Divorce is painful — not only for husband and wife, but also for the children. It can be especially difficult to navigate custody arrangements. There is no easy way to divide time that was once shared as a family unit. Throw in the personal heartache that is weighing on each individual and custody can bring out the worst in all involved.
As you face different custody hardships, try to keep one thought at the forefront of your mind: What is best for my children? Children function best when they have a strong relationship with both parents. They have the best chance to heal when they have time with both a mother and father who love them. All the other issues (revenge, fear, control) that may tempt you to sabotage the relationship with the other parent should be set aside in the best interests of the children.
Many of you know this. As a single parent for 12 years, I knew the truth of what my daughter needed, but it was much harder to live it out. Read on. You'll find the practical tools, encouragement and help you need.
As you and your former spouse figure out custody arrangements, visitation schedules and attempt to co-parent, these important reminders will help you help your children:
Don't bad-mouth your ex. Children don't want to hear bad things about either of their parents, and they especially do not want to take sides. No purpose is served in criticizing the other parent to your children.
Don't use your children as spies. Children should be given the freedom to enjoy each parent without hindrance or fear of being cross-examined. Children become angry when asked to spy and can easily withdraw from both parents. If you are not sure whether you are using your children as spies, then ask them. You may be blind to what you are doing and so preoccupied with your hurt that you cannot see what is happening. They'll tell you!
Don't use your children to carry messages. There is usually a period of time following divorce when one parent is afraid to encounter the other, either for fear of letting out feelings of bitterness or for fear of what the ex-spouse will do or say. Under these conditions, a parent may become cowardly and hide behind the children. "Tell your father he hasn't sent the check yet," or "Ask your mother if you can go fishing with me next week." These messages place your child in an uncomfortable position. In Roman days, messengers who brought bad news lost their heads, just like children do (figuratively) today.
The child will usually come to resent both parents for having to carry messages. To avoid alienating your children, do your own dirty work! Be courageous and assertive. Speak directly to your former wife or husband.
Give your child permission to love the other parent. As parents, we are not always completely honest with ourselves, and we don't always know what messages we are sending our children. It is safer, therefore, to be explicit in this area. Tell your child specifically that it is OK to love his or her father or mother.
Encourage the discussion of feelings. The open expression of feelings tends to create a healthier environment. But freedom of speech does not mean freedom to insult or punish. Children are often so frustrated and angry at the world that they would readily dump their hostility on you and turn you into an emotional punching bag. This should not be tolerated. Anger should be talked about, not acted out.
But sometimes parents do not allow children to talk about their anger, and this eventually leads to a need to act out through explosive outbursts. It is far better to allow children to talk about their feelings as they occur than to have to pick up the pieces! Allowing angry feelings to accumulate, to the point that it takes a volcanic eruption to get rid of them, is never healthy.
Start to talk about feelings when your children are young and you will avoid many painful encounters with them later in life.
Be flexible. Flexibility means that you are willing to compromise some of your demands and, if necessary, negotiate for others. The most important area is that of visiting rights. Conflicts with your ex-spouse in this area will always affect your children. They will create tension and interfere with the quality of the visits.
Perhaps this is the subconscious reason why many parents avoid being flexible — to keep their children from enjoying their visits with the other parent. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself and work to avoid rigidity.
The need for flexibility should not be taken to mean that a parent should surrender all of his or her rights to the other. To do so would invite manipulation. But choose your battles carefully. There are many issues that are not important in themselves, so don't stand on principle just for principle's sake. Remember that you can communicate Christian love far better through being reasonable than by being obstinate.
Encourage the relationship with the ex-spouse. The more time they spend together, the better. It is an unfortunate fact that most absent parents gradually become less involved with their children after a divorce. The initial frequent contact slowly fades away.
Fathers are more apt to maintain contact with sons than with daughters. Since both sons and daughters need to have contact with both parents, it takes a concerned and wise parent to be creative about maintaining contact between fathers and daughters. Personal bitterness has to be set aside and activities with both mother and father encouraged.
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There are fewer things as painful as when a child wants or chooses to live with their other parent. If you have been placed in this situation, here are a few things you can do:
Recognize the pain. Give yourself the freedom to grieve the loss. It is heart-wrenching to be rejected by your child and it's OK to feel pain and sadness. Journal, open up to friends, visit a counselor. Take tender care of your heart.
Weigh your options. Depending on the age of your child, your response will differ. Here are some age-appropriate considerations to keep in mind:
Elementary school and younger: Your child may threaten to move in with your ex-spouse as a manipulative tactic. It could be he is testing his limits and this is one way to see if you are going to stand by your rules. If you cave in on a consequence as a result of his threat, he'll learn to use that to his advantage. Gauge his behavior. Is he talking about moving when he's just gotten into trouble? Then stick with your consequences. Or is this something that comes up when the waters are calm? If so, ask him why he would like to move in with the other parent. Talk through his reasons and give him room to express his desires. Try not to communicate your hurt — it is likely he is just yearning for more time with the other parent, not rejecting you. If you are having a tough time discerning his request, don't hesitate to seek professional counsel.
