Divorce and Children: Easing the Strain of Custody and Change

The distress and heartache of a divorce can cause even attentive parents to miss the effects of the divorce on their kids. Children especially feel this in the most vulnerable years of 6 to 12. The trauma of a divorce can have a long-term impact on their mental health.

This article provides guidance for parents on easing the strain of divorce on children, from child custody negotiations to co-parenting.

The Impacts of Divorce on Children

Uncertainty about the future is very frightening for children of any age. They may wonder whether their parents will still love and care for them in the new situation. Depending on their age, a child's emotions can range from extreme fear of abandonment to anger and blame directed toward one or both parents.

The effect of the divorce on your children can vary:

  • Younger children may not understand why their parents no longer live together. They may have an increase in separation anxiety. Young children can be irritable and upset by the changes in their routines.
  • School-aged children may think it's their fault their parents have split up. The child could try to behave as well as possible, hoping to fix what they think they've done wrong. They could act out. Children can also exhibit regressions, such as nightmares or wanting to share a bed with you.
  • Adolescents may react to their parent's divorce with anger or aggressive behavior. They may blame one parent for the divorce. School performance can suffer. They may engage in risky behaviors, like substance abuse or sexual activity.

Easing Children's Minds About Divorce

Even the best of divorces create stress for children. The worst divorces can leave lifelong scars. Not that divorce isn't sometimes the best or only option for an unhappy marriage. But, from the child's perspective, divorce is the end of the world as they've known it.

The best thing parents can do is to make clear their continued love and commitment to care for the child. They love each parent, and dividing their time is difficult. Spending time with your children will help them feel more secure. Allow them to express their feelings. They are grieving the divorce, and they will miss the other parent. Showing your child support during this time is critical to their mental health.

Most children will adapt to their new normal within a year or two. But they need your help.

Custody Disputes: Put the Kids First

As a parent, you can help resolve custody disputes quickly. The sooner your child knows their future living situation, the sooner they can regain stability.

You and your ex-spouse should strive to reach a custody arrangement before you have to take a child custody case to trial. Try not to leave it to the family court to determine who should have custody of your children. They only have a partial view of your family dynamics and relationships. You, as parents, are in the best position to make this determination.

A full-blown custody dispute in court can raise uncomfortable issues. The most minor details of your life can paint a picture of you as an unfit parent. For a family law judge to make a child custody determination, they must determine what is in the "best interest" of your child. In a hotly contested custody case, the other parent wants the answer to be them. They may use anything they can think of to gain an advantage.

Judges favor joint custody arrangements over a single custodial parent, where appropriate. They look at what situation will benefit the well-being of the child. Child custody laws vary state by state, but judges consider evidence in these areas to determine what is in a child's best interest:

  • Parents: Mental and physical health of the parents, ability to provide a stable home environment, any evidence of parental unfitness (excessive discipline, domestic abuse, parental substance abuse, child abuse). The sex of the parent is not a factor in decision-making
  • Parent-Child Relationship: Child's bond with each parent, parental involvement in the child's life
  • Child: Child's age, the wishes of the child if they are old enough to express a reasonable preference
  • Family: Support and opportunity for interaction with extended family members and other household members. States emphasize more or less the value of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. See a summary of state laws on grandparent visitation
  • Environment: Adjustment to school and community, religious and cultural considerations

Other factors may also be relevant when determining the child's best interest. Child custody disputes have brought up a parent's smoking status, current romantic relationships, and past work habits.

Parents should remember that dragging out a court battle drains the financial resources they need for this next phase of life. Arriving at a satisfactory compromise about who gets custody, even if not ideal, may be in everyone's best interest.

Remain Civil While Negotiating Child Custody

Consider Divorce Mediation

Divorce mediation can be helpful if you and your ex-spouse can work together. Mediation is particularly helpful in resolving conflicts over child custody. Divorce mediation allows the parties to negotiate the terms of their divorce together. The mediator ensures both parties cover all aspects of the divorce, including property division and spousal support or alimony.

Divorce mediation is less expensive and faster than a traditional divorce. You may not have to step foot inside a courtroom. The sooner your divorce is final, the faster everyone can settle into your new lives and routines.

