The following are tips for handling typical scenarios when parents separate. These should not be interpreted as legal advice. You should consult your lawyer to see if you should follow these suggestions.
If you are the victim of domestic violence, it may not be safe or possible to do all of these things. You should speak to an advocate at a domestic violence agency such as Waypoint to learn which tips apply to you.
Talk to your children
If possible, you and the other parent should tell your children together about the divorce.
Children can handle many things, but do not like being kept in the dark or lied to. Have the discussion on a day when your children have nothing else scheduled. Assure your children that they will continue to see both of you. Work hard not to blame the other parent for the divorce with words or body language.
Be realistic about the divorce without dwelling on the negative. Do not give your children false hope that you will reconcile.
Be truthful with your kids, but don’t disclose more than they need to know. For example, they do not need to know about the amount of child support ordered, if it is paid, what the court documents say, or about an affair the other parent had. It hurts your children to hear about the bad things that the other parent has done or is doing to you.
Use age-appropriate words to discuss the divorce. Do not overwhelm kids with legal terms. They do not need to know words like “primary care” or “shared custody.”
Children may want to know “the truth” about why you are divorcing. Explain that there is not just one reason that the marriage failed and that both you and the other parent made mistakes.
Listen to your children.
Don’t assume that you already know your children’s concerns. What they worry about may surprise you.
When your kids ask you questions, if you don’t know the answer, say so. If you are unsure of how to explain something, get advice from a therapist or lawyer first.
Have your children see a good children’s therapist. Be open to attending family counseling with them if it’s needed.
Keep things confidential if your children ask you to, unless you need to tell someone in order to protect their safety.
Find out from your lawyer what will happen at court so that you don’t give your kids wrong information. Assure your children that they will not be at the divorce trial, that they will not have to testify, and that they will not be asked to choose which parent they want to live with. If your children have strong views and want to be heard, hire a children’s lawyer to represent them.
Share the news with others
With the other parent, tell your children’s teachers that you are getting divorced so that they can watch out for any changes in your children’s behavior or attitude. Address those quickly.
Rather than making your children your confidantes, find an adult to talk to privately.
Do not discuss the divorce with others when your children are around. This includes talking on the phone while your kids are with you. Kids are always listening, even if they don’t appear to be. Young children understand more than you think.
Do not introduce significant others to your children while the divorce is pending. Wait to introduce dating partners to your children until you have dated for several months and the relationship is long-term. Take dating slowly and do not rush moving-in together or re-marrying. You may have seen the divorce coming, but your children probably did not.
Continue parenting as a team
Say only positive things about the other parent around your children. Your children’s self image comes from both parents. Kids only feel as good about themselves as they do about their parents. Make a list of 10 positive characteristics and/or memories of the other parent and share them with your children.
Share responsibilities with the other parent by both attending children’s doctor and other appointments. If you can do so peacefully, you and the other parent should attend school events, parent-teacher conferences, and special children’s events together.
Communicate with the other parent directly rather than through your children.
Be reliable. Show up for visits with your children on time and call your children regularly at times that also work for the other parent.
Be flexible in changing the schedule to accommodate the other parent and your children. Respect that your children will want to spend more time with friends as they grow older.
Your kids need structure, routine, and limits. Talk with the other parent and agree on rules, discipline, and schedules that are consistent in both households.
No matter how much time you have with your kids, make it quality time. Your children may tell you they want to live with you. Remember that they may also be telling the other parent that they want to live with him/her.
Help your children make smooth transitions to the other parent’s home. Let your children know that you are okay and have other things to do when they are not around. Do not reveal unhappy emotions before or during exchanges.
Do not call the other parent names. Do not have arguments in front of your kids. Do not hang up the phone on each other in front of your kids. If you and the other parent get into arguments, consider only discussing the divorce by e-mail, in writing, or in private meetings away from the kids. If you don’t feel like being nice to the other parent, “fake it ‘til you make it.”
Take care of yourself
Get the help you need. If you are sad, angry, worried, or stressed about the divorce, seek counseling. If you are overly emotional, it makes your children feel responsible for taking care of you and makes them worry about you. They need to focus on themselves and their school, activities, and friendships.
Laura Martin, LISW is Kids First's in-house mediator who helps guide parents through child-related conversations via our Joint Parenting Program. Read Laura's recent profile by Mount Mercy University.…