FAQs Parents Ask about Separation, Divorce and Child Custody

Divorce is a difficult, confusing and unpleasant experience for most people, especially children. Most children cannot understand why their parents don’t just get along and stay together. The strong feelings associated with separation and divorce can leave parents and children feeling overwhelmed. Many parents do not know how to talk to their children about the situation, or they unintentionally involve the children in their own problems. This pamphlet answers some of the questions parents commonly ask when they end their relationship, and provides ideas for helping children through this difficult family change.

Q: How can we prepare our children for separation or divorce?

A: It is best if both parents can sit down and talk with the children together. You should explain that you have made a joint decision not to live together anymore, but that does not affect your love and concern for your children. It makes things more difficult for children if parents talk about adult disagreements or blame each other. Children need to be reassured that they did not do anything to cause the separation. They also need the freedom to maintain a healthy relationship with both parents.

Q: How can we help our children cope with the fact that their parents aren’t going to live together anymore?

A: Children will experience the changes in their family as a loss. Make sure your children know that they will continue to have a meaningful relationship with each of you. Reassure them of your love, and try to maintain as much continuity in their lives as possible. It is helpful if your children can continue to attend the same school and participate in the same activities as they did prior to the separation. Your children are part of each of you and they need each of you to be a part of their lives.

Children should not be drawn into your conflict. Avoid using them as sounding boards for your dissatisfaction with your former partner. Keep adult matters between adults, especially legal issues and adult disagreements. Recognize that your children don’t need details about your relationship or separation. Children suffer when they do not have the chance to have a relationship with both parents. They become stressed when they must carry messages between parents or help a parent cope with adult problems like finances or the divorce experience. Children should never be made to feel as though they must choose sides between their parents. Remember that your children feel part of each of you, and when you condemn your former partner your children may feel that part of them is being rejected, too.

Children make a positive adjustment to separation and divorce when they are kept out of your adult conflicts. They are likely to do just fine if you cooperate as parents and avoid maintaining your conflict with one another.

Q: What does “custody” mean? 

A: “Custody” is a legal term that refers to the responsibilities involved in raising and caring for children, not merely the “rights” that accompany these responsibilities. Most state laws recognize two kinds of custody: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to the responsibility for making decisions affecting the children in significant, long-standing ways. Physical custody (often referred to as parenting time or placement) is the day-to-day care of the children and providing a home for them. In recent years, joint custody, or shared parenting has become popular. This is an arrangement in which parents share decision-making and other responsibilities for their children, and consult with one another about important issues affecting the children’s welfare. Joint custody often means the children’s care is arranged so they spend significant time with each parent. It does not necessarily mean that children spend half of their time with each parent, although some parents choose this arrangement.

Q: How do children’s feelings and preferences affect custody decisions?

A: Custody decisions are made by adults. Although some children may want to express their feelings and preferences about parenting arrangements, no child should be forced to express such an opinion. State laws do not specify ages at which children can decide about their living arrangements, but some judges listen to input from children. When doing so, they consider the child’s age, maturity, reasons for the preference and relationship with each parent, not just the preference.

Q: What is a parenting plan? What kinds of parenting plans are there? Which is the best one?

A: A parenting plan is a written schedule and statement of the arrangements that parents will follow in raising their children. Written parenting plans help parents and children understand exactly what to expect. There are as many types of parenting plans as there are families. No one parenting plan is best. In some cases, one parent provides most of the routine, day-to-day care; in others, the parents share these responsibilities. Many parents consult one another regularly and make important decisions for their children together; others may rarely communicate. The key is recognizing what is best for the children and developing plans that support this. It is important to remember that things change over time, so today’s ideal parenting plan will probably need changes as time goes by.

Q: Isn’t it hard for children to go back and forth between two homes?

A: Children can adjust to living in two homes more easily than they can manage having limited contact with one parent. Children adjust best when the parents cooperate with one another and recognize the crucial role each plays in the children’s lives. At times, transitions between homes can be difficult for children. If this is the case, you may want to consider a parenting plan that has fewer transitions. This usually works better for older children than for infants, toddlers or preschoolers.

Q: What does “working together as parents” mean? How can we do this when we don’t even like each other?

A: Working together as parents means cooperating for the good of the children, regardless of how you feel about one another. It means respecting that each parent has the right to a relationship with the children and, more importantly, that the children should be free to have meaningful relationships with both parents. It means sharing responsibilities for the children, including their care, guidance and support. This can be difficult when parents end their relationship, especially just after a separation when harsh feelings and hurt are strongest. Remembering that children want and need a relationship with both parents can make it much easier to cooperate. This is better for everyone in the long run. 

Q: Why do some parents and children stop seeing one another when parents live apart?

A: This can be very difficult to under-stand. Some parents cease contact because the relationship with the other parent is so difficult; sometimes it is because contact is too painful for the parent. Some children stop contact because they have taken sides in their parents’ dispute or to express anger at the absent parent. It is important for parents to put their unpleasant feelings aside and give their children an opportunity to express their feelings about the ending of the parental relationship. It may be helpful to consult a family therapist, or a social service or court services agency to assist you with these matters.

Q: What is the relationship between visitation and child support? 

A: Visitation (often called access or parenting time) and child support are separate matters. While most parents pay support and spend time with their children, some pay support and have limited or no access, and others with access pay no support. While these situations may be frustrating, this is an adult matter and should not involve the children. Their need for contact with both parents must be respected even if a parent is behind on support. Children with limited access to a parent still need that parent’s financial support. A problem in one of these areas never justifies retaliation in the other.

Q: Does it matter if the parents were never married?

A: In some states there may be different rules or procedures for resolving custody, visitation or financial problems if parents were never married. However, children still need love and commitment from each parent. You may wish to check with a lawyer, your family court, or the court services agency that serves your family court for more information on this subject.

Q: What is the role of a stepparent?

A: Stepparents have a difficult job. They often have considerable responsibility for children and may love them deeply, but their role limits them as parents. Stepparents should not try to replace or be critical of children’s biological parents. This can backfire and lead to difficult relationships.

Biological parents sometimes find it difficult to deal with a stepparent due to feelings of rejection by their children, jealousy about the stepparent’s time with the children, or anger over the former partner’s relationship with the stepparent. Some parents and stepparents are able to discuss these matters and arrive at some understanding for one another. Others cannot. In those cases, it is appropriate to speak with a trusted friend or therapist, but never the children.

Recognize that children find room in their hearts for many caregivers and their love for one person, whether parent or stepparent, does not prevent love for another. Understand how fortunate your children are to have yet another person to love them, care for them and help them grow.

Developed by AFCC members Phil Bushard and Doneldon Dennis.
Adapted from the “Twenty Questions Divorcing Parents Ask About their Children”

© 2003 Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
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