When Dad Cheats – What Do You Say To Teenagers?


Mom and Teen daughter sitting on couch talking to each otherNo one wants a spouse who cheats.  No one.  And many of us will react to it differently if we find ourselves in that position.  But when the kids know, it brings a whole different level to how you handle it.  Every word, every action is being absorbed by the developing humans around you.  What do you say to your teenagers when Dad cheats?  How do you handle it?  How do you act?  It’s hard, but you can do it.

First I will say that what you say and how you say it varies on the child.  The age, the sensitivity of the child, the bond each one has with their father (or other parent, it’s not really gender specific) are all factors at play.

In my household, my daughter knew before I did.

So whether or not to talk about it was not an option.  Well, I guess it was, but it’s a pretty big elephant to get around.  And I’m not skinny enough to get around an elephant that big in a room.  So, there was talking about it.

Something to keep in mind, I believe that relationships with parents are critical things.  I believe that it’s important for a child to have a healthy relationship with both the mother and the father.  I believe that we need to do all we can to help those relationships.  Not for the other person, but for the child.  I want my children to be mentally and emotionally healthy.  And having a good relationship with each of their parents is a part of that.

So what do you do when your child hates the other parent?  When your child knows that Dad cheated on Mom and is angry?  You tread very very carefully.

When Dad cheats, what you say to your teenagers is critical.  And challenging.  How do you condemn the actions, while still making it okay for them to love their father?

I didn’t want my children to feel like they had to take sides.  I didn’t want them to feel guilty for loving their dad, for them to feel like it was a betrayal of me to want to go spend time with their dad.  I wanted them to have a healthy relationship with their dad.  Even though I was feeling like he was a dirtbag.

Yeah, there’s no way around that.  That is the hardest part.  He cheated.  For years.  With multiple women.  And I found out after years of his running around.  It cuts deep.  Trust is broken.  I no longer saw someone I recognized.  I still struggle with seeing someone I once implicitly trusted without question as someone completely lacking morals, ethics, or integrity.  And yet, I have to convince my kids that it’s okay to love this person.  Some days this is a real challenge.

For my teenage daughter the challenge was her anger.  She knew what he had been up to for a year before I found out.  My heart broke for her.  She carried quite a weight for a very long time.  Helping her heal from this would not be easy.  She wanted to cut ties with him.  She wanted to change her name.

She never wanted to speak to or see him again.

I told her to wait.  I told her that she was justified in being angry, what he did was wrong.  But I also told her that I felt she would regret it in years to come if she cut ties.  I knew that there would come a day, when she got married or had her own child that his absence in her life would be a gaping hole.  And after years go by, those rifts can be hard to mend.  So I gave her permission to be angry.  I told her it was okay to hate his guts.  But to not let go, to not cut him out.  To leave the lines of communication open.  Even if she didn’t respond to him, to listen to him.  To not cut him off.

That was about four years ago.  Today they speak.  They do lunch.  She goes to his house for an evening or a weekend.  She’s been dress shopping with his new fiancé so my daughter can be a bridesmaid.  I advised her to not cut ties, and the bonds have been re-established.  It’s taken work, and it’s not been easy.  The relationship may be fragile, but it’s on its way to recovery.

My son was not so easy.  What do you say to your teenage son when his dad cheats?  That is not an easy one.  He’s in the beginning stages of relationships.  He’s trying to figure this out, and his dad does this?  Add to that we’d entered what I like to call the “grunting stage” of teen boy years and it gets even more challenging.

He didn’t want to talk about it.  Truth be told, I didn’t want to either.

But when he’s got an older sister that couldn’t wait to tell her younger brother about what an evil person dad was, and how he’d betrayed mom – well, it’s out there.

So, I picked my moment very carefully.  And while we were working in the yard, not looking at each other, I very carefully waded in.

“Hey bud, you know what your dad did.”

Grunt.  (Remember we’re in the “grunting stage” so I get to interpret that.)

“Just don’t ever do it.  It hurts.  It’s not okay.  It’s not cool to do that to someone.  Okay?”


That was our conversation.  I think I covered all of the essential elements.  He doesn’t like a lot of conversation (thus the grunting), but I couldn’t let him think that it was okay.  Just because I wasn’t crying all the time in front of them and falling apart – doesn’t mean I’m okay with what happened or what was going on.

I spoke to both my older kids at some point.  I had a message for them, and I’ve tried to live up to the message.

  1. What your Dad did was not okay. That’s not how you act in a relationship, it’s not how you treat someone you love.
  2. It turns out that your Dad is a crappy husband (yeah, those were my words).
  3. A husband-wife relationship is VERY different than a parent-child relationship.
  4. You can be a crappy husband and still be an okay Dad.
  5. It’s okay to love your Dad
  6. It’s okay to be happy to see your Dad and happy to spend time with your Dad.
  7. I believe having a good relationship with your Dad is important. I want that for you.  I want you to have that.
  8. I don’t want you to feel like you have to choose sides. I don’t want you to feel caught in the middle.  I want you to go and have fun with your Dad.  It’s okay to love him, and have a great relationship with him.  I want that for you.

I also at one point told my son that I was going to apologize in advance.

I told him that I was going to try really hard to not say bad things about his dad in front of him.  But, also, that I’m human and I might slip up.  And so, please forgive me, and know that I wouldn’t do that on purpose.  Because what he did to me was awful, but that I really did want him to have a good relationship with his dad and I didn’t want him to feel caught in the middle.

It’s hard taking the high road.  Especially when you’re dealing with someone who turns around and does his best to destroy you.  But I didn’t do it for him.  I did it for them.  I was a child who’s parents got divorced after 30 years together.  And it was hard.  My mom set a great example.  It took me awhile to be able to separate out the marriage relationship and the parental relationship.  I was hoping to help my kids along in that area.  Time will tell if I did.

When Dad cheats, it’s hard to know what to tell your kids – teenagers are no easier.  They are starting to figure out relationships for themselves.  To see one of their role models cheat and act like that’s okay is hard.  It’s NOT okay.  So there need to be some words.  But I really felt it was important to give them permission to have a great relationship with their dad – even if he did turn out to be a crappy husband.  He’s still their dad.  So I just keep the focus on that.

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Kristin, Senior Writer
Once Upon A Time, in another life, Kristin graduated from the University of Michigan with a plan to teach high school math. But then, life happened when she wasn’t looking…. She married an Army guy and 23 years, 3 kids, a few dogs, 7 homes, and 2 continents later she’s now a single mom living here in Colorado Springs. Along the way she volunteered for the Army, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and several schools; managed volunteer organizations, coached judo, trained to be a whitewater rafting guide, biked down Pike’s Peak and even managed to teach some high schoolers a little math before forging new trails writing, teaching and financial planning. She never knows what’s coming around the bend, but she’s learned to handle whatever life (and the Army!), throws at her with a smile and a laugh. She’s pretty sure you can get through anything with those, even if you have to fake it occasionally!!