The short answer is: as little as possible. The more children know about child custody litigation, the worst the outcome will be for them and for you. Family law judges instruct parents not to discuss child custody litigation with children. You want to avoid being a parent who overshares about child custody litigation with your child, even if the child is 14, 15, or 16-years-old, and you think they could handle knowing more about the dispute. Courts do not want children to be entangled in complicated child custody litigation, so keep your conversations with your child on a “need to know” basis to protect yourself and your custody claim.
If a judge has issued an order determining a child custody schedule or you and the other parent have reached an agreement, inform the children of the custody schedule logistics: when and where will they see each parent and how they will be transported. Remind the children of the custody schedule by putting up a visible calendar in your kitchen or in their school agenda indicating which parent will be picking them up from school each day and what nights they will spend at each parent’s home. This will help your children anticipate the custody schedule. If there are holidays or events coming up that will alter the normal custody schedule, make sure they know ahead of time.
If there is not a custody schedule, assure your children that the burden of deciding custody is not on their shoulders. Explain that the adults are responsible for determining the custody schedule and children do not have to (and in the state of North Carolina are not permitted to) choose which parent they will live with. Children’s opinions are taken into consideration by the court but are not determinative of a child custody.
Avoid apprising children of upcoming court dates, mediations, or any court-related deadlines. Kids should focus on their school work, sports, extracurricular activities, and being a kid, not on what the judge will decide in court. Explain after the hearing or trial if there is a change to their custody schedule.
Avoid speaking negatively about your child’s other parent. Your child is made up of half of you and half of their other parent. When you speak negatively about the other parent, you are speaking negatively about 50% of your child’s physical makeup. Children hear the negative comment about the other parent and may think “If Mom is so bad and I’m 50% of Mom, then I must be bad too.” It will ultimately benefit your relationship with your child and your chances in court if you encourage your child’s relationship with the other parent. Actions speak louder than words, so demonstrate your encouragement by allowing your child to call the other parent during your custodial time, conducting some of your child’s transportation for the other parent’s custodial time, speaking kindly to the other parent during custodial exchanges, and involving the other parent in special occasions like your child’s piano recital or school play. Your child will notice and appreciate that his/her parents can get along.
Ask a family law attorney if you have more questions about how to handle discussing the murky waters of child custody litigation with your child.