We are often encouraged to “never say never,” but when it comes to our children and divorce, there are things you should just never say. Children are resilient and can adapt to the changes that divorce brings. And you can make their transition as easy as possible for them by knowing what not to say.
Here are seven “don’ts” for speaking with your child as they process and accept your divorce:
1. Do Not Lie
Children are natural lie detectors. Lying to them, even if you intend to protect them, can be detrimental. When they are experiencing change and upheaval, they need to be able to rely on and trust their parents. Resist the urge to shield them from harsh realities by lying. In the end, that will undermine your relationships and make their transition even more difficult.
2. Don’t Share Ugly Truths
While you shouldn’t lie to your children, you don’t need to expose them to the harshest realities, either. Think about how you present information to them. Children don’t need to know that mommy had an affair or daddy gambled away the retirement savings. “We tried to make our marriage work but realized it doesn’t” is likely sufficient. Telling the truth without salacious or frightening details presents facts without specifics that might make children feel conflicted about their other parent or worried about their future.
Tell the truth, but do so in a child-appropriate, respectful way. If your child inquires about details that you don’t think they need to know, it’s okay to say that something is private. It is also wise to follow that up with reassurances that there is nothing they need to worry about.
3. Don’t Make Them Informants
Is your ex dating? Do they seem happy? How do they look? Have they found a new job? These are the types of questions all divorcing people wonder. And since you have a child spending time in your ex’s house, they would be a great source of information and answers to your many questions. However, you should resist the temptation to use your children as informants.
If there’s information you need to know for legitimate reasons, you can ask your ex. If you can’t find answers that way, your family practice attorney can work with you to access the information you need. Your child should never feel like the messenger. They also shouldn’t be put in a position to tattle on one parent to the other or withhold answers and disappoint the parent who asks for information. Leave them out of your need for answers or your desire to satisfy your curiosity.
4. Don’t Make Them Feel Responsible for the Divorce
Children will naturally worry that something they did was the cause of the divorce. Be extremely careful not to reinforce that fear or say anything that might confirm their suspicions.
Even if fights about parenting are at the heart of your marriage’s end, you and your ex are the adults. Your divorce is about you, not your child. Make that point clear when discussing the dissolution of your marriage. Reassure your children that both parents still love them and that nothing they did caused this. Let them know that you love them, and divorce won’t change that.
5. Don’t Recruit Them to Your Side
It can be emotionally challenging when your child sings the praises of your ex or chooses time with their other parent over time with you. That’s especially true if your ex’s choices and behaviors were hurtful or disrespectful. It can be tempting to want to help your child see the reality of who you believe their other parent to be.
Resist the urge to recruit them to your side by sharing the terrible things their other parent did. Avoid trying to buy their favor with gifts or more lax rules. Don’t try to get their sympathy by telling them how sad the other parent has made you.
All of these are attempts to become the favorite parent at your ex’s expense. They aren’t healthy for you or your child and can even backfire when your child pulls away because these efforts have made them uncomfortable.
Just as before your divorce, there will be times when you are the favorite parent and times when that honor goes to your ex. Accept that these are part of the natural parenting cycle. Refrain from competing to be the favorite, or attempting to push your child to accept your version of events.
6. Don’t Make Them Feel Guilty
You may no longer love your ex, but your child still loves their other parent. That’s healthy. Even though it may be difficult, the relationship between your child and co-parent is one you should encourage. Don’t make your child feel bad if they are excited to spend the weekend with dad or when they tell you they want to be with mom on their birthday. Children of divorce thrive when they have healthy, meaningful relationships with both parents.
If your child fears hurting your feelings if they talk about your ex, you’ve created a barrier to open communication. If they feel they can come to you to talk about their other parent, whether their emotions are positive or troubled, you’ve created a stronger, healthier bond and relationship with your child.
7. Don’t Speak Ill of Your Ex
Resist the urge to vent your frustrations about your former spouse to your child. Shield them from that negatively. It will only make the changes in their life more stressful and overwhelming.
Also, remember that speaking ill of your ex could allow their child visitation lawyer to paint your home as an unhealthy environment for your child, so watch what you say within hearing distance of little ears.
Setting the Example
Your children will notice when you speak respectfully about their other parent, even when it is challenging. They will remember and appreciate your respectful approach. You and your children will make it through the significant changes divorce causes. You will be better off once you’ve settled into your new life. While adjusting to divorce, avoiding harmful or negative communications like the ones on our list will make everyone’s lives better.