This is the fourth and final post in 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. Be sure to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of this series.
31. Both parents should exercise their right to authorize emergency medical, surgical, hospital, dental, institutional and/or psychiatric care.
The parents should consult one another during or as soon as possible after the emergency.
32. Acknowledge the right of both parents to inspect and receive the children’s medical and dental records and the right of both parents to consult with the children’s treating physician, dentist, or mental health professional, unless that right has been restricted by the court.
When the type of information covered in the five previous items is withheld, or when parents are excluded from participating in these processes, post-divorce visitation and child support conflicts are more likely to appear. When parents are kept fully informed, they feel more a part of the children’s lives and are less likely to feel the necessity for post-divorce litigation. Also, when one parent does not keep the other parent informed, it can be held against that parent in a custody proceeding.
33. Recognize that children need substantial contact with the same-gender parent during adolescence.
Male children identify more closely with their fathers during adolescence, and female children identify more closely with their mothers during adolescence. As a result, it may be necessary to voluntarily alter the co-parenting schedule based on these increased needs of the children.
34. Allow all grandparents to continue to have contact with the children.
Parents must recognize that the children are not getting divorced from their grandparents. There is usually a special place in children’s hearts for their grandparents. When one parent denies contact with the ex-spouse’s parents because of animosity, it only serves to remove another important component of the childhood experience and an important source of support for the child. Grandparents should be instructed not to criticize the other parent because it can undermine the relationship and increase the acrimony.
35. Communicate with the other parent openly, honestly, and regularly to avoid misunderstandings harmful to the children.
Most of the child-rearing difficulties between divorced parents result from poor communication. When a child tells Mom what Dad said, or tells Dad what Mom criticized, it is important for for parents to be able to communicate about these concerns and “check it out.” If the communication skills between parents are so poor that this is impossible, it allows children to continue manipulating their parents, increases the acrimony between parents, and teaches the children poor communication techniques. Unfortunately, the parents must do something outside the marriage that they probably were incapable of doing during the marriage. E-mails are often an effective means of facilitating communication without parents’ becoming frustrated over being unable to make productive contact by telephone and without the other parent hearing yelling, a negative tone of voice, or frustration. This method only works if the e-mailing parent makes an effort not to include inflammatory or profane language in the e-mail.
36. Make plans directly with the other parent rather than through the children.
Anytime the children are caught in the middle of communication, it becomes burdensome for them. It is unfair, and often destructive, to burden children with the role of middleman.
37. Live as close to the other parent as is practical, convenient, and reasonable, especially if the children are young.
Children are more likely to feel that they have two homes if they can move conveniently between the houses, especially if they are old enough to do so on foot or by bicycle because the houses are near each other. Older children should be able to get to their “other house” to retrieve forgotten items, discuss matters with the other parent, interact with pets, and so on. It should be made clear to the children, however, that they will eat and sleep at the placement home, not the other home. This reduces the likelihood of their playing one parent off against the other.
38. Maintain household routines as much as possible.
There are already many changes occurring during a child’s life at the time of separation and divorce. To the degree they are able, parents should maintain the basic structure of the children’s lives. Chores, eating and sleeping routines, and regular schedules should be maintained as much as possible. Any changes should be discussed with the children in advance and kept to a minimum.
39. Maintain the same set of rules as much as possible in both homes.
Although it may be a valuable lesson for children to learn that different rules can apply to different settings, when the basic routines at each home are too different from one another, it can increase the children’s anxiety. As a result, it is beneficial to keep meal-time rules, bedtime rules, homework rules, and general rules as similar as possible between the two homes. At the same time, parents must realize that they cannot enforce rules or maintain discipline when the children are in the other parent’s home. This recommendation may be difficult to follow, since many divorces occur because parents have different views of child-rearing techniques. For example, one parent accuses the other of being too lax, while the other parent accuses the first of being too strict.
40. Realize that winning against the other parent can never be more important than the well-being of the children.
If a parent remembers only one thing from this list, remember this: WINNING IS NEVER MORE IMPORTANT THAT THE WELL-BEING OF THE CHILDREN. No one wins a painful custody battle, and the children are the biggest losers. In a custody dispute, it is not unusual for one parent to believe strongly that he or she is superior to the other parent, that the other parent is defective, and that placement with the other parent would be detrimental for the children. Nonetheless, there is a point of diminishing returns. When the pursuit of winning endangers the mental health of the children, the parents must step back and recognize that the children’s well-being is far more important that winning. It will work against the parent if he or she is significantly more focused on winning than on the best interests of the children.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.