So you’re getting divorced and you have kids. If they are of a certain age, chances are good that they already know plenty about the reasons for the dissolution of your marriage. No matter how you’ve tried to shield them from it, they have lived it too. They probably hear the fights or feel the tension when you and your spouse are in the same room. And maybe they have already begun to experience the routine-shattering effects of a shared custodial schedule or divorce-related relocation.
We know that kids are affected by divorce, and that to a certain extent, those effects can’t be avoided. But how can we minimize them and put our children on the pathway to a “new normal”? Here are four do’s and don’ts to put the children first and limit the collateral damage in your divorce:
- Don’t speak about your spouse in a negative or derogatory fashion within earshot of the kids. This one is so important and so simple, and yet so many people fail to adhere to it. There is never a legitimate reason to criticize your spouse in front of the kids, or to allow others to do so. How about if you need to “set the record straight” when your spouse lies to them? It may be tempting, but you’re better off taking the high road. What if your spouse ditches weekend visitation or your child’s dance recital? Telling your son that his father flew to Miami with his girlfriend won’t make him feel any better. Time after time, clients tell me that when their kids are older, they figure out who’s lying and who’s not anyway. They don’t need your help. When they grow up, they’ll appreciate your maturity and positive reinforcement. Demeaning the other side is never successful in the long run, and it will add to your kids’ stress and confusion in the short run. This also goes for overruling and undermining decisions made by the other parent; you and your spouse should strive to maintain unity and back each other up in front of the kids. As you know, children will naturally seek opportunities to “play one parent against the other,” and you should avoid fanning the flames.
- Unless your kids are legitimately in harm’s way, don’t have them testify. You should absolutely consider asking your child to testify in a court proceeding if he or she has experienced or is in danger of abuse, or there is some other compelling, health-and-safety-related reason to do so (for example, blatant dangerous drug use in the child’s presence). But if these issues are not involved, then you should probably keep your kids far away from the courthouse. The child’s preference typically won’t be taken into consideration (unless he or she is nearing adulthood and very mature), and many judges adhere to the popular refrain that “the party who calls the kids to testify, loses.” Not only is the strategy typically ineffective, but it can make things very difficult for a child, and can irreparably harm the relationship between parent and child. There is a good reason why courts have evolved away from calling kids of all ages to the stand and asking them to choose between mom and dad. Children are not equipped to make those kinds of decisions, and should be sheltered from their consequences.
- Do consider a “nesting” custodial arrangement in the short term. A nesting arrangement is one in which the kids remain in the marital home, and the parents rotate in and out on a regular custodial schedule. This plan is only temporary by nature, but may ease the transition for the children. If anyone should be inconvenienced by the tumult of moving between homes on a regular basis, it should be the parents and not the kids.
- Do consider family therapy, child therapy and co-parenting counseling. These options can have a dramatic effect on family communication and understanding. A family therapy setting may be conducive to a child sharing his or her emotions and fears with parents. Individual therapy for the child allows him or her to express concerns openly, without the stress of having mom and dad listening in. Co-parenting counseling is an invaluable option that every couple should attempt before litigating custody and visitation. An experienced co-parenting counselor can help the parties work through problems with custodial schedules and disagreements over health, education and activities. Compromise is always available for those sufficiently motivated to seek it.