Saturday, January 19, 2008

Children And Divorce

When do we tell our children we're divorcing?

The mistake that some people make is to tell their children they're going to get a divorce when they're not sure and when they don't know when the family's actually gonna split up. This heightens childrens' anxiety to the point where they don't know what's happened to their life, they're losing predictability and trust, they may even try to negotiate a reconciliation and they may feel that they're responsible. So, telling children before you actually split up is going to be a problem, and therefore, I advise that you don't tell your children until you're really ready to move to different households. It's very hard for children to understand parents living in the same household, but that they want to get a divorce. And, of course, this depends a great deal on the age of the child. Younger children have little conceptual framework to understand a separation divorce. What they can understand is that parents are going to live in two different houses. Children under the age of five understand that their parents are going to still be their parents, but live in two separate houses. Five ot ten year olds feel very badly about their parents divorcing because they're in a position now of developing peer relationships, understanding more about relationships, they even understand the idea of divorce, and so they often feel that it's their fault and they've done something wrong. They'll hear their parents argue about parenting, so they'll feel that they have actually been the cause of the divorce. Teenagers and pre-teens are usually extremely angry because at a time when they're trying to separate, they want to feel they're separating from something solid and they want to feel they still have their anchor to move away from and when their parents break up everything just dissolves. Also they feel like they have to take care of their parents at a time when the last thing they want to do is take care of their parents, what they really want to do is not care about their parents very much at all and all of a sudden their parents are saying "I need you as a friend, a peer, a support system", which of course, should never be what a parent should ask of a child.

How do we tell our children we're divorcing?

The best way to tell your children that you're going to be divorcing, is to sit down together and to do it in an unemotional way. Tell the children that you're going to live apart, not because of anything they've done, but because you've decided as parents that that's the best way for you two to live independently, and to become better parents. Tell the children that they are going to see their parents on a regular basis. This opportunity to tell your children about the divorce is not an opportunity to align with either one, but to really help the children through the process. It's important to not have the child feel that they have to take a side - to not feel that they have to blame one of the parents. It will help decrease their anxiety if they know it was a joint decision, and that there's nothing that they can do about it. If they feel that they can do nothing about it, they actually feel more powerful than less powerful, which is paradoxical but true. So, children will be OK with that, and say, "I understand." It's very important to give them the simple truth in the most unemotional way that you possibly can.

How do we make the divorce experience as painless as possible for our children?

Children often need support during a divorce because they do blame themselves, because they not only blame themselves for the parents splitting up, but they feel like if their parents really loved them, they would stay together for their sake, because they want them do. And in fact, children have often said to me, "I don't care if my parents fight. I don't care if they yell. I want them together. It doesn't matter how unhappy they are. They should do it. We're a family." And so children get indignant about this. So it's very important that children get support to know, number one, that they're not responsible, and that they're not responsible for a reconciliation, that there's nothing they can do to make their parents reconcile. They also have to be taken out of the middle of the conflict and learn not to ally or to develop an alliance or to align with either parent, and to actually be alienated from one; to not blame one parent for the divorce. So it's very important to keep the children out of the middle, and parents can do that by not getting them in the middle by telling them it's Mom's fault, or Dad's fault, they want to be out of the marriage, I want to stay in it, they have a boyfriend, they cheated, they're the wrong one, because what they don't understand is the child, being a product of both parents, starts feeling debilitated themselves because their self-esteem is dependent upon being part of Mom and part of Dad, and if Dad is bad or Mom is bad, they feel badly about part of themselves.

Will a support group help our children cope with divorce?

You have to gauge how your child is dealing with this divorce. If you start seeing the child being disorganized, in other words, his normal patterns are changing: the child's unhappy, they're becoming more aggressive, they're withdrawing, they're having problems sleeping at night, they're not eating, teachers are reporting to you they're not doing well in school, they're going to need more support. And they're going to either need the support of an individual counselor or a support group where they can share their feelings with other children who are going through the same things that they are going through. Very important, though, to observe the children keenly. All children are going to go through some sense of loss, but if you feel that they can't get over it in the normal, progressive way that children do, because children are very resilient, then you should intervene and get them professional help.

How honest should we be with our children about the reasons for our divorce?

Some parents feel the need to tell their children the truth about why their marriage ended, be honest with them about the reasons for their divorce, and they'll actually say to them, "Your father had an affair, he cheated, he had a girlfriend and he's a jerk", and when these parents are asked why they do that they say, "Because I want my child to know the truth." However, parents are selective about this. They won't tell the truth about their own behavior, they won't tell the truth about all kinds of things, and they will somehow feel that this truth is paramount. Well, here's the real truth. This is really destructive to a child. This is self-serving to a parent. Telling a child that the other parent is bad is only in service of a parent's need to develop an alignment with that child and to have that child estranged from the other parent because the parent is estranged from that parent. The parent's anger is spilling over onto the child, they're projecting it onto the child, they're saying, "He was a lowsy partner and therefore he's going to be a lowsy parent and you should know it." And it's really unfair to the child, and it's really parent-centered, not child-centered. So I believe that it's very important to be honest within reason and not to involve the child in the details of why this divorce is happening, to keep them out of the middle, they don't need to know about anybody's shenanigans, they don't need to know about anybody's breaches of trust, and they don't need to see declarations in court, court papers and hear conversations because all it will do is make them feel anxious, and unfortunately, make them choose sides, which ultimately is terrible for them.

What do we do if our children keep trying to get us to reconcile?

Children will always try to get their parents to reconcile, unless they've seeing domestic violence, and then often they feel relieved. But when children feel like their parents should be together, or they want them together, they'll actually take their mother's hand and try to have father's hold the hand, they'll try to put them together, they'll say "tell mom or dad 'I love you'", and they'll actually think that they can do it in their omnipotence. That has to be nipped in the bud. You have to let the children know that it's not going to happen, that it's not their responsibility, and that their failure to do so is not because they're not loved sufficiently, or because it's their fault.

Should we avoid doing things as a family even if our divorce is amicable?

Many people who have amicable divorces, good divorces, who often do things as a family and there's a positive aspect to that, it actually keeps the family unit in some perspective whilst developing two separate family units because when there is divorce, there's two homes, two separate family units but if you can maintain a nuclear family unit without compromising the other two family units, its fine. That means that as long as your spouse and you agree there's two homes, their gain together is still good on occasion. It becomes problematic when children expect it to happen and when you start having new spouses, then it becomes trouble because children have come to expect their Mom or Dad is always at Thanksgiving or Christmas and all of a sudden the new spouse doesn't want Mom or Dad there and it becomes a problem. So I think a limited contact of course for birthdays and school events, parents should be together but don't overdo it, children even adolescents will say "its unusual, it's weird, it's strange, you know if you guys can do it now, why can't you live together and if you can't do it, I don't need to see it", so children have lots of opinions about this, for most part. The best idea is to be polite and kind and go to all those common events but you don't need to do a lot together because you're no longer that singular family, you're two separate families.

What if my spouse uses our children as pawns during our divorce?

Often in high-conflict divorces, parents use their children to punish the other parent. Because they're so angry, they want their child to be maligned from that parent. When you see that happening, you need to step back and be the best parent you can be and not malign the child back. For example, when your child comes to you and says, "Mom said you stole all our money," it's not time to say, "Well, Mom was sleeping with every guy in town." It is time to say, "You know what, that's an adult discussion. I'm not going to discuss it with you, but I love you." Don't get involved in those kinds of discussions during a divorce, even though children will often seduce you into it. You cannot do it, and you have to be the best parent you can be, constantly remembering that your personal sacrifice not to share your anger or your disdain is really going to be child-centered and helpful to that child. Ultimately, this will make you feel better about yourself.

What do I do if my children take my spouse's side during or after my divorce?

The best thing that you can do if your children take your spouse's side is to really take them out of the middle by not letting there be one side or the other. And what you can then is talk about that. We both love you. We have two homes for you. This is not your business, to talk about money or finances. And that if your spouse continues to do so, even though you're acting in the best interests of your child, you really need to consult a professional. A co-parenting facilitator who can sit down with you and your spouse and talk about the negative affects that this kind of behavior has on your children. And if you ultimately don't get a result there, you may have to go to court and ask that the court order you to have this kind of counseling, in addition to ordering that the parents stop maligning you, which courts do in every case.

What can I expect when deciding custody of my child?