Teenagers: When a teenager wants to move in with the other parent, the situation can get a little more difficult. Older teens may have the ear of the court system; a judge may disregard what you feel is best. Even if the courts are not involved, teens need special consideration. Giving them the freedom to experience the other home may be just the thing to help them appreciate you. Discerning the optimal living situation can be difficult. Your particular case will be unique, so make the decisions based on as much information as possible. An informed third-party counselor could help you work through the details to come up with the best course of action.
Know when to fight. There are times to set boundaries and protect your child. If your ex-spouse is a danger to your child, no matter your child's age — through physical, emotional or sexual abuse — you must guard her from being harmed. Consult a counselor, hire a lawyer, do whatever you need to do to make sure your child is not in danger.
In split-parent family homes (homes where each parent shares custody after a separation or divorce), the former spouses may not share the same values. Instead of focusing all your energy on the other home and what your ex-spouse is doing wrong, create a Code of Values to help your children define the guidelines for appropriate behavior.
Define your values. Ask your children to list their top five values while you do the same. Some examples of values would include faith, honesty, generosity, the importance of education, respect, etc. Once complete, each person can share what is on his list.
Discuss differences. If you see a contradiction between a value and an attitude or behavior in your children's lives, be gentle as you communicate your thoughts. Share any difficulties you have had in living out a value you profess. Remind your children that it's not unusual to slip, but that living out their values is worth the effort. From here, compile the lists to create a Code of Values, standards to live by. Expand the list to include practical ways to live out each value. Print the list on nice paper and frame two copies, one for each home.
Encourage your kids to ask their other parent to help them live up to their Code of Values. Most parents are likely to support their kids when aspiring for higher standards, especially when behavior improves.
Live it. Your kids watch your behavior to formulate their own values. Don't speak one way and live another. The true mark of a person's value system, ultimately, is the person's behavior. In the New Testament Jesus says, "Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matthew 7:17-18).
Focus on your own home. The focus should not be on a former spouse. It's on your children. Avoid the temptation to fall into a self-righteous attitude. This is not about living "above" your former spouse; this is simply about helping your children live a strong set of values in a broken world.
Build solid community. As you guide your kids, remember that spending time with other Christians is crucial. Socializing with Christian families allows your kids to experience the Christian home as the common standard. Christian community reinforces Christian values.
Defining values for our children will help them live out what they believe. Once they have that definition on paper, if they see behavior (in their other home) that is not consistent, they'll be able to understand that it's wrong and hopefully make a different choice for themselves.
Sample Code of Values:
Value: FaithAttitude: I love the Lord and look for ways to know Him moreBehavior: Attend church, read Bible and pray
Value: GenerosityAttitude: I look to help others who cannot help themselvesBehavior: Give time, money and service to others (share my snacks and play with lonely kids at recess)
Value: KindnessAttitude: I honor others by showing love and respectBehavior: Quarrel less and encourage (say nice things about) others more
Judy, a single mom, has a tough time sending her kids to their father's for the weekend. She is angry about the divorce and does everything she can to sabotage the visitation arrangements. She makes the kids call her every night they are with him and gets frustrated if they forget. When they return, she interrogates them about their visits. She wants to know what they ate, whom they met and details about every activity.
Her motive? She wants to build a case to stop, or at least limit, the time the kids have with their dad. Judy is driven by emotion. Though she doesn't realize the damage she is inflicting, the kids suffer. They feel uncomfortable with her questioning, don't understand her anxiety and often feel pulled in two directions.
While it's normal to worry about what influences the children, don't spend all your time trying to shelter your children from the other parent — a person who has every right to be a part of their lives.
We're not talking about the children's safety. Protection from harm is a different matter. This is about allowing your former spouse to be a parent, even when you have different values and parenting styles.
Be intentional in the time you spend with your children. Don't waste time and energy trying to prevent things you cannot control. If you already have a full plate with your job and basic household responsibilities, use the rest of your day wisely. Love and disciple your children. Eat a meal with them. Play games and allow yourself to laugh with abandon. Cheer your kids in their sports activities and close their day with prayer, drawing them to the One who can protect them best.
Letting go of what is happening in the other home is not easy. Ultimately, you have to trust that God is bigger than your former spouse's influence. Remind yourself that God watches over your children 24/7.
When parents live in two different locations, it makes visitation arrangements more complicated. It's never easy to put children on a plane alone. They may be nervous about flying, and you may be uncomfortable with potential dangers. There's also the time apart — both parent and child will miss each other. Here are some tips that will help you and your children through the experience:
Be prepared. Give yourself extra time beyond what you typically need for a flight. If your child is a minor, there is additional paperwork and expense involved. Make sure you investigate the airline's Web site so you know what to expect.
