This is Part Two of a four-part series where I will briefly recommend appropriate behaviors for parents during separation, courtroom proceedings, and following divorce. All recommendations are based on my personal experience as an attorney focusing on family law as well as the enormous body of social science research devoted to studying the effects of divorce on children. Click here to read Part One of this series.
11. Be sensitive to the children’s needs as well as to the other parent’s needs.
Unfortunately, parents often become bogged down in meeting their own needs such that they fail to recognize their children’s needs. Parents who cannot be sensitive to their children’s needs sometimes find the children exhibiting problematic behavior in response.
12. Plan and consult with the other parent, in advance, regarding the children’s activities.
When it comes to planning lessons, athletic activities, camp, recitals, extended medical treatment, out-of-town visits to relatives, or other routine activities, it is essential for the parents to communicate with one another prior to implementation of these plans. It only serves to increase the acrimony if one parent makes the plans without consulting the other, then attempts to follow through with the plans without the other parent’s input.
13. Strictly observe time schedules with the children.
If a parent is running late, that tardy parent should call as soon as possible, explain the reason for being late, and give an estimated time of arrival. Absent some extraordinary (and rare) event, the schedule should be strictly followed unless modified by mutual agreement of both parents.
14. Be flexible with regard to the other parent’s parenting time.
No parenting plan can take into account all the possible scheduling exceptions that may become necessary. As a result, reasonable flexibility is important. Parents should treat the other parent as they want the other parent to treat them because, over time, each parent will need scheduling accommodations from the other. Parents should not count up the minutes, hours, or days that may be lost or gained as a result of this flexibility. The presumption should be that, over the course of the children’s childhood, the time will balance out. Parents who count the minutes are not working for the best interests of their children.
15. Do whatever is necessary to resolve any angry feelings toward the ex-spouse.
Psychological research clearly demonstrates that there is a significant amount of depression in children whose parents are still fighting years after the divorce. Ex-spouses do not have to love or even like each other. They must, however, be civil to one another in the presence of their children. Angry feelings will be conveyed to the children and can cause serious serious problems, including clinical depression. Post-divorce parental communications counseling is often a good method of resolving such issues. A parent who cannot let go of anger toward the ex-spouse may need individual psychotherapy to deal with that issue in order to prevent further harm to the children.
16. Work with the other parent to present a united front when handling any problems with the children.
Children should be allowed to manipulate the parents by playing one off against the other. If a problem arises and the parents choose to respond to it in different ways, it presents an opportunity for the child to manipulate the situation. Discussions should take place and ground rules should be established for dealing with specific problems. It may be necessary for the parents to recognize that there is little likelihood that they will agree on how to handle some or all of the problems. The parents may wish to have a therapist or mediator help with the most difficult issues. Parents must not allow this to provide an opportunity for one parent to “bad mouth” the other parent.
17. Do not let the children have too much decision-making power.
If preadolescent children are allowed decision-making power over whether they will or will not see the other parent, they are more likely to demand excessive and inappropriate power during their teenage years, perhaps even becoming uncontrollable. Older teenagers may reasonably have some say in how much time they spend with the other parent and the timing of the contact. Psychological research demonstrates that, in general, children should not have significant input in deciding where they live, or whether they visit the other parent, until they are 15 and 16 years old, respectively.
18. Take the children to a therapist if the psychological adjustment appears too problematic.
Parents should not be running to a therapist whenever a child has an adverse reaction to divorce. However, adverse reactions that last for months instead of weeks may become habitual rather than transient. A difficult conflict arises when one parent feels that psychotherapy is necessary and beneficial but the other parent says, “My kids aren’t crazy and I’m not taking them to any shrink.” In general, if either parent believes therapy is warranted, a brief evaluation of the need for therapy should take place by a therapist familiar with child custody and post-divorce issues.
19. Provide the children with an emotional environment that allows them to continue to love the other parent and spend time with the other parent.
Children often realize that their parents got divorced because they neither like nor love each other. They also recognize the acrimony between their parents. As a result, they can be fearful that one parent may see them as being too friendly with the other parent and become angry. Children must be made aware that it is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to show love and positive feelings for the other parent.
20. Encourage a good relationship between the children and the other parent’s extended family.
The principle in number 19 also applies to the children’s feelings about uncles, aunts, grandparents, and other members of the other parent’s extended family. For one parent to criticize the other parent’s extended family puts inappropriate pressure on the child and increases the problems between the divorced parents.
Click here to read Part One of this series. Parts Three and Four will be posted here in the coming weeks.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.