Using Family-Friendly Language

Smiling mother and young daughter

Language has an ability to impact situations as well as change a person's way of thinking.  Word choice alone has an astounding influence on how information is perceived. Sometimes, the understanding of a word or a term is affected by elements such has the context in which it is used or the listening audience. One example of where this holds true is in the language used when discussing co-parenting topics.

Quite often, co-parenting and family law vocabulary tends to be the same in and out of the courtroom, which is sometimes considered problematic. "Words such as 'possession,' 'custody,' and 'visitation' were never designed for parents, mental-health professionals, or educators," says Bradley Craig, a Licensed Social Worker and Certified Family Life Educator. "They were designed for judges and attorneys in a courtroom, and many states are even changing that." In his book, Between Two Homes: A Coparenting Handbook, Craig discusses the importance of using "family-friendly" language and suggests ways to modify the vocabulary that surrounds these topics. Here are a few points that he suggests will help make our speech more family-friendly:

  • Words like “ex” or "ex-partner/spouse" focus more on the past and less on the present. "They do not promote shared parenting or the strength of the restructured family," Craig suggests. More than this, these terms imply that an intimate relationship was in place between two people where there may have never actually been such a relationship. Using the term “co-parent” to describe the current situation between parents is more appropriate and inclusive of many possible family situations.
  • Children are especially sensitive to word choice, so using a term like “broken" or "fractured" to describe their family’s situation can have harmful effects on a child’s emotional wellbeing. To this point, Craig writes, "The focus is on ‘termination’ of the marriage, with only limited attention to restructuring the family.” Even after a divorce, one family does not become two totally separate entities - it remains as one family. Move away from using language that emphasizes an ending, and choose words that focus on the true reality, like "our family." 
  • Words like "custody" and “possession” are commonly used to describe parenting time, but they tend to imply a contentious undertone. “Legal professionals have been trained to use divisive terms throughout their education and practice, and unfortunately, parents, educators, and mental health professionals have drawn their word usage from the legal profession,” says Craig. Instead of these words, Craig suggests using terms like “parenting” and “other home” to describe the situation. For example, instead of saying to your child, “When you’re at your mom’s house,” say, “When you’re at your other home with your mother.” Also, instead of saying “My ex and I split custody, and I have possession of my kids this week,” rephrase that by saying, “My co-parent and I share parenting responsibilities, and it’s my parenting time this week.”
  • Children have a keen ear. They often decipher meanings out of what adults around them are saying, whether those meanings are accurate or not. Asking a child, “Which of your parents has custody of you tonight?” can sometimes cause a child to feel confused or upset if they are not sure how to interpret this question. In this situation, phrase this in a way that is easier for a child to understand such as, “Are you spending tonight with your mom or your dad?”

Using family-friendly language, we are able to take a more sensitive approach when talking about some of the hardest things that many parents and children are going through. It is important to move forward through times of change, and the words you choose will have an influence on how you, or those around you, move through it. "Focus on the changes in the family system and the transition to a new way for your family to function," says Craig. "Change your words, and you may change your child's world and the potential in your coparenting relationship." 

Learn more about Between Two Homes: A Coparenting Handbook, by Bradley S. Craig. In his book, you'll find more about family-friendly language as well as other insights on co-parenting.

Craig, Bradley S. Between Two Homes: A Coparenting Handbook. Grand Prairie: BTH Publications, 2014. Print. 


NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.

Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.