However, I would suggest first of all that you get your child into therapy, because he’s been put into a terrible position of keeping this secret in the belief that he has to save the family. From your description of events here, it sounds like dad may have threatened or coerced him to keep the secret? If so, I would say that rises to the level of abuse.

        I think you need a professional therapist to help you process this and decide what’s ahead. Your child’s therapist may be in a practice where you can find your own support as well, or you can reach out to another therapist for yourself in addition to a child specialist.

        For your own support in the meantime, check the online resources at Bloom for Women, where they take a trauma informed approach for partners. Your child has definitely been traumatized by this, and what you learn will also be helpful as you parent your child through this.

        I’m so sorry for the pain that you’re going through, and I believe that professional help is critical for your child especially.

        Peace,
        Kay

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