The following are some guidelines that I have found helpful in protecting children during a custody battle or divorce proceedings.
In my mind, the protection of the children is the highest priority of a divorce proceeding.
Children are very vulnerable. They did not ask for their parents to become divorced. Their main concern, though rarely expressed, is “what is going to happen to me?”. The foundations of their world are being shaken, and the unknown can be terrifying. They may also feel responsible for contributing to the cause of the divorce. I do not believe it is commonly understood just how difficult a divorce is for children.
1. Make sure your kids know that they are not to blame for the divorce. Make sure they feel protected, and that their life is going to remain happy and comfortable no matter what happens with the grown-ups.
2. Though divorce is emotionally difficult, try to maintain your balance when around the children. The less shaken up you appear to be, the less shaken up the children will be. It helps to remember that though a divorce is the end of something, it is also a new beginning for you. It is tempting, when your child tells you they want to stay with you, to encourage your child to take sides. This can only hurt the child and the relationship between the child and the other parent. Chances are, the child is telling the other parent the same thing. Children have a tendency to want to comfort their parents when they see that the parents are upset. It is rare that a judge will want to hear the children’s viewpoint, unless the child is near to age 18 anyway. Though some judges may entertain child testimony, in my opinion this is not good practice.
3. If you have any questions about what to do in a given situation, consult a family counselor. A family counselor is trained and provides tools for you to use in minimizing the impact of the divorce on the children. Sometimes, a counselor for the child is a good thing as well.
4. Make sure your spouse and you reach an agreement that you will not let the children manipulate the two of you as parents. Some children, particularly in their teens, will play one parent against the other for an advantage as perceived by the child. The parents must back each other up, or the child will bounce from household to household as the discipline changes between the parents. It is really common for parents to be the victims of child manipulation; sometimes the child feels they can use the advantage to negotiate liberties. Sometimes the child feels that the parents have let them down, and that the child needs to take control of his or her own life. Remember that the child’s judgment is just that; the parents are the adults, and need to provide a united front to the children for disciplinary matters.
5. If you find that the other parent is bitter and manipulating your child, see a family counselor about how to minimize the impact of that manipulation.
6. Most of all, your child needs constant reassurance from both parents that the child will be cared for and loved by both parents, regardless of the divorce. This is an ongoing process. You may have other ideas, depending on the age, maturity, and circumstances of your children and of your divorce. These are only some thoughts that I have after 29 years of divorce practice. Very often in a divorce, the parties are angry. Anger comes from hurt. The answer to both is some thoughtful understanding both of your own situation and that of the other parent.
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