Research has shown that the greatest harm to children comes from living within conflict. And the worst form of conflict for children is when it is about them. Please find a way to speak to your advisors (attorneys, friends, therapists, etc.) when your children are not able to hear you. You would be surprised how sensitive children can be to their parents’ feelings. They often have a greater understanding of the family situation than their parents realize.
It is important not to malign the other parent to the children. Children have a right to love and be loved by both parents. They need to develop their own view and relationship with each parent. Each individual and each relationship is unique. What didn’t work for you, may work fine for your children.
Don’t try to influence your children about your ex – it may work in the short run but in the end, they may blame you for depriving them of a relationship with their other parent. Just think, children are comprised as much by one parent as the other. If you criticize the other parent, you run the risk that the child will feel criticized as well.
How and when you tell your children about divorce is important to consider. The best way is for both parents to do it together and to do it in an age appropriate manner. Children may be surprised or may expect it. Be ready to answer their questions without getting too much into the details. They want to hear that you both love them, you will both be involved with them, and that it is not their fault. These are the important messages to reiterate any time the subject of the divorce arises. It can be helpful to seek the advice of a child therapist before informing your children.
Your children need to have a sense of understanding of the situation so they do not become anxious and overwhelmed by the changes presented to them. On the other hand, they should not be given too much control. Depending on their age, they will have different amounts of input into the parenting plan. At any age, they should understand the schedule.
Younger children should not necessarily have the ability to change the schedule, whereas more deference is given to the schedules and social lives of teenagers.
Maintaining a relationship with each parent is important and the parenting plan should reflect how to best do that. A thoughtful parenting plan is based upon the best interest of the children which may evolve over time.
Frequently we are asked whether the child’s opinion is taken into account when making the schedule. This depends upon the age, maturity, and reason for the child’s opinion. Typically, as children get older, their wishes are given more weight, provided that they are for the right reasons. In addition, we are often asked to help when a child does not wish to follow the parenting schedule. There could be many reasons this might happen and it is important to understand why the child does not wish to follow the schedule. All decisions need to be in the best interest of the child.
There are many ways to resolve disputes about a parenting plan without extensive litigation that can harm the children. As you can see from the above, a litigated custody dispute is devastating to children. Here are some ways that may be appropriate to avoid that.
Hiring a trained mental health professional with expertise in the family law area may help by facilitating difficult situations and proposing resolutions. For parents and children that have the capacity to work together but need assistance, this may be a viable option.
In cases where the parties get along well and share the desire to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children, they may agree to jointly engage a mental health professional. This expert will meet with the parties to provide an opinion about unresolved issues of the parenting plan. Sometimes this provides creative options or provides the parents with an understanding what may be developmentally appropriate for children at different ages. This information can help the parties to make informed, child-centered decisions.
If there is an agreement, parties can choose to employ a parenting coordinator (PC) to resolve smaller issues after the case is resolved. The court does not have the power to appoint a PC but it is often beneficial to the family. Usually, PC’s make binding decisions that can only be changed if a party brings the issue to court.
Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) on just the parenting issues
When possible, ADR may be quicker and less upsetting than working through the attorneys or courts. You can mediate custody and leave the money and property negotiations to the lawyers. One frequently used option in ADR is a parenting coordinator who serves as a neutral third party to listen to both sides and facilitate an agreement or make recommendations that the parties agree to uphold. This person is usually a mental health provider or an attorney experienced with family law.
Guardian ad Litem (GAL)
When the parties are not able to reach agreement, even with the help of the above alternative methods, the court must decide. Very often, the court does not have the resources to fully investigate or evaluate the parenting issues. In that case, the court will appoint a GAL to investigate, sometimes evaluate and usually make recommendations.
The GAL can be a lawyer or a mental health professional. They interview the parties, they meet with the children, and usually meet with each party and the children together. They also can speak to collateral witnesses, such as teachers and physicians. Sometimes a mental health professional GAL will also evaluate the parenting issues. This may occur when there is a significant mental health issue including one of substance abuse.
When a GAL is involved, we try our best to select one we have known to be thorough and provide high quality work. The GAL files with the court a detailed report summarizing what they have learned from the parties, the children, the non-party witnesses, and any relevant documents. They summarize the case and usually make recommendations about the disputed issues. The judge reads the report which usually carries a great deal of weight with the court.
One benefit of this route is that often cases settle after the GAL report is filed but prior to trial. On the other hand, the children are involved because they must be interviewed by the GAL. Also, there is always risk that the GAL does not see the facts in the same way you do. You are giving up a measure of control when a GAL becomes involved. Sometimes as a result of this process a party might not feel heard or understood.
As a last resort, the parties may litigate decisions about the parenting plan. This leaves the decision up to the judge to decide. The judge must make a decision on only the information presented during the trial in the form of admissible evidence. Parties who resort to this frequently feel the least listened to and most frustrated by the process.
Once the parenting plan is finalized, even after final judgment and conclusion of the case, there may still be ongoing issues that you and your former spouse or partner may not be able to handle on your own. When we anticipate this problem and both parties agree, we may select a parenting coordinator (PC) after the divorce. This has the benefit of keeping the parties out of court. A parenting coordinator can also assist with these issues. By listening to both parties and by understanding the parenting plan, the PC can facilitate agreement on issues, propose other creative options, or make a decision that the parents must abide by. Increasingly, parents are finding PC help with ongoing issues that arise while raising their children.