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When a couple decides to divorce, it can be difficult breaking the news to the children. There will likely be a few discussions during this process that can be difficult to have with the children, but are necessary. Such discussions include:
- Breaking the news of a divorce
- Discussing custody arrangements
- Discussing plans to move
- Talking about going to court
- Discussing holiday plans
Difficult as these topics may be, it’s essential for children to be kept in the loop surrounding such important news, and for parents to exercise caution, strategy, and skill surrounding the discussions of these topics, as the timing, and nature in which parents share such knowledge is key in helping children adjust to these life changes in a healthy way.
The first initial discussion parents have with children, breaking the news of a divorce, is often reported by parents as the most difficult thing for them to do, according to parent coach Jennifer Wolf. In fact, according to Dr. Lisa Herrick, PhD, only 25% of parents make an effort to sit down with their children and have a discussion about their divorce. The other 75% spend less than 10 minutes talking about it with the kids in total. This shows it is most certainly a difficult topic for parents. The other topics mentioned may also be difficult, and can bring up a wide variety of emotions, and reactions. This is especially true when it comes to discussing the custody arrangements parents have agreed upon (or the courts have agreed upon) with the children. While this may be a situation most parents wish to never have to be in, it’s a common situation for parents to be in today, and something that is manageable with a few tips from professional experts.
7 Tips for Talking to Kids About Custody Arrangements
Once parents are able to break the news of the divorce to children, they can start preparing for other discussions, such as custody arrangements. Custody arrangements can bring up a wide mix of emotions and reactions in children, and it’s always a good idea for parents to give the children a say in where they would like to live, so long as both parents are able to provide a safe and stable environment for the children. Once children have a voice and share who they would like to live with, parents can negotiate a custody arrangement that works well for everyone. Sometimes it’s not possible for parents to agree upon a custody arrangement, and therefore the courts will have to be involved, and will be given the final say in such arrangements. This can support the children’s desires, or not. When negotiating custody arrangements with attorneys and in court, parents who agree on a custody arrangement may file a parenting plan with the court to ensure that the arrangements are upheld by both parties. According to parenting coach Jennifer Wolf, this can help prevent high-conflict situations where a parent may become manipulative over co-parenting and custody duties in an effort to get one’s own way. Once the custody arrangements have been laid out, discussed, and agreed upon by parents or the court, it’s time to break the news to the kids.
Tell the Children Soon, and Keep the Transition Process Brief
Once custody arrangements are in place, the children should be notified as soon as possible, but the transition should also be brief. Children should not have to sit on such knowledge for an extended period of time before actions take place that facilitate the custody arrangement. Doing so could cause undue anxiety in children, according to Dr. Kevin Arnold, PhD.
Form a United Front for the Kids
When parents are able to join forces in telling the children about new custody arrangements, it’s the best, most healing situation for the children. It gives them a sense of security and stability in knowing both parents are able to unite as adults for their sake, and that they will both be involved in their lives moving forward. It is a great way to help kids best adjust to the new custody arrangement.
Find a Quiet, Private Place to Talk to the Kids
This is a delicate subject, and children are likely to have and express a variety of emotions upon hearing the news of a custody arrangement. They will want to feel safe and free to express themselves, as well as to ask any questions they have pertaining to the custody arrangement and parenting plan. They will want to be in an environment where both children and parents are free from distractions, and able to focus on having an open and honest discussion about this change.
Be As Positive As Possible
While the thought of having to be shared between two parents who are no longer together isn’t the most positive scenario for kids (unless there was a lot of fighting and they feel relieved), sharing the news of a new custody arrangement should be done in as positive a light as possible. Children are highly influenced by parents, and if one parent is speaking negatively about the new custody arrangement, that can rub off on the kids who might otherwise have a more positive take on things. On the flip side, having a positive point of view can help children who are struggling with the news, and who are viewing the situation in a negative way.
Be Supportive and Informative
When breaking the news of the custody arrangement with children, it’s always best to be as supportive, and empathetic towards the children as possible. This is a situation they likely felt they had little or no control over, and they are now going to be moving to a new location (at least part of the time) to be able to spend time with both parents they were used to having under one roof. There will likely be a variety of questions and concerns that arise for the kids, and it’s most helpful for them when parents are able to be patient and supportive; answering any and all questions that the children may have. Dr. Anthony Wolf, PhD, says that even the smallest of separations can seem earth shattering to the kids. They are likely going to be feeling a big mix of emotions surrounding this new arrangement that will cause them to be separated from at least one parent at a time for the rest of their lives. This discussion may also trigger feelings and emotions the children felt upon first learning about the divorce. Parents should be prepared for emotional upset and strong reactions. Being able to support the kids in a therapeutic way is key. It may help to schedule a group family session with a licensed therapist to assist when having this discussion, as a therapist can help ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and that everyone has a chance to express their feelings, and ask any questions that arise, while minimizing conflict.
Refrain from Disparaging the Other Parent
Just as it was important for children to know that they were not the cause of a divorce, it’s equally beneficial to refrain from disparaging the other parent while discussing custody arrangements with the children. If the ex is present, this could cause incredible amounts of conflict that could be avoided, and should always be kept away from the children. If the parent isn’t present, this could manipulate a child to become poisoned against the other parent, which is not fair for the child or the ex, regardless of what a difficult partner he/she was to be married to. It’s also robbing the child of a potentially positive adjustment, and relationship with the other parent.
Tell All Children Together
Parents who have more than one child may feel tempted to tell the oldest child first. While this may sound like an attractive idea, it’s actually something that can cause undeserved damage to the oldest child, or child who is told before the others. This is because it can alienate the child who is in the know from reaching out to the other children for support, or telling anyone else in an effort to process emotions surrounding the arrangement, and seek support. This creates an extra burden for the child in an already difficult situation in which they feel like they cannot disclose the knowledge to the other children, and if they do that just creates more stress and anxiety surrounding the situation.