by Scott Morgan
Everyone’s heard horror stories of divorced parents using their children to get back at their ex. Loving parents take pains to avoid this kind of behavior, even if the thought of their former spouse makes them teeth-grittingly furious. Here are some tips for successfully co-parenting while avoiding behaviors that will ultimately harm your children:
- Tell the Kids Sooner Rather Than Later
Children should be told about the impending divorce or separation as soon as parents know there is no hope for reconciliation. During this conversation it is important parents present a united front and avoid blaming each other, regardless of how tempting this may be. Children need to know that the divorce is in no way their fault. Don’t assume they know it. Tell them! If either parent finds this conversation too daunting, they should seek the services of a therapist, at this juncture and at any point during or after the divorce.
I had a client who had a very amicable divorce with her husband. They mutually decided they just didn’t want to be married to each other. Things were so mutual that they did not separate and neither one moved out until the divorce was final. Both parties were good parents and loved their 5 and 6 year old kids very much. Unfortunately, they could not bring themselves to tell the kids until two days before they separated and the wife moved out with the kids and they put the house on the market. As you can imagine, the children did not take it well and were very upset. They eventually adapted to the new situation as kids usually do, but if the parents had been more upfront about what was happening they could have reduced the kids’ trauma..
- Don’t Use the Children as Pawns.
In the worst of cases, one parent may fight for custody solely to hurt their spouse. They might even threaten to have one or all of the children appear in front of the judge. This temptation should be avoided at all costs. Children can be permanently harmed by their direct involvement in their parent’s divorce.
One of my clients, a stay-at-home mom who did everything for the kids, had an affair and was leaving her husband. The husband was a likeable enough guy, but a workaholic and not a particularly involved dad. Understandably, he was very hurt by the affair. What was not so understandable was his turning the divorce into a lengthy, ugly, full-blown custody case that was purely motivated by revenge. Ultimately the case settled with wife getting primary custody, but the custody dispute was completely unnecessary and created a major rift between them that permanently damaged their co-parenting relationship..
- About Joint Custody
In some states joint custody has to be agreed upon by both parents while in others it’s a quasi default position. Some child psychologists disapprove of joint custody where visitation schedules alternate weeks with each parent. These clinicians say that the frequent back and forth can leave the child with feelings of instability. Others say that what’s most important is that both parents fully engaged as parents and be very involved with their children’s lives and that alternating week visitation arrangements are a good way to facilitate this.
From my experience, the most important issue in post-divorce parenting, regardless of the specifics of the visitation arrangement, is that both parents put their children’s best interest at the forefront of their thoughts and sincerely work together to raise their children. While this can be challenging, every parent should try their best to accomplish it.
- Don’t Ask the Children Who They Want to Live With
A perceptive parent can tell what a child’s preferences are and should not need to ask them this question. Neither parent should attempt to bribe or guilt trip their children in order to manipulate them.
While it sometimes makes sense to ask teenagers about their wishes, asking a younger child what they want is an exercise in futility. I had a custody case involving an eight year old boy. Both parents wanted and sought primary custody and they both believed that the child wanted to live with them. Why? Because each separately asked the child who he wanted to live with. The boy answered to each “I want to live with you.” It wasn’t that he was trying to confuse them, he was just incapable of making such a significant choice.
- Visitation Must Continue Even if Child Support Doesn’t
Court ordered child support must be paid as ordered. Visitation with the children must also be allowed as ordered. However, the right of visitation and the obligation to pay child support have nothing to do with each other. Children shouldn’t feel that a visit from the other parent is contingent upon their ability to pay.
I once did a consultation with a mom who was inquiring about pursuing her ex over his child support delinquency. She mentioned how she’d refused to let him see the kids when he stopped paying child support. As I explained that she was just as much at risk of a contempt of court finding as her ex was. I advised her to immediately resume allowing her ex to see the kids. In the eyes of the court they are completely separate issues.
While effectively co-parenting your children can be one of the life’s hardest challenges, especially if you have deep-seated resentment towards your ex, you owe it to your children to do your absolute best. That will give them their best chance for a happy and healthy childhood.