Every family that divorces has to deal with who the children are going to live with. Its a very difficult question, and it's a question that causes many people a great deal of pain and consternation. Child custody is a big business in this country, and there are people that do child custody law, people who do child custody evaluation, professional mental health therapists, judges and courts, advocates and special masters and mediators. It's a big business, and its a big business because people fight over their children and thats because in many states the percentage of time you have your child is directly in accordance with how much child support you either pay or you get. Even when there is not child support that's attached to it, it's an emotional thing because its a sense of pride, of win or loss. "How can I save face when I don't have one hundred percent custody of my children?" "Whats wrong with me that I don't have at least 5 percent custody?" Fathers want at least 5 percent custody minimum, mothers often want more custody. So, in this country we've seen how the presumption of who should have the children changed. It started out many years ago being fathers. In the late 1800s fathers were granted custody of children because they were property. Then we had the tender years presumption where mothers were given children because the presumption was they need their mother. Now, in the last four years or so fathers have made tremendous gains to be seen as equal parents, and they want equal custody. Yet mothers still feel that if fathers get equal custody there's some kind of deficit, some kind of deficiency in them that people might see. So custody is a really hot topic today, it's a multi-billion dollar business, and it unfortunately thrives on unhappy people and children in pain.

How do we mutually agree on formal custody of my children?

There are a number of ways that divorcing couples can formulate a child custody plan, and what I mean by that is how much time the child or children should spend with each parent. Divorcing couples can do make custody decisions on their own and then have a court enter a judgment. They can go to a mediator, who can be an attorney or mental health professional who specializes in child custody, sit down and talk about it, and come up with an agreement that will ultimately be in an order of the court. They can litigate it. They can actually have a trial because they disagree on a child custody plan. We often have very expensive trials - multi-million dollar trials - because a parent wants one more night with a child. Actually, millions of dollars are spent on hours, because people feel that their children are a symbol of their parental rights and of what they can win or lose in a terrible divorce. There are many methodologies to child custody. The least painful, the least costly, and the most effective model, is divorcing parents figuring out on their own, or with some professional help, what's good for their children based on their ages, where the parents live and their lifestyle. Decide on child custody by mutual agreement. What I found in all my experience is that those kinds of child custody cases work out very well. Almost any custodial plan they come up with works well for the children because the parents support it, and the children know it.

Should I litigate against my former spouse to gain custody over my children?

In the high conflict cases where parents don't see eye to eye and where they have to litigate and use lawyers and experts, no matter what plan is ordered, one of the parents is likely to be unhappy with it. Usually all the problems that a child has are associated with 'well you see, if he had less time with mom or dad, he wouldn't be having these problems'. So, the conflict continues. When you go through litigation, it opens up both parents lives to the point where people are examining every part of themselves, where they're bringing up every piece of dirt. It's terrible, it's draining financially and emotionally and the children are often dragged in the middle of it and go on for years before a judge makes a determination. Those families tend to be back and forth in court. There are high conflict cases where they negotiate everything, where no one can give an hour without wanting to get an hour in return. They fight over times, they fight over if the parents return a child ten minutes late, they call the police. They remain in high conflict in courts and attorneys are always involved until at least the money runs out.

What if our children don't want to live with the parent who receives custody?

One of the things we consider in determining the child custody plan is children's needs, desires, and wants. But, of course, that depends on their age. Young children are often confused. They often will repeat what their parents have told them to say. If it's a high conflict divorce, children are sometimes rehearsed. Sometimes they're rewarded for saying things like I want to live with my mommy because Mommy's getting me a puppy. I want to live with Daddy, he's getting me an ATV. Those kinds of things. And they really don't understand. They're really just parroting, sometimes, what their parents have said.Older children seem to have stronger opinions. Sometimes these opinions are opinions based on real experience, and sometimes they're based on fear and anxiety. For example, I don't want to live with my mother because he's more strict. I want to be with my mother because she's sadder about this. I want to take care of her. I want to be with my friends, and they all live around Mom's neighborhood, or they live around Dad's neighborhood. So their desires for where they live aren't really about parenting as much about other things. And so one has to look at where the child's at developmentally, their chronological and emotional age, where the parents live, their resources, in determining child custody. But for the most part, the children's wishes are listened to. And they're one of the factors that we look at in determining child custody, but not the only factor at all. And we weight them based upon other factors like how old are they and what are their.

1 comment:

Rosalind Sedacca said...

Thank you for your insightful article. Yes, you are correct in your sensitivity toward telling kids about divorce. My own experience more than a decade ago led to my writing a guidebook for parents on how to create a storybook with family photos and history as a successful way to have this tough conversation. It's called How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children -- With Love! Therapists, attorneys, mediators, educators and other professionals from around the U.S. and beyond have endorsed the book, attesting to the value of my fill-in-the-blanks, age-appropriate templates. Six therapists contribute their expertise to the book, as well. My goal is to encourage divorcing couples to stop, talk and create a plan before having that crucial "divorce" talk with their children. I hope, for the sake of their kids, they will decide to move ahead in creating a child-centered divorce. For free articles and more information, visit
Best wishes,
Rosalind Sedacca, CCT