During a divorce, many parents are unsure of what information they should and should not share with their kids. Some parents say too much, while other parents say too little.
Wondering what information is OK to share with your child during your divorce? What if you received an injunction prohibiting you from discussing divorce litigation?
We asked the founder of the Sisemore Law Firm Justin Sisemore, a divorce attorney in Fort Worth, and Tarrant County licensed family therapist Gina Galloway, Ph.D., to share their insight on the topic. Check out their exchange below.
What can parents say to kids when barred from discussing their divorce?
Justin Sisemore: When parents get served with a petition for divorce, an injunction barring discussion about the litigation often comes with it. How do you counsel parents about what they can and cannot say and how they should talk to their child under those circumstances?
Dr. Gina Galloway: As a family therapist, I understand when the court says, “You can’t talk about this,” and I agree a lot of things are inappropriate to discuss with children during a divorce. But kids get frustrated when they ask parents questions about divorce, and parents say, “Oh, I can’t talk to you about that,” and they just leave it at that. It’s upsetting to them, and it’s a scary feeling. The key is to share as much as you can in child appropriate ways and to speak in terms of what is happening in the child’s world.
JS: Can you offer an example?
Dr. G.: First and foremost, the parents should let the child know that they love them very much. In general, it’s also helpful for parents to acknowledge that they don’t have a lot of answers right now because everything is so new. They could say something like:
“We’re still trying to figure things out, but when we find out more, we can let you know. What I can tell you is this: Yes, we do have some changes coming for our family, and it’s not going to look the way it did before. You’re going to have time with mom. You’re still going to have time with dad, but it’s just going to look different. We need to figure out what that looks like before we can give you more details.”
All kids are different—some want to know everything, others not so much
JS: As a lawyer, one thing I recommend parents say to older kids is, “Look, we’re going through some adult issues right now. We love you very much, and you’re mature enough to handle some of these situations, but we want to keep you out of the middle of this. When the time’s right, we’ll sit down and go through everything with you.” That way you don’t have to say, “The court won’t allow me to talk about this,” or “I can’t give you any details.” You just don’t have to get to that point.
Dr. G.: Exactly. Some of my kids tell me they are very happy that their parents have not shared a lot with them because they don’t want to know. And other kids get really frustrated by that. You definitely see different personality types. Some kids really want to know what’s going on.
That’s where I talk to parents about ways they can explain things to kids that are appropriate both age wise and developmentally. Instead of adult information, it’s information that helps the kid feel like they have some understanding of what’s happening in their world. Not necessarily the details between the parents, but in their world.
‘I don’t want to lie to my kids’
JS: What about those parents who say, “I don’t want to lie to my kids”?
Dr. G.: I often have parents say, “Well, I’m honest with my kids. I tell the truth to my kids.” My response is, “I’m not asking you to lie to your kids. I’m asking you to explain things to them in a developmentally appropriate way.”
I often give the example of sex. I say, “You’re not honest with your children about your sex life, but you don’t want to lie to your children, right? When you’re not telling your children about that, are you lying to your children? No, you’re just giving them developmentally appropriate information.” That’s the biggest thing. I don’t want parents to lie to their kids ever. That’s not helpful. But I also think they need to be very careful about what they choose to share and how they choose to share it.
Attempts to practice self-help in child custody cases often backfire
JS: We often see parents try to involve their kids in litigation because they think they can sabotage the other parent’s custody situation. They feel like they should talk to their kids about what to say to the counselor regarding what’s going on at dad’s or mom’s house and who’s sleeping in the house, and so on.
Some push their child into the role of being the inspector. They have them going to the other parent’s house, recording information, gathering evidence, taking pictures and all that stuff. We’ve seen that really backfire in the court system.
Dr. Galloway, do you feel like kids are pretty good about coming forth with information that’s necessary, but when they get quizzed constantly, they kind of shut down?
Dr. G.: Absolutely. In a healthy situation, kids are going to come forth with the necessary information. Conversely, you get these secretive scenarios, where a parent tells the child, “Don’t tell the other parent I’m asking you to do this. If you say something, I’m not going to get to see you.”
Or you’ll have the parent who’s interrogating their kiddo. That’s when kids get very suspicious. They wonder, “Why am I getting all these questions?” And then they shut down. In a normal, healthy situation, kids are just spontaneous. They’re simply going to share what’s going on in their world.
Many children benefit from speaking with a neutral party during divorce
JS: That’s another good reason to involve a family counselor during divorce and child custody disputes. They are really good about fleshing those things out. Just like parents shouldn’t exercise self-help with their own legal case, they shouldn’t exercise self-help with their child custody case either. You can really vet that out during the child counseling sessions, right?
Dr. G.: Yes. It helps because I’m not tied into the situation. Instead, I’m this neutral person, so kids usually feel a lot safer talking to meabout stuff. As a neutral party, I don’t have a big emotional reaction when they tell me, “Oh, daddy did this.” Whereas, if I did, they would think, “Oh no, maybe I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.” Kids want to talk about things that are going on, especially things they’re confused about or things that are upsetting to them
JS: Parents should also know that as a neutral party, the court relies on counselors like you to let them know what the child really says and feels.
Dr. G.: That’s true. The family courts often rely on mental health professionals like me to provide an unbiased opinion so the best interests of the child can be met.
JS: Thank you for sharing your perspective today, Dr. Galloway.
Dr. G.: You’re very welcome, Justin.
Need insight from a licensed family therapist or divorce attorney in Tarrant County?
Parents who live near Dr. Galloway’s Keller, Texas practice—Galloway Counseling Center—can reach her office directly at 817-932-3105. Dr. Galloway has been helping families as a licensed professional counselor for well over a decade and is frequently called upon by the family courts in Tarrant County to testify in divorce and child custody matters.
If you have legal questions about divorce and child custody in Texas, the Sisemore Law Firm’s family law attorneys in Fort Worth are here to help. To schedule a confidential case review with our founder Justin Sisemore, contact our Fort Worth law office at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.
The information above is general in nature and shouldn’t be construed as legal or medical advice. Consult an attorney or mental health professional to find out what steps your family should take next.