Explaining child custody is something that no parent wants or ever anticipates having to do. It is a difficult conversation even with the most amicable of break-ups and divorces. Here are our guidelines for taking the guesswork out of what to say during conversations and how to assure your child that even though their home and family may look a little different, they will be loved and cared for.
Child Custody: Be proactive
The most important thing you can do is to be proactive in telling your children as soon as you can. When you have worked out the details with your ex, make a plan for when and how you will share the news.
Being proactive includes setting ground rules with your ex first. Come to an agreement about the setting and details for explaining the custody arrangement with your children and decide together who will take the lead in the conversation. Anticipate the questions your children may have so that you can address concerns around living arrangements, time with both parents, drop-off and pick-up details, and how time will be shared during summers and holidays. Present a united front and commit to speaking respectfully and avoid placing blame. Use simple language and keep your statements short and factual.
What you don’t want is to get caught off guard by a question that is important to your child but that you may not be prepared to answer. Being proactive means anticipating questions around unresolved issues or points of contention with your ex, which may cause either of you to respond to your child in a reactive or negative manner. Keep in mind that an important aspect of this initial conversation is to set up the expectation that their questions are welcome and their feelings are respected. A negative response by you or your ex may put your children off from coming to you again with their questions and fears.
This is also an opportunity to be proactive in setting an example for your children of confronting the reality of a difficult situation while modeling healthy ways to manage their emotions. We’ll share practical ways to do that in the following sections.
Child Custody: Keep it simple
While you do want to answer all your child’s questions honestly and age-appropriately, know that they may be easily overwhelmed by too much information. Let them know that you and your ex will be living in different homes and there will be some changes to the schedule and home life, but keep the information simple.
Remember that less is more. Don’t overwhelm them by diving into every detail, but give them time to digest bite-sized pieces of information. Stick to the necessary information about changes to their living arrangements and how time will be shared with each parent.
On the flip side, remember that keeping it simple doesn’t necessarily mean keeping it short. It can be tempting to rush the conversation just to get it over and done with. And while you don’t want to drag the conversation on needlessly, you do want to give your children enough time to process the information.
You know your children best. If you feel they need some space to think, sit with them and give them the comfort of your presence without the pressure to talk. If they have questions, respond with short, honest answers. Let them know that if they have questions later they can always come to you for more information.
Avoid going into details about why your relationship with your ex has broken down, but be aware that older children and particularly teenagers may already be aware of those issues. Try to stick to the facts surrounding child custody details, and always return to the fact that your child is safe and loved.
Child Custody: Focus on consistency
You can help alleviate some of your child’s fears about a new child custody arrangement by focusing on what will stay consistent in their daily life. Bring up things that they can rely on to be stable, such as their home, their school, their friends, and their extra curricular activities. These can be a touchpoint that you can return to if they express worries and fears about the changes to come.
If they get upset about “everything changing”, acknowledge that fear and return to an aspect of their life that will be a grounding point that they can rely on for consistency. School-aged children may be worried about the disruption to their schedule and how that affects their school life or perceptions from friends. You can say something like, “I know you are worried about going back and forth between our homes during the week. The biggest change is that Dad will pick you up from school on Thursdays so that you can spend Friday and the weekend together, but you can count on your schedule staying the same from Sunday night through school on Thursday.” This acknowledges their fear and reminds them that for most of the week their schedule will be consistent with what they know.
If you and your ex had an amicable divorce or have been able to keep the tension of your relationship separate from your children, you can talk about the changes in terms of being a family that looks a little different. For example when sharing the news with a young child you can simply say, “Daddy is going to live in a new home and you will spend three nights a week with him and four nights with me. We both love you very much and we are still a family, we just live in two different houses now.” This acknowledges the changes to come but reaffirms that your child will be safe and loved, both in the familiar family home and in the new space.
You can also talk about ways to make the new space feel like home. It can be comforting for a child to know that they can take their favorite toy, blanket, or family photo with them to their new home. Talk about how soon they will have two places that feel like home, and that they will always have two parents that love them.
Child Custody: Acknowledge their feelings
Change is hard, especially when it comes unexpectedly. While you want to keep the information about custody simple and to the point, you also need to avoid trying to make it seem like everything is going to be okay. From your child’s perspective, everything is not okay. Put yourself in their shoes and recognize that it will take time for them to get used to these big changes.
Children thrive on consistency, so it is to be expected that they will struggle with the changes to come. Glossing over the situation or dismissing their feelings is going to cause bigger problems down the road. Let them feel what they are feeling and use this conversation to model healthy emotional responses.
With younger children, helping them name their emotions can be very comforting and affirming. You can reflect back to them with a statement such as, “You feel sad that me and mommy aren’t going to live in the same house. It’s ok that you feel sad right now. Mommy and I love you very much.”
Acknowledging that your family is changing and that change is difficult will empower children of any age to feel and express their emotions. This again models a healthy emotional response and let’s them know that no matter how they feel about the situation, they can express those feelings and will still be loved.
At Torrone Law, we are here for you and will work to restore your family and support you during whatever challenge you are facing.