Explaining How Court Works

Talking about how court works with your children is important if you'll be going through mediation or heading to court to resolve your issues concerning divorce or custody issues. Even if you want to shield them from these sorts of things, kids are amazingly perceptive to what is going on in their parent's lives. Instead of letting them worry in silence, you can use the tips below to help explain what is going on.

Talking about Court with Your Kid

by Brette Sember

Explaining the divorce to your child was a difficult step and one that most likely took a lot of thought and energy on your part because you wanted to be sure to present it in the right way. Whether you are headed to mediation or court for your divorce, or you are heading back to resolve ongoing custody issues, it's important to take the time to explain the court process to your child in a way that will make sense and ease his worries.

How Court Works

Gavel in front of open book implying a court decision.

You will need to tell your child (elementary age and up) that you are going to court because they will overhear you talking about it. Even though you might feel upset and worried about it, try to control your emotion when talking about it.

Keep your explanation age appropriate. Teens and middle schoolers can handle more detail. When talking to young kids you can say that Mom and Dad have some things they can't agree about and need help solving the problems. A judge (or mediator) is going to help work out a solution that will be best for everyone.

For tweens and teens it is ok to say that Mom and Dad have different opinions about what should happen and the court (or mediator) is going to find a solution. These older kids may want details about the process and it is fine to share those: that each side will offer its opinion and the court will consider both and then decide. You'll each have lawyers who will help present your opinion. Your teen will most likely want to know what it is you can't agree about and will likely have an opinion.

Are Kids Involved?

Younger kids will be unlikely to assume that court involves them, particularly if you present it as something that is for adults. However, if there will be a law guardian or guardian ad litem who will talk to your children, you should prepare them in advance. Tell them that this person works with the court and wants to meet them. These types of attorneys do not ask young children their opinions about custody, but will discuss this with tweens and teens. Present this visit in friendly terms, as someone who wants to get to know your child. Do not coach your child about what to do or say, because they almost always promptly report this to the attorney!

Younger children rarely need to appear in court, and if they do, it is for a private, informal talk with the judge behind closed doors. If your child will be appearing for this, explain it in a non-threatening way. The judge wants to get to know your child because he or she cares about your child. No one is being cross-examined and there usually are no attorneys (other than a law guardian) in the room. Stress to your child that he or she is not in trouble and has not done anything wrong. He or she cannot say anything that will be wrong or get him or her, or you, in trouble.

Your tween or teen can also be brought in for a private session with the court. It is also possible for an older teen to be asked to testify in open court, but this is very rare. Prepare your teen in much the same way as a younger child, stressing that responsibility for what the judge decides is not on your child. Your teen may be asked his or her opinion about custody and you should enjoy honesty, even if you don't agree with what the opinion is.

Explaining a Court Ruling

Whatever kind of decision the court makes, your child will be curious to know what has been decided. If there is a change in living arrangements or the schedule, explain this in a non-judgmental manner. This is what the court wants us to do, so this is what we will be doing. Even if you are crushed and disappointed, try to keep things positive in your talk with your child. If your child is resistant to the new arrangement, make it clear that this is what the judge decided and this is what you are all required to do.

Older children will be aware that the ruling likely means one parent did not get what he or she is asking for. This is a good time to talk about how sometimes we don't get what we want in life and we have to make the best of what we do have. Stress the positives as much as possible and try not to make your child feel sad or guilty if you did not get what you asked for.

Although the court process may feel overwhelming and frightening to you, you can discuss it in ways that reduce your child's anxiety. 

By explaining how court works to your children, you can ease some of their anxiety. Below are some situations where this information can come in handy: