Even in the best of circumstances, divorces involving children are difficult. The biggest challenges include keeping the children out of the fray, allowing them to be heard although not in control, and maintaining a good relationship with both them and the other parent after the divorce. Each of these is important in ensuring that your children are able to grow and mature into happy, self-confident individuals. Although each age and stage of childhood development may require different approaches, below are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
Keeping the Children Out of the Fray
1. Tell your children together that you are divorcing and that you and their other parent are going to be working together to do what is best for them.
2. Tell them that even though you and your spouse are divorcing, it is not their fault and that you will each always love and support them.
3. Do not ask them which parent they want to live with. Tell them you will listen to what they have to say, but that the final decision is not up to them. Most children are very relieved to not have this responsibility.
4. Do not tell them anything about your discussions with your lawyer or any of the court proceedings.
5. In the event that your child may be called to either speak to the Judge or actually testify, instruct them only to tell the truth. Do not promise them anything. The Judge is sure to ask them if anyone has promised them anything.
Allowing Them to be Heard Although Not in Control
1. Depending on their age, ask your children directly what and how they are feeling. Do not comment on or evaluate what they say. Merely assure them that they are free to speak and that you will listen carefully to what they have to say. If the children are very young, you may learn some valuable things by observing and listening to their play.
2. Enlist communication from teachers, coaches, scout leaders, parents of your children’s friends, or any other adult regularly in contact with your children. This should not rise to the level of “spying” (especially for teenagers) and should rather be extra sets of eyes and ears in order to evaluate how your children are coping with the divorce.
3. If your children are acting out, are too complacent, are silent or often alone, talk to them directly about how they are feeling. If you get nowhere with these conversations and you are still concerned, take your child to a mental health professional or, if very young, to a play therapist. Do not ask this professional what transpires in the meetings. Your child needs to feel there is a safe place to express him or her self.
4. Older children should be encouraged to speak to their parents together so that there is no risk of misinterpretation in the later communication between parents.
Maintaining a Good Relationship with Both Them and the Other Parent After the Divorce
1. Never, ever, use the children as messengers.
2. At least in the beginning, make sure all agreements with the other parent that are out of the ordinary (like trading parenting time) is in writing so there is no confusion.
3. Always keep your word to your children. Do not make promises you cannot keep. If something comes up which changes an agreement or plan you have with your children, make sure to let them know as soon as possible.
4. Do not quiz your children about what goes on or the rules at the other parent’s home. Your children need to live in peace and not be asked to “tattle.” If you are confronted with some version of “well, I don’t have to do that at ________’s house”, calmly explain that the rules are different at your home.
5. Encourage the children to spend time with both of you and to share all important things with both of you, like achievements, school events, and upcoming challenges.
6. Do not make plans with or for the children during the other parent’s parenting time without a written agreement. Do not discuss these plans with the children until an agreement has been reached.
7. Assist the children in remembering the other parent on special occasions such as birthdays, holiday time, Father’s day and Mother’s day.
8. Never speak badly of or criticize the other parent to or in front of the children. Do not allow others to do so either. No matter what your opinion or the other parent’s actions, every child wants to love and be loved and appreciated by both parents. If your opinion turns out to be correct, the children will figure it out themselves without your input.
Remember, you picked this person out to be the other parent of your children and your children think of themselves as part of each of you. Let them believe they came from the best of both worlds.
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Jolene Wilson-Glah is a now retired lawyer licensed in Texas, Pennsylvania, the US Virgin Islands and in the US Supreme Court. She is also a trained mediator and an arbitrator trained by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Her more than 30 years of practice has been concentrated in family law, most particularly issues of parenting and custody. Prior to becoming a lawyer, Jolene was an elementary school teacher and a mediator, both of which speak to her commitment to children and their families.
In her practice, Jolene represented both mothers and fathers and also children, tried hundreds of cases and mediated and settled even more. She has been involved with clients and children in custody cases in Holland, Norway, Kenya, Pakistan, China, Venezuela, Columbia, Israel and Greece. Her commitment to finding creative and effective solutions to parenting issues following divorce led her to her involvement in “Co-parenting into the Future”.
©Jolene Wilson-Glah, Attorney (Retired)