Explaining the Concept of Custody to a Child

  • The changes that occur to a child during a divorce can inspire difficult discussions between parent and child.
  • Explaining that a child will have two homes can sometimes be difficult for a child to understand.
  • A child's tendency to want to be near their parents can allow separation anxiety to surface.

"If they have a relative or a neighbor who has gone through a divorce, they might have a better chance of understanding it from a conceptual perspective."

Marriages rarely end overnight. For two individuals who have drifted apart, sought the comfort of others, processed the stress and anguish of the constant fighting, divorce can appear to be an attractive option, in an effort to end the unhappiness. For parents in this situation, it can get even more difficult, when the child or children involved are caught in the middle of the crosshairs.

Children of divorce are faced with the difficulty of understanding the situation. Depending on their age and maturity level, this may be their first exposure to the concept of divorce, so when custody, visitation, scheduling, and living arrangements are being talked about, it can feel foreign and overwhelming. They might not understand the idea of living in separate houses, let alone not being in love with one another.

For many children, the idea of not having access to both parents at any given moment can seem terrifying. Part of that is the same reason why many kids do not handle going to school for the first time well. The separation anxiety can debilitate their experiences spending time with either parent, in the same way that a child experiencing separation anxiety while at school can be under extreme distress, taking her away from the educational experience.

Separation anxiety

For children, the experience of missing one parent can cause problems in a child’s social development, lending itself to the possibility of a disorder if left unnoticed. With the variety of ways that a child could find themselves missing the physical presence of a parent near them, it is estimated that 4 percent of children have separation anxiety disorder, according to the Child Mind Institute.

With numbers looking that high, both pharmacological and behavioral treatment has become readily available for parents to employ, in order to help their children adjust to the prospect of being away from their parent or parents.

Aside from physical distance, parents often have to explain the emotional distance of two ex-spouses to their children. That is often much more difficult, due to the differences in personalities and dynamics with both parents and children. There is no easy or sure way of describing the situation to a child. The difficulties surrounding this situation are sometimes the reason why individuals may attempt to stay in unhappy relationships. They do not wish to have the hard discussions with their loved ones about their dysfunctional situations.

However, staying in those relationships is not necessarily beneficial to the child. According to sociologist Christine Carter of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, it is the quality of a parents’ relationship with each other, rather than whether they are married or single, that matters most for a child’s well-being. A child’s behavioral issues associated with parental dysfunction during the divorce experience can result in fewer academic and social skills, more likelihood of gravitating toward the polar ends of either aggressive or shy behaviors, and a greater likelihood of generally acting out, if not monitored carefully.

Communication and change

These types of risks make the task of explaining issues that arise when dealing with child custody incredibly challenging. Depending on how willing co-parents are to co-exist in one another’s lives, the discussion may have to come from one parent. After a divorce or even during the process, many individuals have problems being in the same room as their former significant other, let alone being on the same page as them with explaining something so life-changing as having two places to live.

Their previous exposure to the divorce process and the divorce experience also can help ease the transition. If they have a relative or a neighbor who has gone through a divorce, they might have a better chance of understanding it from a conceptual perspective. They may have a classmate or friend, who is dealing with a similar situation at home, giving them some context as to how their own living arrangement and relationship with each of their parents is about to change.

Staying the same

One of the best ways to go about this situation is for parents to reassure their children through focusing on the constants that will remain in their lives. According to Parents Magazine, this is an effective way of reshaping the conversation, in order to offer comfort in times of great change. Making sure a child knows that their parents’ feelings of love for their child will not change is important, especially when a child’s view of their parents’ love is changing.

In seeing how their life is about to shift, children of divorce can often find themselves feeling alone, but through communication and vigilant observation to their behaviors, co-parents can better assist their transition to living in a shared custody situation.

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