Recently several of my co-workers have blogged about parent-time and custody issues. I wanted to add a little insight into the non-legal aspects of children and divorce. I am a product of divorced parents, although my situation was far from typical. My father had no desire to obtain custody or exercise parent-time and simply disappeared from our lives altogether. I consider myself lucky in this regard. As a child, I escaped the family law courtroom, custody evaluations and supervised visitation centers. Of course now, as a family law attorney, I have witnessed all of those things and have learned of the detrimental effects of divorce on children.
Studies have shown that children who experience divorce earn lower grades, are more likely to need psychological help and are at greater risk of injury, asthma, headaches and speech defects. Children often experience long term loneliness, unhappiness, anxiety and insecurity as a result of divorce.
It is my belief that such detrimental effects are more often caused by the behavior of the parents, rather than the divorce itself. Custody decisions are not “final.” A parent can seek modification of custody and visitation every four years or any time there is a significant change in circumstances. Parents who have been emotionally injured by a former spouse frequently fall into the bad habit of using their children to “get back at” their ex-husband or wife. Vengeful acts are rarely healthy for or in the best interests of your children. At times, children are torn between their parents from the time of their parents’ divorce until the time they leave for college.
Despite all of the negative feelings you may harbor toward your ex-spouse, your first responsibility should be toward your children. Don’t let your children get lost in the divorce process. Here are some tips to ensure that your children become healthy, happy and successful young adults:
1. Communicate with your former spouse. You may experience a minor anxiety attack every time you see his/her phone number on your caller ID, but co-parenting is much easier when parents are able to set aside personal issues and engage in meaningful conversation about the children. Even if you have a specific parent-time schedule, you may need to make changes to accommodate illness, work or travel. Additionally, you should agree upon as many parenting policies as possible. The Court will not enter Orders as to which care providers and doctors the parents should hire, what a child’s diet, curfew or allowance should be, or what extra-curricular activities a child should participate in. By agreeing upon such matters, you will build consistency in your child’s life.
2. Communicate with your children. A 2001 study revealed that less than 20% of parents talk to their children about an impending divorce and only 5% explain why the divorce is occurring or give their children a chance to ask questions.4 Children have no control over divorce, and as a result, the divorce process is frightening and confusing. Children should not be kept in the dark and then used as a pawn in the negotiation of a divorce settlement. Explain the process to your children in a simple, straight-forward manner, preferably with both parents present. Reassure your children that divorce is not their fault and that both parents still love and care for them. Do not ask your children to choose sides in the custody dispute, but encourage them to share their ideas, opinions and desires about their living arrangements. Also, encourage your children to express their anger and frustration to their parents or to a counselor, friend, teacher or other third party.
3. Minimize conflict and negativity. Children rarely want their parents to split up, and as a result, most children carry painful memories of divorce for many years. You should limit your children’s exposure to the pain and anger you feel toward your former spouse. Children should be encouraged to maintain a relationship with both parents, as well as extended family. Forcing a child to take sides or be put in the middle of their parents’ conflict will create feelings of guilt and frustration. Do not make disparaging comments about your former spouse to your children. Do not have adult arguments in the presence of your children, and do not ask your children to act as your messengers or to spy on the other parent. Encourage your children to call their other parent, and do not listen-n or tape-record the phone call. Schedule visits to relatives, including your in-laws. Keep your former spouse informed as to the children’s sports and extra-curricular activities, and encourage attendance. Know that your former spouse may expose your children to different religious ideas, hobbies, interests and tastes. Reassure your children that it is okay to experience and enjoy those things.
4. Be a parent. A 2003 study showed that non-custodial fathers see their children an average of only four times per month, and about 20% of children have no contact with their fathers two to three years after divorce.4 The amount time each parent spends with the children affects the well-being of the children. The quality of time is also important. Much of what happens to children is related to the skill of the parents in helping them develop, a parenting skills are negatively impacted by divorce.4 Spend time with your children, and while your children are present, act like a parent. Lay ground rules, be responsible for household duties. Pay attention to signs that your children are experiencing stress or anxiety, and most importantly, demonstrate parental warmth and caring. Your children should feel safe and comfortable in your home.
5. Take care of yourself. Your children are your most important responsibility, but you must also take control of your own physical, mental and emotional health. There is a relationship between the parents’ well-being and the children’s well-being. A parent’s visible despair may produce similar feelings in children. Alternately, a well-adjusted parent is in a better position to assist the children during their adjustment period. Your divorce is your chance to start fresh and create a new and better life for yourself and your children. Do not dwell on the past. Take charge. Take control. Be fearless.
1 Andrew J. Cherlin, Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, Harvard University Press, 1981.
2 Peter Hill, “Recent Advances in Selected Aspects of Adolescent Development,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 1993.
3 Dawson, “Family Structure and Children’s Health and Well Being.” National Health Interview Survey on Child Health, Journal of Marriage and the Family.
4 Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., “The Effects of Divorce on Children,” Parenting 24/7, April 2009, available at http://parenting247.org/article.cfm?ContentID+646