What a Parent should and should not share with a child about divorce and custody is a very sensitive and important subject. How much is too much?
I have to say that this should be an easy answer to a difficult question. Unfortunately, it is not. When a parent is going through a divorce or a custody proceeding, a very important issue that needs to be addressed is: What should a child know and not know when parents are separating or divorcing. Many parents say too much and say things in the wrong way.
I am not a therapist, nor do I have a degree in child psychology. However, after being in this business for as long as I have, I have learned to give advice to parents that comply with the standard used in Court of acting in the “Best interest of the child.”
When parents are separating or divorcing, I always hope that they know enough not to use this as a time to trash the other parent. I always hope that a parent can try to put themselves in the child’s shoes when dealing with this very sensitive subject.
Ideally, two parents should sit down and come up with a plan to peacefully and calmly talk to the children about divorce or separating prior to it happening to prepare them. I think parents should put aside their differences and be on the same page when talking to the children.
Reassurance to let children know everything will be alright is a must. Children should not feel that their parents are going to fight over them, because undoubtedly the children will blame themselves for the breakup or for their parents fighting.
Parents should not get into specifics with the children about Court, where they want to live or any other area that has not been decided. Children should NEVER be put in the middle of their parents’ disagreements or fights.
If Court is required because parents cannot reach a custody agreement, then each child will be assigned a Law Guardian who will be their own lawyer. That Law Guardian should be treated with respect by the parents and children. The children should know that this person is there to help them and not to represent the parents. It is for their child only.
A parent should NEVER ask the child about what he or she said to their law guardian. NOT EVER.
If children have questions about Court, suggest that they ask their law guardians. If a child persists, as many do, keep conversations positive and say that things will work out and they will be fine. Parents should make sure their children know that there are adult issues that are not for children to know about.
I want to share some of my worst scenarios of parents talking to the children in the WRONG WAY:
1) BRIBERY AND MANIPULATION: I had one case where the Father wanted the child to live with him. He called the Mother horrible names in front of the child, encouraged the child to be rude to the Mother (even giving him the thumbs up when he was rude), telling the child he would buy him all of these things, including a puppy when he came to live with him. Much of this was verified by text messages, pictures and Facebook entries.
I know when you read this you will be saying, “Who would do that? Who would put their child in that kind of stressful and destructive situation?” There are more people than you know that will bribe children with puppies, ATV’s, phones, etc. as a way to get the child to think of them as the “better parent.”
I hope that someone who is considering “buying their child” reads this before they go down the wrong path; before they treat their child like property as opposed to a person who has both a Mother and a Father; and before they compromise themselves in order to get ahead in a custody or divorce action.
2) LETTING THE CHILD DECIDE: Dad says to child, “You can decide where you want to live when you are 13.” Another mistake is telling a child that they can decide where they will live when they reach a certain age. I have heard it all, age 12, age 13, age 10, as if it were the law. Newsflash: It is not the law. There is no magic age where a child decides where they will live. In fact, a child’s wishes are never supposed to be the deciding factor as to custody. As children get older, their law guardians will listen to their positions and their reasoning, however, the children should never be put in the position of deciding. It is simply not fair. It is too much pressure no matter what the age of the child.
3) FACEBOOK TRASH TALK: Trashing the other parent of Facebook. I know, I know….who would do that? Answer: Lots of people. The worst is when the child, who had his parents on his “friend list” and saw the entire disastrous conversation. And then when you think it could not get worse….the child…THE CHILD, sends a message to both parents and to all of the “followers” of the conversation saying, “Please stop!” It’s sad that the voice of reason had to be that of the child himself. Children don’t want to hear or see this kind of behavior, especially from their parents.
I pray that parents will step back, think about their children first and put aside their own greed and insecurity when talking to their children about what might be the hardest part of their lives.
It is a far better thing for a parent to hold their tongue before lashing the other parent, than to hurt their child with a statement about the other parent…remember that a child never forgets what you say. And often, strangely enough, the child will hold the parent saying the negative things to blame and stick up for the one being talked about.
4) TELLING A CHILD THAT THEIR OTHER PARENT DOES NOT LOVE THEM: Did you ever in your life think that you would hear that a parent actually says to a child “I know you love your Daddy, but he doesn’t love you. I’m sorry that he wants to be with his girlfriend more than you. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings, but that’s what Daddy does.”
REALLY? REALLY? In what world is that okay?
I honestly didn’t think that I would actually hear those words said to a child until I heard it with my own ears. I am usually the one to say “I think I’ve heard almost everything”…but then I am sorry to say I was wrong. I was appalled that a parent would think they should say those words to a child…even if it were the truth, it should NEVER be said. And in this case, it was not the truth. It was the parent trying to get back at the other parent for some missed visitation.
Children should be proud of both of their parents, in their actions and their words.
Trash talking is NEVER the answer …and if you do it, you are the trash that needs to be taken to the curb.
So next time you talk to your child, remember that if you say something negative, you will not only hurt your child, you will hurt yourself. So stay positive, and give your child a good role model to follow. Your child will be glad you did. After all isn’t this all supposed to be about … them?
Until my next little divorce blog……… Sue
Susan Moore Daubner, Esq.
New York Divorce & Family Law Attorney
Ziff Law Firm
Elmira, New York