There’s not a roadmap that comes along with any part of having kids. From the time you leave the hospital until, well, I’m not sure when it ends, there’s really nothing out there that provides any kind of authoritative advice for what to do when difficult things happen.
Likewise, there’s no manual for helping your child to deal with a divorce or custody case – which is, let’s face it, even more difficult because while they’re going through it, you’re going through it, too.
I recently listened to a recording between a woman and her child where she talked about coparenting and their custody arrangement, and it was a total train wreck. What’s worse was that the woman had no idea that she had bungled it so badly!
She said things like – and I’m paraphrasing here – “if that’s how your dad interprets coparenting…” and “he’s not supposed to…” and on and on. She tried to explain complicated concepts, talk about what the judge ruled, and explain how she and the child’s father looked at coparenting differently. The child is 7.
Look, I get it. You’re grappling with complicated concepts, not the least of which is that the court now has the authority to determine how much time you can spend with your child every week, month, and year. You’re scared. Maybe even angry. It’s overwhelming and you’re trying to understand, too.
And your children have questions. They’re hurt, scared, and/or angry, too. They’re confused and overwhelmed. A lot is changing. And you want to alleviate their concerns. Help them understand. Ease their pain.
The reality, though, is that a lot of the information related to the case is not helpful for them to know – or, worse, damaging. You tread a fine line between helping them understand and hurting them – or their relationship with you, their dad, or both.
Not only is this potentially a legal issue – most agreements include provisions that neither parent will make disparaging comments about the other – but it’s a parenting issue. Obviously, all of us want to create happy, secure, well adjusted, productive adults. But it’s difficult, on a day to day basis, to see how the choices that we’re making are hurting our kids.
In reality, we all hurt our kids. I don’t think there’s any grown up anywhere who’ll say that their parents did things 100% perfectly and that they wouldn’t change a thing about their childhood. Parents screw up; we’re human. But, also obviously, we want to screw up as little as possible. We want to minimize our children’s suffering – and, make no mistake, going through a divorce or custody case causes some suffering – and help them to move through the world easily and with confidence.
The point is that, in most instances, talking exaggeratedly about a divorce or a custody case is probably not helpful – and could be harmful. You don’t want to lean too hard into it – and run up against a parental alienation allegation – or have a show cause filed against you because you violated a provision of the separation agreement.
Even when you THINK little ears can’t hear you, you need to be careful. What you say on social media, for example, is pretty permanent. You may be surprised when and how old posts, pictures, or memes that you’ve shared come back to haunt you (or your kids) later. Don’t assume that your kids will never scroll through your timeline, or see something that you’ve posted. (If Facebook memories have taught us anything, it’s that our news feeds remember everything!)
There’s no hard and fast rules about what you can and can’t say, but less is often more. When it comes to divorce and custody, I think the best thing you can say is this:
“Daddy and I are going to talk about it, but we both love you very much and we’ll work together on this.”
Is it perfect? No. Is it truthful? Maybe – maybe not. But I do think it sets a good expectation up for the kids – that you and your ex are still a team, that you share a love for your children, and that you’ll collaborate on the end result. Even if the judge orders custody and visitation – and you fight bitterly over it – it’s probably better and healthier to present it as something that the two of you are in agreement on. There’s no need to break down what happened in court, what the GAL or judge recommended, or burden the children in any way with your feelings on the matter.
I know that ultimately you probably know all of this, or at least that you agree with the end result, but when kids ask questions it can be hard to discuss appropriately. All kids are like that – question after question after question until you’re talking about exactly what you didn’t think was really age appropriate and you look back and wonder how on earth you got there.
Part of the problem is that kid’s questions sometimes take you by surprise in their detail or perceptiveness. Being prepared for questions ahead of time and having a ready made answer is helpful, so that, even if you’re surprised about what the question is or when it comes out, you are still prepared to give an answer.
Even if there are follow up questions, you can still repeat the same basics. “Yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know,” are acceptable answers. But the most important thing is to remind them that both their parents love them, that it’s not their fault, and that you’ll work together towards a solution. It may be that there isn’t an exact answer today, but that’s okay – because you can tell them that you love them and that you’ll let them know when you have one.
Don’t go into too much detail. Don’t make mean or passive aggressive comments when you think the kids aren’t listening. Don’t share about your case or your ex on social media. Keep in mind that, whatever you say and wherever you say it, there’s a chance that your children will either pick up on it or find it later.
If you need to talk about it, do it in a truly child-free time, or with your therapist. For more information, to request a copy of our divorce or custody book for Virginia moms, or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.