This recent article by Marlene Moses in the Tennessee Bar Journal contains good advice for divorcing parents.
Helping Children Endure Divorce
When in the midst of a divorce, it is understandable for a party to become entrenched in what is felt to be a personal battle and preoccupied with details such as where to live, how to maximize the financial settlement, and how to pay the legal fees. Sometimes, this preoccupation leads to losing sight of what is going on with one’s children, who are unquestionably also directly affected by that parent’s decision to divorce.
If the divorce practitioner receives little feedback from a client about the children, it is all too easy to focus exclusively on meeting the client’s personal goals with minimal awareness of how doing so will truly affect the client’s children. However, it is up to us to actively solicit feedback from our clients about their children and educate our clients about how to help their children navigate the transition. We should remain mindful that our clients’ children are “shadow clients,” and we should strive to fine-tune our advice and strategies accordingly.
The Effects of Divorce on Children
There has been an abundance of research concluding that growing up in a single-parent household is less than ideal and can be detrimental to a child’s well-being. Even in low-conflict divorces, children can suffer in a myriad of ways. The obvious immediate repercussion is the disruption of life as they have known it. Children not living with both biological parents are more likely to experience psychological struggles and academic problems. Long-term effects of divorce on children can include increased susceptibility to substance abuse. Teenagers with divorced parents are 50 percent more likely to drink alcohol than those with married parents. Children of divorce also are more likely to experience divorces of their own down the road.
Research shows that the effects of divorce on a child depend to some extent on the age of the child at the time of divorce, the child’s gender and personality, and the degree of conflict between the parents. Infants may react to changes in parents’ energy level and mood by losing their appetite or spitting up more. Preschool-aged children often blame themselves for their parent’s divorce, viewing it as the consequence of their own misbehavior. They may regress and exhibit behavior such as bedwetting and may become uncooperative or aggressive. School-aged children are old enough to understand that they are hurting because of their parents’ separation. They may feel rejected by the parent who left. It is not uncommon for children in this age group to exhibit psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches. Adolescents may become excessively moody, withdrawn, depressed or anxious. They may favor one parent, blaming the other for the divorce.
Some research even suggests gender differences. Certain studies have found that children raised primarily by a parent of the same sex tend to have greater success adjusting to the divorce than those who are raised primarily by a parent of the opposite sex. Although there is little correlation between the sheer amount of time that divorced fathers spend with their children and those children’s overall adjustment, children of divorce whose fathers spend quality time actively engaged in their lives and activities tend to perform better in school and exhibit fewer behavioral problems. Father involvement has been linked to children feeling less at the mercy of the world and more willing to behave responsibly.
The quality of a child’s relationship with the primary parent is a particularly strong indicator of the child’s successful adjustment following a divorce. It also goes without saying that day-to-day involvement of both parents lets a child know that he or she is loved. This does not mean, however, that an equal or near-equal division of parenting time is necessarily the best option. For instance, preschool-aged children may feel they are being punished when they are moved from one household to another. Older children, too, may dislike this type of arrangement if it intrudes on their daily lives. Some parents with equal or near-equal division of time, or who engage in multiple transfers of the children back and forth in a short period of time, fight more often because they are in constant contact, which in turn causes the children to suffer. A child’s well-being is particularly affected by the amount and intensity of conflict between the parents. Marital conflict is associated with increased anxiety and depression, and poorer overall social and academic adjustment in children.
So, how can we use this research to educate our clients with the goal of helping ensure that their children adjust with minimal side-effects to the divorce?
Guidelines for Helping Children
1. Telling children about the divorce.
Ideally, children should be told about the divorce as soon as a definite decision has been made to get divorced. Children need to be told before any changes occur, and they should be informed of the changes to expect, such as moving to a new house or school, or beginning a parenting schedule. If possible, both parents should tell the children together, with the parents agreeing on the details of the explanation ahead of time. It is important to present a united front as much as possible.
Children are entitled to know why their parents are divorcing, and the reasons given should be simple and honest. Telling children that it is too complicated to explain or that they would never understand the reasons could leave them wondering whether they might be able to change their parents’ plans. Blanket reassurances do not always work, and children will likely need an opportunity to talk about why they feel at fault for the divorce, oftentimes on more than one occasion. Parents need to acknowledge the reasons for the child’s concerns, such as “Yes, you are right that your father and I do argue about how much time we each feel you should spend on the computer or with friends or watching television, and I can see why this makes you worried that the divorce is your fault.” Then, words of reassurance need to follow immediately, such as: “… but you didn’t cause the breakup …” If a child’s concerns are not cavalierly dismissed but are instead truly heard and discussed, without the parents becoming defensive or dismissive, the child is more likely to feel assured that indeed he or she was not the cause of the parents’ divorce. The child who feels at fault could also feel responsible for fixing the problem. Therefore, children need a clear statement from each parent that they cannot prevent or reverse the divorce. They also need to be reassured that while parents and their children do not always get along, they do not stop loving each other and do not get divorced from each other.
