How To Explain Custody to Children

explain custody to children
Dr. Kristin Davin

By Dr. Kristin Davin | Sep 22nd, 2021

Getting divorced is tricky, time-consuming, and emotionally draining for parents and children. So, when parents find themselves having to explain not just that they are divorcing but how custody will look and what that means for their family, divorce and its consequences take on a whole new meaning.

Yet, despite the upheaval that divorce and ultimately custody arrangements create in life, the best-laid plans are the ones that put the emotional, psychological, and physical needs of the children first and front and center. Yet, many parents do quite the opposite. They ‘wing it’ and hope that things will work out in the end. And most of us know how that ends. Not well.

The first commitment should always be with your children’s best interest in mind.

Be proactive, not reactive

One of the best steps to take before you speak with your children about custody is to take a proactive not reactive stance. What does this look like and what exactly does this mean? Do the work at the front end to get what you want at the back end. For example, you can start working on what you want to share with your children individually and then collectively come together before you speak with them about what custody means, what it is and how it works and will look.

This also means getting on the same page as your ex. I know just suggesting that might send you running for the hills but doing this will put you way ahead of the game and help you plan not just for the present but for your future, too. Because now is not the time to put your feelings front and center, but your children’s. This also means putting your feelings about your ex to the side. And remember as painful as the divorce is or was, there was a time when you loved this person and found positive things about him or her. Remind yourself of those things. It will help you through this process. And this is your child or children’s mother or father. Don’t forget about that. Provide the same clear information to all of your children if you find yourself having to tell them one on one rather than all together because sometimes that happens and it’s the best parents can do.

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Explain the changes

This piggybacks on the role of both parents coming together in a unified front and what change means to their family. No doubt, they know kids at school whose parents are divorced and have heard their share of horror stories. They will worry that their family will forever be ‘broken’ and the changes they will experience will not be good. They might worry that the not so great life that school friend Billy has will also be their life. This is because they have not had enough life circumstances to understand differently and it will be difficult for them to step away emotionally and process the changes in their family life from a rational perspective. Children often have a simple way of looking at things, especially younger children.

The best-laid plans are the ones that put the emotional, psychological, and physical needs of the children first and front and center.

Explain the change to them in manageable steps beginning with the love that both of you, as their parents, have for them and how that will never change. And often less is more. This means giving them the basic essentials is a step in the right direction. Providing too much information may overwhelm them and leave them feeling more anxious. So a little goes a long way. Don’t take on too much by giving them too much information or giving them information that is not relevant to them. Parents have been known to tell their children too much (money concerns, problems). This is not for their ears.

And explaining how sharing custody between both parents will change how their family currently looks doesn’t mean they will no longer be a family – only that their family will look different.

Also, many children, especially younger ones, do well with a calendar or a visual aid that will remind them of what is going on when. With technology, older kids may find using their calendar on their phone can be helpful. That also provides them consistency and helps them see that many things are not changing.

Focus on what will NOT change

Kids demand and need consistency. Actually, we all do. We do better with consistency to a large degree because it provides certainty in life and the more certainty in life mean less internal angst. For children, internal angst manifests itself in headaches, backaches, and stomach aches because that angst must go somewhere. So, despite the changes that occur with divorce, there will be things that will not change. They need to know and hear this. Whether that will be their same bed, having their pet with them, their friends, after-school activities, or simply their lunchbox. And if for example, certain holidays will stay the same, tell them this. This will allow them to focus on the family traditions that will remain the same and give them one less thing to worry about. Providing them with the things that will not change will help them manage their feelings around the things that will change.

Help them manage what WILL change

Helping your children manage the ups and downs of life and learning to embrace – at some point – change, is necessary in life. Despite the impending divorce, helping them through this process can also be a teaching moment for them. For example, what in their daily life will change and how it will look different? How much time they will have with each parent, or who will be responsible for their before or after school activities? By answering these questions honestly and to the extent you are able to will help them feel less anxious. Also, address any other scheduling changes that will take place with shared custody. They know that change will come with two homes, two often different sets of rules and expectations. This will be a lot for them to process.

In the end, children will need time to process all the information and everything they have been told. They may – or may not – come back with additional questions. Be prepared. Remember, they are trying to make sense of this huge change in their life. And as a reminder, both you and your spouse have had time to manage all the feelings associated with divorce and working out the custody arrangements before you have spoken to them and have been the ‘holder of the secret.’ They will need time.

So, give them the space and bandwidth they need so they can learn how to move through all the changes – divorce and custody – presents.

Dr. Kristin Davin

Dr. Kristin Davin

Kristin Davin is a Relationship Therapist and Coach. She helps people embrace change, cultivate healthier relationships, and become more effective communicators.


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