Divorce is a fact of modern life that greatly impacts children. Parents aren't aware of how a divorce can cause distress in the lives of their children, especially for children in the most vulnerable years of 6 to 12. That distress can carry over into the children's adult lives.
This article provides some tips for parents on easing the strain of divorce on children, from child custody negotiations through co-parenting.
Easing Children's Minds About Divorce
Even the best of divorces can create stress for children. The worst divorces can leave life-long scars. That is not to say that divorce isn't sometimes the best or only option for an unhappy marriage. But the unfortunate reality is that, from the child's perspective, divorce is the end of the world as they've known it.
Uncertainty about the future is very frightening for children. 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 best thing parents can do is to make clear their continued love and commitment to care for the child.
Custody Disputes: Put Kids First
As a parent, you can help bring custody disputes to the quickest possible resolution. The sooner your child knows what their future living situation will be, the sooner the child will begin to regain stability.
If at all possible, you and your spouse should strive to reach an agreement on child custody before you have to take a child custody case to trial. Family law judges aren't in the best position to determine who should have custody of your children. They only have a partial view of your family dynamics and relationships. Parents are better equipped to make this determination.
Furthermore, a full-blown custody dispute in court can raise uncomfortable issues. The smallest details of your life can be used to paint a picture of you as an unfit parent. In order for a family law judge to make a child custody determination, they must determine what is in the "best interests" 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.
Although the child custody laws vary state by state, judges typically 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, emotional abuse, parental drug or alcohol abuse, sex abuse). Where the courts once had a notable bias toward placing children with their mothers, they are increasingly less biased. 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: Age of the child, wishes of the child if they are old enough to express a reasonable preference
- Family: Support and opportunity for interaction with members of the extended family, and other members of the household. (States place more or less emphasis on the value of the grandparent-grandchild relationship. See a summary of state laws on grandparent visitation.)
- Environment: Adjustment to school and community, religious and/or cultural considerations
Other factors may also be considered relevant when determining the child's best interests. A parent's smoking status, current romantic relationship(s), and past work habits have all been raised in child custody disputes.
It would be wise for parents to remember that dragging out a court battle depletes the financial resources parents will 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.
Maintain Civility While Negotiating Child Custody
Avoid the "Pawn" Game
Avoid using your child as a pawn to gain leverage in your divorce and child custody case, the division of marital property, or other financial disputes. Avoid allowing your child (especially older children) to use you as a pawn to get the "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 regarding 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
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 almost never the case. Divorced parents must work together at least until their children reach the age of majority (usually 18), and quite possibly beyond. Cooperation is essential to easing the strain of divorce on children and will help keep you out of court in the future.
Avoid Criticizing Your Ex-Spouse
It is especially important to avoid criticizing the other parent in the presence of your child. Research finds that children internalize such negative criticism. In divorced families where parents disparage one another, children are found to experience more feelings of depression, loss, and abandonment. The divorce affects them more painfully.
It is so damaging that the divorce courts include non-disparagement clauses in child custody orders. Not only do they 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 in the process of 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 and your spouse strive for mutual cooperation, the better your children will weather the divorce, both now and in the years to come.
Getting Divorced? Talk to a Family Law Attorney
While easing the strain of a divorce on your children should be a major priority, you also may need professional help arriving at a parenting time plan with your spouse. Get the legal help you need. Talk to a local divorce attorney today.