Finally, it may be tempting to place blame on the other parent for the divorce, but such defensiveness sends a message that the children need to take sides, which only serves to increase their anxiety, guilt and stress.
2. Encouraging a relationship with the other parent.
Because of the inherently adversarial nature of divorce, it may seem counter-intuitive to a litigant not to seek to limit the other parent’s time with the children. The “winner” gets the kids, and the “loser” does not. In fact, a better legal strategy may be to encourage and facilitate time and a continuing relationship with the other parent. Tennessee’s custody statute requires the court to consider, in making a custody determination, “each parent’s past and potential … willingness and ability … to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both of the child’s parents, consistent with the best interest of the child. In determining the willingness of each of the parents … to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both of the child’s parents, the court shall consider the likelihood of each parent … to honor and facilitate court ordered parenting arrangements and rights, and the court shall further consider any history of either parent or any caregiver denying parenting time to either parent in violation of a court order.”
In addition to what the law tells us, social research tells us that children are better off with the influence and presence of both parents in their lives, absent extraordinary circumstances. It is important for both parents to be mindful of this and to strive to create a parenting plan that provides this for their children.
Hand-in-hand with encouraging and facilitating a meaningful relationship with the other parent is showing respect for the other parent. It is harmful to a child for either parent to make derogatory remarks about the other parent. The child can be made to feel as if he or she is expected to take the side of the parent who is disparaging the other parent. This behavior by a parent violates the statutory standard parenting rights set forth in all Tennessee parenting plans. Such rights include “the right to be free of unwarranted derogatory remarks made about the parent or his or her family by the other parent to the child or in the presence of the child.” Acting contrary to this mandate can lead to a finding of contempt and sometimes even a change of custody in extreme circumstances.
3. The parenting schedule.
It is usually best for each parent’s time with the children to be scheduled at regular and predictable times. Once the schedule is created, it is important that it be honored. Children may see missed visits, especially without notification, as rejection. Children crave consistency, and routines provide a sense of security and may help ease fears of abandonment. If possible, the parents should work together to ensure that the same routines and rules are followed at each home. It is important to resist the temptation to spoil the children during or following a divorce by not enforcing limits or allowing children to break rules.
Handovers between the two households can be particularly stressful for children, let alone parents. Children often feel guilty and are reluctant to admit to one parent that they are thinking about or missing the other parent. As a result, children are often anticipating the emotional turmoil of the handover back to the other parent instead of enjoying the time remaining before the transfer. The divorce practitioner can counsel clients to minimize the number of handovers each week. Furthermore, it may help for the handovers to occur at a neutral location such as the child’s school, as this is likely to cause less stress than handovers occurring on either parent’s home turf. The parents will need to commit to making handovers free of arguments and hostility.
Although the typical parenting plan mentions only in passing that each parent has the statutory “right to unimpeded telephone conversations with the child at least twice a week at reasonable times and for reasonable durations,” it may be worthwhile to be proactive and help clients work through the logistics. For instance, it can be wise to avoid phone calls at emotionally charged and more intrusive times such as meal time or bedtime. It is not uncommon for a parent to feel that the ex-spouse is interfering with the phone calls in a multitude of ways, so a word to the wise: address these potential issues before they arise.
Finally, in crafting the parenting schedule, thinking outside the box can make for much more meaningful periods of parenting time. When children have been asked what they would change about their scheduled times with each parent, some have responded that they do not necessarily care to be shuffled back and forth with their siblings as a group. Children enjoy and benefit from one-on-one time with each parent. However, frequently, for the purposes of organizing the schedule, children are indeed “lumped together as a homogenous group, irrespective of their ages and needs.” Tennessee’s standard parenting plan form treats the children as a group, so we lawyers need to be more proactive and consider suggesting to our clients that separate parenting times for each child be carved out if feasible for the family.
Given the proof that parents have the power to affect their children’s reactions to divorce, it is necessary that parents put their children’s welfare ahead of their own conflict with their spouse or former spouse. We as divorce practitioners also have the power to influence our clients’ behavior by educating them and helping them craft parenting plans that minimize as much as possible the negative effects of divorce on our clients’ children.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.