Preparing Your Kids for a Custody Battle
By Elizabeth Degi DuBois, PhD and Megan Parlette
Fighting for what we believe is best for our children while providing children (and young adults) an emotionally stable safe harbor can be a challenge. This post walks you through the best ways to help anchor your kids while your family navigates the choppy waters of a rough custody battle.
Hire an attorney who understands your goals— and who will level with you honestly about the odds of achieving them
While your children will likely (and ideally) never meet your attorney hiring the right attorney is hands down the number one most important factor when facing a custody battle. Every custody battle has unique aspects, and having an attorney that understands the facets that will complicate yours— be it substance abuse, infidelity, bankruptcy, or anger management— is essential.
Consider your children’s age
Having the Divorce or Separation Talk with children is never easy, regardless of their ages. Overall, remember that all kids need reassurance that they did not cause your divorce and that they will still have two parents who will love them always.
Parents of young children should prepare to be patient. Young kids may need to have information repeated several times and in several different ways. Practice a few different ways to explain to young children what is happening. They will likely be most concerned with how it will affect their day-to-day lives: “Where will I live? Where will I sleep? Where will I go to school? Will I still see my friends?” Practice your answers ahead of time, and go slow.
After the split, don’t make the mistake of thinking that young kids are immune or oblivious to your mood, language, or actions. If your children are old enough to talk, you’ve probably already learned that they’ll repeat the wrong thing at the wrong time— this definitely applies to things they’ve heard you say about their other parent. Even if your kid isn’t verbal yet, they can pick up on the negativity expressed while you are venting to your friend about your ex’s poor spending habits.
When breaking the news to older children or teenagers, you may be tempted to have a “heart-to-heart” them. Don’t. Oversharing is NOT caring. They may have already picked up on tension between you and your spouse and may be more keyed in to the situation and ask deeper questions. Answer honestly, but keep any blame and legal talk out of your discussion.
Again, pile on the reassurance that your kids are not to blame for your divorce, and that nothing will change the love you have for them.
Answer your kids’ questions honestly
Answering your children’s questions with honesty and integrity helps to provide stability in an emotional upheaval. Your kids need to know that they can (and should) turn to you for answers to difficult questions. Keep in mind that you will be giving them the language that they will use when talking to their friends, relatives, and teachers.
If possible, both parents should be there to discuss the situation with the children. It will be helpful to practice beforehand so that you do not become upset or angry and are not caught off-guard by tough questions, such as:
What is divorce? “A divorce is when two people decide that they do not want to be married anymore, and they live in separate houses.”
Why are you getting a divorce? “We are getting divorced because there are grown-up problems in our relationship that we tried to work out, but we couldn’t. We decided that getting a divorce would be the best option to make everyone in the family happier.”
Will you get back together? “No, we will not get back together, but we will both ALWAYS love you very much.”
You may not always have the answer to every question. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know yet, but we’re going to figure it out.”
Your kids’ deserve the truth…but not always the whole truth. Whether your kid is 7 or 17, explaining that Mommy is leaving Daddy because he is an alcoholic is NEVER appropriate.
Give space for big feelings— especially anger
Just as you may be angry with your spouse for their contribution to the breakdown of the marriage, your kids may feel angry at the life changes that they are suddenly dealing with. You are grieving your marriage, and they are grieving the family life that they knew. Giving them permission to process their feelings is extremely important–not just in the first discussion, but long-term, as they deal with the ongoing effects of the divorce and custody arrangement. Keep an open dialogue by asking questions and inviting them to talk about their feelings.
What made you happy/sad today?
What was your favorite thing that happened this week?
What are you looking forward to (or least looking forward to) next week?
Don’t make them your confidant
There is a time to let your story out, and it’s not when you’re on Mom duty. Ultimately, it comes down to two things: First, you are discussing your child’s other parent, with whom they share half their DNA and with whom they will always have a relationship. Second, it looks terrible in Court. No judge will look favorably on a parenting dishing out the divorce details to their kid.
Go to therapy. Join a support group. Have a daily or weekly vent session with your best friend. Do whatever you need to do to not involve your kids in the drama.
Surround them with support
No one can love your kids as much as you, but in the case of a custody battle, love is not all you need. Bring your children’s teachers, principal and any support staff at their school into the loop on what’s happening at home. If your children are very young, consider tapping the help of a play therapist. If they are older, offer— but don’t force— counseling. Even if your kids aren’t interested or willing to give counseling a try, expert guidance from child therapists can be helpful for giving you guidance on how to best support them.
Provide space for your kids to spend lots and lots of time with friends; playdates with familiar buddies are great for littles, and nice for you to connect with your mom-friends. If your children are older, be sure to be mindful of when and where and with whom they are hanging out. Going through major upheavals like a custody battle can prompt substance use and other harmful coping tactics. If you think your teen is turning to booze or cutting, seek guidance from a therapist for yourself, and insist on counseling for them.
Keep them out of the middle
Our firm’s legal assistant recently wrote a thank you note to her parents reflecting on the ways they helped her through their split. While their divorce was not as contentious as many of the splits my office sees, there were some key takeaways that can help even the most acrimonious parents. One particularly helpful thing her parents did was give her space to process, without imposing their needs or priorities: “Once, when I was supposed to go to summer camp, we got there and I just….couldn’t. I had signed up with two of my new best friends, and I’m sure my parents had already paid for it. But it was after a week at my dad’s house, which felt like traveling, and I just wanted to go home. My introverted nature was evident even then, I guess. And so, my mom took me home. No lecture on wasted money or backing out on commitments. No comment on my anti-socialness and how I needed to be open to new experiences. Just acceptance.” Keeping your needs, opinions, and goals to yourself is one of the best ways to support your kids during a split.
Put your oxygen mask on first
It’s a cliche and a safety instruction for good reasons. You absolutely cannot show up for your children if you are not prioritizing your emotional and mental well-being. Making time to take care of yourself—- sleeping, relaxing, spending time with friends, going to therapy—- is not a luxury. It is the most important thing you can do to make sure you are able to be present and keep a level head when parenting. Raising kids is hard, even under the best of circumstances. Going through a custody battle is like, well, going into battle, and parenting under immense pressure makes even the day-to-day mom stuff of laundry and homework seem insurmountable. Take care of you, so you can take care of them.
Every kid is unique, and every custody battle is different. The guidance above can be helpful, but you know your child best. You are their best tool for getting through the process relatively unscathed. How you prepare your child for the process and support them throughout should reflect your understanding of how they see the world.
Trust your gut, and trust that your love for your kid will shine through even the darkest moments. You’ve got this.