Escort your child. Ask the airline if you can escort your child to the gate. They will not let you board the plane and settle your child into his seat, but walking him to the gate will ease anxiety for him and for you. If you have an older child, ask if he prefers to board unattended. (as long as your child is over 14).
Create traditions. Make a family tradition out of departure week. Take your child on a date, enjoy a special meal together or purchase a book or card game for the plane ride. Consider packing a special mystery bag that he can open once he boards the plane.
Stay. Stick around after your child boards the plane. There may be a delay, and you want to be there if passengers end up being escorted off.
Communicate. Use creative ways to stay in touch with your child. Consider mailing a letter a few days before your child leaves, so it's there when she arrives at the other parent's house. In the note, encourage the relationship with the other parent, wish your child a wonderful visit and let her know you'll be praying for her. Text message or e-mail a love note after a few days, or put a couple of special songs on his iPod. Keep a balance though. You want to let your child know you care, but you also want him to fully engage with the other parent. Don't over-communicate.
Be available. If your child does need to talk, suggest she try the other parent first, but also ensure her that you are available to be a listening ear.
Arrive early. When your child returns, again give yourself extra time to get to the airport. Most airlines will give you a gate pass (even for older children) if you visit the check-in counter. Be at the gate with a welcome sign and a big smile. Your child needs to know that she was missed.
Listen. Give your child permission to share all the highlights of his visit. Make eye contact, smile, nod your head and share his joy. He needs to know that it's OK to have fun with the other parent. As you engage, you'll find your child will open up willingly about his adventures. If you express disinterest or sadness over his joy, he will learn to hide that part of his life from you.
In our years of legal work for divorced and never-married couples, we've found that miscommunication is the main reason custodial parents withhold visitation. Many times the parties disagree over when contact was to occur. You can solve these problems by simply improving the way you exchange information:
Create a calendar. Charting a contact calendar for the entire year will help keep exchanges clear. Although parents should remain flexible when their schedules or their children's needs dictate, firm contact dates will help. Even if you disagree over setting up the calendar, at least you can address issues in advance, rather than waiting for problems to arise.
Comply with the decree. Besides improving communication, noncustodial parents should make every effort to fully comply with their divorce decrees. Though some people believe that bad behavior by one parent warrants retaliation, the courts disagree. Noncompliance pushes you further away from one of your key goals: protecting the fragile co-parenting relationship.
Examine yourself. Look first to your own behavior. If you have done something that requires forgiveness, rejoice. Now you have a great entrée for a conversation with your ex. For example, you might say, "I'm sorry for being late to my last weekend pickup. That must frustrate you and make the kids feel anxious. I've talked to my boss about the problem, and I should be able to show up by 5 o'clock from now on."
Owning your mistakes will allow your ex-spouse to do the same, opening the door to better communication.
Choose not to lash out. What if you're not at fault? Perhaps you were denied contact on Father's Day because your ex took an unplanned out-of-town trip with the kids. You may think, Fine, next year she won't get Mother's Day or There goes her Fourth of July party. But this "eye for an eye" mentality will get you nowhere in negotiations with your ex-spouse or in the courtroom. Though you may feel tempted to lash out, smart single parents gently confront or turn the other cheek.
Offer options. Noncustodial parents can get more cooperation on visitation by offering their exes multiple options. You can say, "I have several ideas that might help with the Friday pickup, but I need your input on what might work best. I could send my mother to get the boys, we could move the pickup time to a later hour, or you can drop the kids off at my office. What do you think?" By giving your ex power in the decision-making process, you improve your chances for smooth transfers.
Help your child. Not all visitation problems involve the custodial parent. Sometimes a child will refuse to see the noncustodial parent, making it difficult for either parent to comply with court orders. If talking with the child doesn't improve matters, take him to a psychologist or counselor. In choosing a professional, ask how much experience she has with divorce and co-parenting cases and whether she appears on your insurance provider list. Both parents should agree on the person selected. For the names of Christian counselors in your area, call the Focus on the Family Counseling department at 719-531-3400, ext. 7700.
If your visitation problems persist, some outside assistance may help:
Use a mediator. Many divorce decrees now require mediation before allowing court action. And even if yours doesn't, many judges appreciate the use of this less costly and less confrontational option.
A mediator helps parties clarify issues, communicate effectively and find solutions. He does not have the authority to tell the parents what to do. Nonetheless, he can provide a safe forum for the exchange of ideas and help feuding parents deal with their most common problem: miscommunication. A typical mediation lasts only a few hours and often brings about positive results. A court case usually costs many times more than mediation.
