Child custody is undoubtedly the area of divorce which causes the most anxiety for parents going through separation or divorce. We have all heard the stories of how divorce "ripped" a family apart and "ruined" the children's childhood. In the worst stories, some will say it was the divorce which triggered the children's bad behavior which eventually led them down a path of bad choices which ultimately ruined their future. We know that is one thing which strikes fear in our clients' hearts so here are five tips to help guide parents who are (or might be in the future) experiencing a separation or divorce:
1. Be the "safe" place for your child's voice.
Studies have overwhelmingly shown that children must have a "safe" place to voice how they are feeling during and after the divorce. A "safe" place is free of the loyalty-burdens that are so commonly found in post-separation homes. The children should never feel like they have to "take sides" or be "pro-Mom" or "pro-Dad." The more you can give your child opportunities to freely talk to you about their feelings, the more likely they are to adjust to their new lifestyle in a healthy way.
Being the safe place for your child's voice, however, is very different from asking your child to make decisions which should be made by adults. The Family Court has specially trained adults who can be appointed to the case (Guardians ad Litem, child therapists, parenting coordinators, etc.) whose job it is to help express to the Court the child's desires, but also to help families determine the proper role of both parents and children during and after separation or divorce.
2. Keep things as predictable as possible.
It's true that children are highly adaptable, however anytime they are experiencing situations which are emotionally charged or possibly traumatic (as divorce can sometimes be), predictability adds security and strengthens their sense of self during an otherwise uncertain time in their life. To every extent possible, you as the parent need to work to make sure parenting schedules are set up to allow for predictability for the child. It can be unnerving to have your role as a parent seemingly reduced to days or nights on the calendar, but adding this type of structure to your child's life will help them adjust more quickly to the "new" reality they must live with for the rest of their childhood. As the child adjusts and time moves on, it will become easier to be more flexible, but in the beginning schedules and routines will typically be best for the child.
3. You have more influence over how your children handle divorce than you may think.
Children model their parents' behavior in good time and in bad. The way you handle your divorce and the treatment you exhibit towards your ex-spouse will be mirrored by your children. Therefore, your child's experience and perception of the divorce is almost exclusively in your own hands. There will be times you will be angry, frustrated or sad about how things are progressing during your family court case, but it's important to remember to handle those emotions outside of your child's presence. There will also be times when your ex is getting on your last nerve, however, you must not let your child see it. The best parent for your child is both parents. Honor that at all times when the children are around or within earshot and coach your extended family members to adopt the same attitude in order to create the healthiest environment for your children.
4. Discretion is key.
There will be lots of paperwork involved in your family court case, even if you agree on everything, however that paperwork will contain lots of details and discussion of things which are not child-appropriate. When it's clear your family will be experiencing a separation or divorce, take steps to be discreet with the adult-only details of the process. Don't leave paperwork from banks, therapists, doctors, your attorney, or the court laying around the house. Get a special filing box (one that locks is best) to keep all of your case-related documents. Store it in a safe place in your home which is not easily accessible by your children. Schedule your calls with your attorney during times when the children will not be around or within earshot. If your children enter a room while you're discussing your case, ask the other person if you can continue the conversation later. Your children are not equipped to handle the complexities of divorce and they certainly are not equipped to handle one parent's negative feelings towards their other parent, no matter how justified those feelings may be. Protecting your children from these adult realities will go a long way to helping them through the divorce process.
5. Make a good-faith effort during the mediation process.
Mediation is usually the last chance to resolve your family court matter before turning over the ultimate decision-making power in your case to a judge. Hopefully, by the time mediation is scheduled in your case, you have hired a well-qualified family court attorney who will educate you on how the laws of your jurisdiction affect the facts of your case and who will also help you anticipate the best way to negotiate a reasonable settlement. Pairing that education and advice with a skilled family court mediator, you and soon-to-be ex-spouse are in a perfect position to resolve the contested issues through mediation without the added expense of a lengthy trial which may irrevocably burn bridges which will be needed in the future to properly co-parent your children. Also, no one knows your children better than you do. When cases go to trial and a judge must decide what is best for your child, you are turning over the decision-making to someone who only knows your child through the evidence submitted during the trial. While the judge will always try to do what is best, your child will almost always benefit the most from the decisions his or her parents make together.
The Stevens Firm, P.A. - Family Law Center has provided exceptional legal counsel and support to families throughout South Carolina for over two decades, handling all matters of family law, such as child custody, child support, and divorce. We are well-equipped to handle all divorce and family law matters, no matter your circumstances. Contact us to schedule an initial consultation.