Have you ever heard someone say: “I wish there were an instruction manual for parents?” I know I said it. Being a parent is both the most rewarding and the most terrifying experience a human being can live through. And no matter how many books or articles you read or classes you attend, a certain amount of child-rearing is still trial and error. Face it – you don’t know how you are going to respond to any number of circumstances until faced with them.
Now, imagine you are trying to parent a child while navigating the storms and landmines of a divorce. You are in litigation against the other person that your child loves more than anyone else in the world. And despite your best intentions, it is hard . . . very hard to completely insulate your children from the conflict. I hope the following “dos” and “don’ts” provide a little help.
- Put your child’s welfare ahead of your conflict with your spouse and avoid dragging them through the middle of the fight.
Common sense, right? That’s why I put it up front. Yet this single principle is typically the hardest to stick to for the parent embroiled in a divorce, much less a parent who has already endured the divorce and now must try to co-parent with the former spouse. But you have to be able to avoid putting your children in the middle of the conflict.
There is always (understandably) concern by the parties to a divorce regarding how their actions will impact their litigation. My response to inquiring clients is inevitably the same: “Make being the best parent you can be your top priority and everything else will follow.” Hopefully some of these other commandments will help you focus on that!
- Help your children maintain a positive relationship with their other parent.
Your children love you. Your children love your spouse. Don’t ask them to take sides. Encourage them to love you both. That’s what they want – it’s what they need. All too often the emotions of the parent bleed over onto the child, who begins to mimic (or even experience) the same negative emotions toward the other parent. And you know what? It is probably happening in the other household, too.
Your marriage is ending. The relationship between your children and their other parent is not. Make sure it remains a positive relationship. Or at least do your part. Your children need that and will be more appreciative than you can know when they are older.
- Show respect for the other parent as a parent. Do not make derogatory remarks about the other parent to or in front of the children.
Did I mention that your children love the other parent? Consider this – during your marriage, you suggest to your spouse that you both go visit your parents for Thanksgiving. Your spouse remarks: “I’m not going over there. Your mother is the worst cook on the face of the earth and your father smells awful.” How does this make you feel? It’s not likely this creates a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart, is it?
Now put yourself in the position of your five-year old child who adores her father (or mother). She asks if she can call mommy or daddy while she is with you, and you respond that “mommy is mean to me and doesn’t let me talk to you when you are with her. And she wants to take you away from me . . . .” Or “daddy is stupid.” And don’t think the comments have to be made to the child. Making them to others when the child can hear is just as bad. Warm and fuzzy? Not a chance.
- Honor your visitation schedule.
Always notify the other parent if you will be late or cannot exercise your time with the children. Children may see missed visits, especially without notification, as rejection. You’ve not seen anguish until you see the face of a 4-year old little girl sitting on the couch waiting for daddy to come pick her up, with the clock ticking later and later. As she watches the hand move past the point she knows he was scheduled for the visit, her heart seeks as she believes daddy is not interested.
- If you are the noncustodial parent, do not fill every minute of your custodial time with the children with special activities. They need “at home” time with you.
Johnny loves hockey. He really enjoys being with his friends and his coach is great. But Johnny needs you, too. And when you are going through a divorce, he is already likely to feel like his time with you is limited. If you are like many parents, you are also focused on . . . ahem . . . other things. He needs you to focus on him. Help him get through this difficult time. You are the adult. He needs your support.
- Do not use the children as “message carriers” or spies to glean information about the other parent or to send information to the other parent. Don’t cross-examine the children when they return from the other parent’s home. Don’t use the children to collect child support.
Did I say “you are the adult?” Do not put your children in the middle by having them be the bearer of bad tidings. You pick up the phone, call the other spouse or send an email. Be civil. But be the adult. And for heaven’s sake, your child is not James Bond. He or she is not at the other parent’s home to gather intelligence for you. Your child needs you to focus on him or her – not on your soon-to-be ex-spouse. When you are with your child, be with your child for your child’s sake.
- Strive for agreement on major decisions about your child’s welfare and discipline, so one parent is not undermining the other.
In Alaska, legal custody is the authority of the parents to make major decisions affecting the child’s welfare. Our legislature has expressed a preference for “joint” legal custody, meaning there must be agreement by the two parents on major decisions that affect the child. But joint legal custody is not automatic. Joint legal custody is only appropriate when the parents can cooperate and communicate in the child’s best interest. If that’s not possible, one parent will be awarded sole legal custody, meaning they make the decisions. Then the other parent is left to accept that decision. Don’t be a bystander in your child’s life. Work together with the other parent. You both want the best for little Sally. Be a participant. That also means you need to be willing to consider the other parent’s perspective and to compromise. Try it. Your child will be all the better off for it.
- Use common sense in exercising your custodial and visitation rights.
Somehow, things tend to get blown all out of proportion during a divorce or where an ex-spouse is concerned. “He was 15 minutes late (for the visit). I’m not taking her to the next transition.” Really? I’m sure I said somewhere in here: you are the adult. Circumstances happen. Humans make mistakes. Granted, it should not become a trend. But try to follow the old adage: Do not make a mountain out of a molehill. Follow the golden rule: Do unto them as you would have them do unto you. Everyone’s life will be a bit less stressful and your kids will appreciate it.
- Do not discuss the case with your children. This is not the children’s divorce. They should not be reading the pleadings or letters from opposing counsel.
Put up the divorce papers. Do not talk to your attorney about the divorce in front of the children. Don’t even think about dragging your children to court or the attorney’s office if there is any way at all to help it. Bad, bad idea.
- Ask for help.
Remember what I said about an instruction manual? Sure, you will have friends and family who are more than willing to help. Let them. I’m not telling you to take their legal advice – listen to your attorney (here or she has been there more than a few times). I’m telling you that at this time in your life you need others to hear you, to talk to you, to support you. Don’t try to do this alone. Your support network may grow from friends and family to counselors, teachers, clergy, etc. They aren’t there so you can bad mouth your spouse (see No. 3). They are great sources of support, though. Let them help.
It’s not an instruction manual, but it’s a start. I can virtually guarantee you that if you follow these rules, getting through the divorce with your spouse will be a lot less stressful on your children. Be the adult. And if you can both follow them . . . you get the message.
On behalf of Hughes White Colbo Wilcox & Tervooren, LLC posted on Thursday, June 22, 2017.