Avoid the "Pawn" Game

Avoid using your child as a pawn to gain leverage in your divorce and child custody case, property division, or other financial disputes. Please don't use them to spy on your ex-spouse.

Avoid allowing your children to use you as a pawn to get an "easier" living situation.

After divorce, children still need limits and consistent discipline. As hard as it is, try to maintain a uniform front with your ex-spouse about expectations for desirable behavior and limits on unacceptable behavior. In the long run, this will help your child feel more secure.

Cooperate With Your Ex-Spouse

The divorce process can inspire powerful and negative feelings about someone you used to love. You may feel anger, abandonment, betrayal, or many overwhelming emotions. While all these feelings are valid and expected, try not to let them cloud what is best for your children's lives.

Take steps to ensure an atmosphere of cooperation with your ex-spouse. Often divorcing parents think (or hope) that the divorce will more or less rid them of their ex. When you have children, that is rarely the case.

Divorced parents must work together until their children reach the age of majority (usually 18) and possibly beyond. Cooperation is essential to easing the strain of divorce on children and will help keep you out of court in the future.

Allow for fair custody and visitation rights. Avoid setting limits or rules for your ex-spouse that you cannot follow. Remember, there are no real winners or losers when your children are involved.

Avoid Criticizing Your Ex-Spouse

It is essential to avoid criticizing the other parent in the presence of your child. Research finds that children internalize such negative criticism. Children of divorce whose parents disparage one another experience more feelings of depression, loss, and abandonment. Divorce affects them more painfully.

It is so damaging that the divorce courts include non-disparagement clauses in child custody orders. They do not want parents to speak ill of one another. They want family and friends to avoid doing so around the children.

Make it a priority to encourage your child to have a good relationship with both parents. You've divorced (or are divorcing) your child's parent, but your child has not divorced that parent. Even when their parents are no longer together, children benefit from the love and support of both parents.

While no court can force you and your ex-spouse to work together. The more you strive for cooperation, the better your children will weather the divorce, both now and in the years to come.

More Tips For Helping Your Child Through a Divorce

Parents can ease the impact of divorce proceedings on their children's lives. Here are some tips on making the transition easier:

  • Try to focus on what is in your children's best interest.
  • Avoid using your children as go-betweens, to pass messages, or to seek information on your ex-spouse.
  • Learn how to be effective co-parents. Take parenting classes and try to resolve conflicts with your ex-spouse peacefully.
  • Stay involved with your children and maintain a healthy relationship. This will help lessen the emotional impact and feelings of abandonment.
  • Maintain your visitation schedule and keep up with child support payments. Children need consistency and routine to feel secure and safe.
  • Allow your children to grieve and miss their other parent. Let them know their feelings are normal and they are okay.
  • Maintain stability and routine in your child's life as much as possible. Consistent routines can provide a sense of security during the uncertainty of a divorce.
  • Model healthy coping. Lead by example with healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress. Reassure them it's okay to ask for support when needed.

Seek Additional Support for Yourself and Your Children

Sometimes, divorce circumstances include traumatic events:

Consider seeking therapy for you and your children. A therapist can help your children understand their feelings. It may help prevent long-term mental health challenges for your child.

A therapist specializing in divorced families can also help you deal with your ex-spouse. Learn healthy communication tips, dispute resolution, and adapt to being a single parent.

Going Through a Divorce as a Parent? Talk to a Family Law Attorney

Easing the effects of a divorce on your children should be your top priority. However, you also may need professional help to arrive at a fair custody agreement and parenting time plan with your spouse.

An experienced divorce lawyer can advise you and fight for your parental rights. Talk to a local divorce attorney in your area to see how they can help support you and your children during the divorce transition.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You may not need an attorney for a simple divorce with uncontested issues
  • Legal advice is critical to protect your interests in a contested divorce
  • Divorce lawyers can help secure fair custody/visitation, support, and property division

An attorney is a skilled advocate during negotiations and court proceedings. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

Find a local attorney

Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Divorce is an ideal time to review your beneficiary designations on life insurance, bank accounts, and retirement accounts. You need to change your estate planning forms to reflect any new choices about your personal representative and beneficiaries. You can change your power of attorney if you named your ex-spouse as your agent. Also, change your health care directive to remove them from making your health care decisions.

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