I sat in the judge’s chambers along with the other attorney listening to a child testify about how she just wanted her mom to pay attention to her. In another case, children who used to have a loving relationship with their father were testifying about their refusal to now spend time with their father. On each occasion, the children appeared scared. As for the parents, in each occasion, one parent was visibly saddened by the involvement of their children in the divorce while the other parent seemed relieved that their children’s voices were being heard by the judge.
What Should Parents Do?
As a lawyer, listening to children testify never get easier. I always wonder if things would be different for these children had the parents worked harder to be united in the information shared with the children about the divorce; and, had each parent worked harder to insulate the children from the divorce while being supportive of the other parent.
Basic advice during the divorce is that parents should not discuss the divorce process (i.e., the litigation, negotiations, etc) with the children and should not make derogatory remarks about the other parent to the children or within hearing of the children. Each parent should be supportive of the other parent’s relationship with the children (assuming there are no safety issues or other problems which would be viewed by a judge as harming the children’s health, education and welfare).
What Should the Family Do?
With care and attention a family’s strengths can be mobilized prior to and during a divorce, and children can be helped to deal constructively with the impending divorce, starting with talking to the children about divorce.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (www.aacap.org) recommends the following tips to help both the children and parents with the challenge and stress of conversations about divorce:
- Do not keep the divorce a secret or wait until the last minute.
- Speak with all your children at the same time – with your spouse present if possible.
- Keep things simple and straightforward and don’t share more information than your children are asking for.
- Assure the children that the divorce is not their fault.
- Admit that this will be sad and upsetting for everyone.
- Reassure your children that you both still love them and will always be their parents.
- Do not discuss each other’s faults or problems with the children.
What Can Professionals Do?
Nearly one out of two marriages ends in divorce and a great majority of those divorces involve minor children. Parents have an important decision to make when divorce strikes: how will the children be, or not be, involved in the divorce. Research tells us that the children’s ability to handle this dramatic loss is highly dependent upon the level of conflict between the parents.
While the advice above may seem obvious, parents are often overwhelmed and fraught with emotions which can cloud their otherwise sensible judgment. Therefore, early legal advice and early involvement of a mental health professional can help to make the positive difference not only for you – but for your children.