To find a mediator, talk with friends who have used mediation or your lawyer or counselor. As with the selection of a counselor, both parents should agree on the choice of the mediator.
Pursue a parenting coordinator. Like a mediator, a parenting coordinator uses mediation skills in an attempt to clarify concerns and seek solutions. Unlike a mediator, if parents can't agree, in some states this person can make a legally binding decision that both parties must honor. Tiebreaker decisions typically deal only with fairly minor matters, such as where or when to pick up a child or what activities a child should attend. The best bet for you and your ex is to ask your attorneys to recommend some parenting coordinators in your area.
Legal recourse. If all else fails, you can ask your attorney to prepare a court action. The court will often appoint a special master or co-parenting arbitrator to make recommendations on your case subject to the court's approval. Parents with ongoing conflicts may choose to submit their differences to this person.
While a lawyer can help you get a final, enforceable decision, many single parents want more time-sensitive and cost-effective remedies. By the time a judge makes a ruling on your case, the visitation event you sued over could be long past. Moreover, the minimum retainer for an attorney can run to several thousand dollars. As a result, only engage in a courtroom battle as a last resort.
A few general rules: Regardless of what tack you take, a few general rules on visitation apply to all situations. We suggest the following ways to improve your chances for a peaceful resolution to your post-marital problems:
Though noncustodial parents may never get rid of verbal shoot-outs over visitation, you can make sure the battles don't draw blood. Clear communication, shared decision making, biblical conflict resolution and support from trained professionals can keep you out of expensive — and often counterproductive — legal actions. As attorneys and former single parents who have seen both sides of the issue, take our advice: An hour spent with your ex over coffee is worth 50 in the courtroom.
What do you tell your child when the other parent shows no interest in him? The answer depends on the age of the child and whether the child was inquiring. If the child is young and wants to know "Why?" look for the least painful truth.
Here are some reasons that fathers (and occasionally mothers) don't make contact with their children. The parent may simply be selfish and irresponsible. In that case, a parent could say, "You are the best child a parent could ask for. It's not your fault! Daddy (or Mommy) isn't thinking too clearly right now. He's lost his way for a while, but later, when he finds it again, he'll want to see you more."
In some cases, parents are mentally ill. They may have broken under the pressure of the divorce. If that's the case, say, "Mommy (or Daddy) is sick in a special way that makes her unable to think right. Let's hope she gets better soon. When she does, she'll want to see you more!"
If a child didn't ask, but I sensed that a parent's absence was troubling him, I would ask how he's feeling about it. If he says, "I feel bad," I would say, "That's the way I feel too. I'm sorry you're hurting." Then I would hug him. After allowing him to say all he wants, I might share some of the previous statements. Then I ask him why he thinks the other parent isn't coming around more.
It is tricky, but you still want to avoid criticizing the other parent while still conveying that the child is lovable, and that the problem is not his fault. You will need to sharpen your diplomatic skills!
For an older kid, ask him about his feelings and then simply listen. Give him permission to feel, then suggest he write his feelings in a letter and send them to the neglectful parent. It may solicit a positive response. Or, sad as it is, you may verify that there isn't much feeling there for the child.
If there is little affection evident, then you'll have to deal with the consequential pain. Most of us spend a lifetime trying to verify, one way or the other, that our parents love us. You may have to say things like "Your father just doesn't have it in him. It's not you — it's everybody. He just doesn't know how to love."
Stay away from ugly language. But if the child uses it (except for profanity), permit it for a while. Then encourage him to forgive the neglectful parent. Just don't force the forgiveness issue on him immediately. He will have to get over his anger first, and that may take a while, as you well know. Be patient.
It can be terrifying if you suspect abuse at your ex's home. Here are some steps to navigate what is a very delicate situation:
Contact a lawyer. If you have a lawyer, call him and get some legal advice. If you don't have an attorney, find a good one. Local child protection agencies may react differently to abuse accusations from one state to another. Your lawyer will know your local situation.
Be certain. Proving child abuse is no simple matter. Consider this possibility: Suppose your children do show evidence of abuse, but will not, for their own reasons, incriminate your ex. You may become suspect! If so, your children will be removed from your home until the culprit can be determined. Many times ex-spouses are accused unjustly during custody battles. Judges are at a loss to do anything unless they have hard evidence.
Be prepared to prove your suspicions. If you try and fail the first time, proof will become more and more difficult to get in the future. You cannot withhold visitation when the court has established it. So whatever you do, don't refuse to let the children visit your ex, or you may be found in contempt. These are the reasons you call your lawyer the instant you suspect abuse.
When you are certain: If you can prove abuse, move as quickly as possible to prevent it from happening again. You might even want to call your local child protection agency yourself. Do not be surprised if your claims are met with some initial skepticism. Agencies get this kind of accusation often from vindictive ex-spouses. Don't give up though — your children's best interests are at heart.