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How to talk to your children about your separation

Whether you are going through a separation, a divorce, or getting used to joint custody, it can be tempting to vent to your kids, but it is precisely the wrong thing to do. Here are some tips for successful conversations with your kids when going through a separation or divorce

Getting divorced is up there with the most stressful life events you will ever experience. Getting used to shared custody can make a divorce seem even harder. This is especially true since your children are likely to ask you difficult questions about your separation and what it means for them. It is completely normal for your children to experience confusion and distress – after all, previously solid ground is shifting beneath their feet too. Based on our experiences as family lawyers at Goldwater, Dubé, here are some guidelines on the best ways to talk to your children about your separation.

Maintain a positive image of your ex

While this is one of the most challenging aspects of getting used to a split in your family, it is among the most important. Young kids are more perceptive than most people realise. They can can very easily detect hostility between parents and this can quickly lead to a conflict of loyalties. As a consequence, children can begin feeling anxious and start acting out. Such behaviours might include testing authority figures, or becoming withdrawn, depressed, and secretive. To avoid a negative situation unfolding, always speak well of your ex when your children are in the house. However difficult this may be, however tempting offloading your irritation may seem, avoid portraying your ex in a negative light.

Speaking disrespectfully about your ex in front of your children will not achieve anything positive. This behaviour will not bring your child closer to you. Instead, it could damage your relationship with your child (e.g. making them feel guilty for loving the other parent equally) and encourage them to internalize the parental conflict. This damage might show up now or later down in the line.

Speaking negatively about your ex can also create difficulties with joint decision-making. Children may say one thing to one parent and something different to the other in an effort to please or show alliance, given the parental discord, suppressing their true wishes. This can then lead to the parents arguing about what the child really wants, aggravating parental conflict.

When custody becomes an issue

Judges, psychologists, and anyone else tasked with assessing custody will examine and take into account whether any parental alienation is present. Parents who speak negatively about their ex in front of the children are likely to be assessed less favourably than parents who speak about their ex in a positive or neutral manner. Judges may consequently decide to award more custody to the alienated parent in order the strengthen the parent-child bond. Do not underestimate the ability of the Court to detect alienation. The same applies to any psychologist or social worker tasked with assessing custody or parental capacity. Alienation is one of the first things they look for and they are trained to detect it.

Some important dos and don’ts

  • Never create expectations when it comes to decisions that require the other parent’s consent. For example, do not build up your child’s hopes of going away on holiday before getting clear written consent from the other parent well in advance.
  • Imagine a situation where one parent promises a day trip but the other parent disagrees and the day trip has to be cancelled. The dangers of building up excitement only for plans to fall through can affect both your child’s wellbeing and your chances for custody, aggravating conflict with your ex.
  • Never talk to your children about the litigation you may be having with your ex. Ideally, if the Court is involved in your separation, your children should be mostly unaware that there is any legal conflict. If asked directly, you may want to say something along of the lines of “we are just working things out and trying to move on to new chapters in our lives, but we are both your parents, we both love you and that will never change”.
  • Never discuss money with your children such as child support, spousal support, or who is responsible for certain expenses. Keep this between you, your ex, and your respective lawyers and accountants. Children may see the wealthier parent as the more powerful parent and the less wealthier one as the victimized parent. This could damage their wellbeing and your relationship with them.
  • This can be tough, but don’t be so quick to trust every negative comment your children may report to you about the other parent. Bear in mind that your kids are young, confused, and vulnerable, especially during this difficult period in their lives. Always give your ex the benefit of the doubt and speak with him or her directly about matters concerning your relationship and family arrangements.
  • Talk directly to your ex about anything your children may report to you. This way, you can avoid turning your children into go-betweens who get rewarded. You do not want to create a situation where your children feel that their bond with you is enhanced by criticizing the other parent. You can fracture a child’s sense of safety and respect for authority if they get the message that they can play one parent off against the other.
  • Always emphasize to your kids that you are boththeir parents, that you will always be their parents, that you both love them and will always love them, and that decisions that affect them are still made jointly. Children can benefit hugely from co-parenting if co-parenting is an option that you and your ex can arrange between yourselves or with a little help from a third party (e.g. a counselor or family therapist).
  • Always support your child emotionally and psychologically. You are feeling emotionally bruised and so are your children, so ensure that they get as much support as possible. Reach out to them before they reach out to you.
  • Find a suitable confidant. Make sure that you can rely on someone who is not enmeshed in the conflict, someone who you trust, and someone who you can vent to. Choose an impartial friend who does not have a stake in the divorce or the custody arrangement. A therapist or a close (ideally non-mutual) friend would be the best choice when you need a friendly ear.

Goldwater, Dubé is a family law firm based in Montreal, Quebec. We help families dealing with divorce, child custody, and the protection of assets. We treat all cases with compassion and expertise. We will put you and your loved ones first, protecting you and all that you hold dear. Book a consultation with one of our expert family lawyers today.