Children can take the news of a divorce hard. When parents separate, the adults know why, but communicating those reasons and the divorce process to kids in an age-appropriate way can be hard. Here are some tips for helping children cope with the divorce process, and accept new custody arrangements.
Unless you and your spouse have been separated for years prior to filing, the start of the divorce process will bring change to your household, and your children. But that change doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If conflict has been high in your household, your children may even be relieved of anxiety when one parent moves out and the conflict moves to the courtroom. Still, any change requires adjustment. You can help your kids cope with divorce by making the transition as easy and understandable as possible, without putting them in the middle.
If you and your spouse can manage it, work out an age-appropriate explanation for why you are getting a divorce to tell your kids. Don’t blame either parent. Then sit down with them together, and explain what is happening. Use straightforward language, and don’t hedge or waffle. Otherwise you kids might believe the situation is temporary, and may feel like it is their job to get you and your ex-spouse back together.
Every family’s dynamic is different, and sometimes you and your spouse just can’t have this conversation as a united front. However, remember it is going to be up to you to co-parent your children until they are adults. Even if you both never want to see each other again, having this conversation together will help keep your kids from feeling like they have to choose sides.
Divorce means the end of something – specifically, the household and family arrangement that kids are used to. That is going to trigger grief, anger, sadness, and fear. Help your kids cope with divorce-related emotions by telling them these feelings are normal. Invite them to tell you how you are feeling. If you are the parent moving out, make it easy for your children to reach you on the phone or through the Internet, and check in with them often. Even if they are mad at you, tell them that you hear them, and that it is okay to feel that way. Reassure them that everything will be okay and that they will make it through the divorce process.
The part of the divorce process that affects children most directly is the custody and visitation arrangement. You can help your children cope by giving them a firm, predictable visitation schedule they can follow. You might put a calendar on the wall with each parent’s overnights highlighted in a different color. Expect that kids will forget or be confused. Remind them ahead of time about parenting exchanges.
While you want your schedule to be predictable, it shouldn’t necessarily be rigid. This is especially true if your kids are the ones with the scheduling conflict. Kids should not be the ones deciding whether to follow court-ordered visitation. However, if your child has a birthday party or a baseball game, you may want to reschedule their visitation with their other parent for another day.
Depending on their age, your children may believe that they are responsible for your marriage failing. Teens and preteens are more likely to blame their parents while younger kids are more egocentric, believing that they must have done something wrong to cause the divorce. Reassure the kids that even if their other parent moves out, they still love them, and that it is not their fault that you and your spouse are fighting.
Be careful not to blame your spouse unnecessarily, either. Kids naturally relate to their parents. If you blame divorce on your spouse in front of your children, they may apply that same blame to themselves. If your kids are struggling, consider hiring a child therapist to give them a neutral third-party adult they can talk to about how they are feeling.
The most important thing in helping children cope with divorce is to never put them in the middle. In the modern era, with cell phones, email, document sharing, and communication tools, there is no reason kids should have to carry notes or pass messages between parents. Kids should also never feel like they need to choose sides, or defend their parents.
That’s why in many states, including California, non-disparagement clauses are often included in custody and visitation orders. Non-disparagement clauses say that neither parent will make disparaging remarks about the other parent, or allow anyone to make them, in their children’s hearing. Sometimes this includes posting negative comments about your ex-spouse online, if your kids are old enough to have accounts. Honor these non-disparagement clauses by finding an adult confidante or therapist to express your frustrations to instead. This will help your kids cope with the divorce and believe it is okay to keep loving both parents even after the divorce is final.
At ADZ Law, LLP, our child custody attorneys want to help you and your children deal with the divorce process. We can help you craft a custody and visitation agreement that protects your children’s best interests. When conflict is high, we will help you brainstorm tools and techniques to help your kids cope with divorce, connect you with therapists, and advocate for you and your kids in court. We invite you to contact ADZ Law, LLP to schedule a consultation to learn more about our team, and how we can help your family.