Talking to your child about your Virginia divorce

Posted on Nov 23, 2022 by Katie Carter


I think most parents know that they really shouldn’t be giving their children information about their ongoing divorce or custody case, especially if what they’re saying is (1) a lie, or (2) disparaging to the other parent.

And, yet, it still happens. Like, every day.

You’re human. He’s human. You’re under incredible amounts of stress. You’re worried, you’re angry, you’re downright terrified. No one understands your marriage and your issues like your spouse (who is no longer on your team) and your children.

No one else in the world has been privy to your more intimate moments. No one else knows any of you so well or understands the issues that you’re facing.

But children – even adult children – are still the children in a divorce context. Even if they’re 35 or 40 and have children of their own, it really doesn’t mean that they can handle hearing the details of your divorce, even if they think they can or they tell you they can. It’s damaging to hear one parent disparage the other parent. (And it may have some unintended consequences.)

It can be harder, once your child stops being a child. It’s tempting to want to be their friend – and, at some point, I do think it’s possible for mothers and children to be friends with each other. But, at the end of the day, you’re a mother first – not a friend first – and your child is a child first, and not a friend first. There are just some components of a mother/child relationship that are immutable and unchanging.

For little kids, I think that it’s a little more obviously inappropriate, but people still do it. I can certainly understand how easy it could be, especially since children are SO CRAZILY ADEPT at asking exactly the question that would illicit such a response. A simple, “Well, but, why, mommy?” can have an answer that, when read aloud in the courtroom, doesn’t paint you in the best light.

“Well, baby, because daddy’s sleeping with his secretary.” Eeeks. No, don’t say it! Even if the kids are asking THE questions. Even if they’re probing. Even if they won’t stop. Even if you’re so sad and you’re having a weak day. Even if you’ve literally never been angrier.

Keep the kids out of it. Talk to your girlfriends. Talk to your mom. Talk to your therapist. Go to, like, an axe throwing range. But don’t talk to the kids about your divorce or custody case.

What are the risks, if I have talked to my kids, or have accidentally admitted something I shouldn’t have?

It happens – but I don’t want to gloss over this, or make it seem like it’s okay, because it’s really, really damaging. There are a number of consequences you should be concerned about, and only some of them are legal consequences. Your first concern should be your child’s physical, mental, and emotional well being, even before you consider legal consequences. (But, luckily for you, the good decisions – the ones that lead to a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child who is willing to continue a relationship with you into their adulthood, are the same decisions that will serve you well legally.)

In general, the less said to a child about the divorce, the better. A simple, “We don’t know, but we’re working it out,” should suffice, or simply pointing out that mommy and daddy love you, and it’s our fault, not yours.

The biggest risk is that the court will interpret your behavior as parental alienation. Basically, parental alienation means that you use your influence with the child to harm their relationship with their other parent.

That’s a big no-no, and something that, in my experience, the courts tend to punish pretty heavily.

Dads are often guilty of it, too; it seems to be an equal opportunity issue. But, typically, it’s most effective when done by the primary parent, and it can really disrupt the child’s relationship with the other parent.

I had a case once where, for whatever reason, the dad made a video of him talking to the child about their upcoming camping trip. The child said that he wanted his mom to go, too, and the dad went on and on about how mommy doesn’t want to, and he’d love absolutely nothing better than to have mommy there, too, but mommy just doesn’t want to come because she doesn’t love daddy anymore.

It was pretty shocking to me, because at the settlement conference I heard it for the first time – but the recording had already been provided to the Guardian ad litem. I had asked, of course, for these kinds of recordings in discovery, and it hadn’t been provided. (I knew they existed; this particular dad loved to record every single visitation exchange, including several where they fought over custody of a winter coat in front of the child.)

The Guardian ad litem decided against dad. I think that one of the biggest reasons was that he just didn’t even get why this conversation was a problem. HE thought it was a great exchange – which was why he provided it to the Guardian ad litem! (And he had an attorney – I don’t know WHAT he was thinking letting his client share that video.)

All that to say that you need to be really careful what you share with your child, and how you say it. If you slip up and admit something that you shouldn’t, in sadness or in anger, have another conversation with your child. Without using them as an emotional crutch – you should be in therapy for that – tell them that you’re sorry, that you were wrong, and that mommy and daddy will work it out. You know them best, so you can figure out whatever else you need to add, but the point should be that the adults will work out the situation for the best, and that the children should feel free to go on being children, without the ghost of the divorce looming over their heads.

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