As a family lawyer who deals with custody issues, I often remember Keanu Reeve’s line in the 1989 movie, Parenthood: “You know, Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog, or drive a car. H(eck), you need a license to catch a fish! But they’ll let any *&%$ (expletive) be a [parent].” There is no instruction manual, and a divorce often brings out some of the challenges of being a parent.
Attorneys are often asked by clients what they should say to their children and how should they let their children know the divorce ( or spit between unmarried parents) is coming. The common answer is to advise the client to let the children know both parents love them; the divorce is not about them in the least; don’t worry, and everything will be fine. This conversation often comes at a time where the questioned parent doesn’t have answers as to where the children will live, what school they will go to, and what the actual custody schedule will be.
As it turns out, this might not be the best advice after all. Time.com has recently published an article in which the writer advises that children who are anxious should not be told everything will be O.K. Rather, it is important for parents to validate children’s worries.
Often times, a child psychologist can help parents relayed the news of an impending divorce to their children. As distasteful as it may seem to sit in an office with your soon-to-be ex to come up with a plan to tell the children, it could make all the difference in the world to your children
What to do when you don’t have all the answers? First, find out exactly what it is that the child is worried about. Depending on the age, this could be at its simple as wondering whether a favorite stuffed animal will be able to come to a new home. Determining precisely what any particular child is anxious about avoids compounding the problem by giving more information than might be necessary at any given time, thereby causing more stress. Give what answers you can, without scaring the child. For example, when a child asks which parent he or she will live with in the middle of a custody evaluation, the honest. Tell the child that mom and dad haven’t made that decision yet and the judge and other professionals are going to help make that decision. Don’t ask a young child for his or her preference. This places the child in the unreasonable position of having to choose one parent over the other. Regardless of how you feel about your soon-to-be ex, most children love both parents unconditionally.
Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But say it in a reassuring way. For a parent who does not anticipate being able to stay in the same school district, assuring that the child will be part of the process of finding a new residence and looking at new schools can make the child feel part of the decision-making and alleviate some of the fears and anxiety. It certainly may not be a perfect answer, but is better than the child being kept completely in the dark until the day the divorce is over.
Jennifer Weisberg Millner is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group. Jennifer is resident in the firm’s Princeton Office, although she practices throughout the state. Jennifer can be reached at 609-895-7612 or firstname.lastname@example.org.