Lynne A. Ustach
Ten Questions Divorcing Parents Ask About Their Children
1. What does working together as parents really mean?
Working together as parents means cooperating with the other parent about raising the children, no matter how the parents feel about each other. It means working out a parenting plan that gives the children enough time to be cared for by both parents and following a plan that is mutually acceptable to both parents. Working together as parents also means both parents sharing responsibility for the children's care, respecting the other parent's rights and privacy, and developing a method of communication for discussing serious problems regarding the children. This kind of cooperative relationship can begin before the separation or soon after separation.
2. Why should parents cooperate when they don't like each other?
When parents cooperate the children have a better chance for a secure and satisfying life. It is important to cooperate, not just for the sake of the children, but for the parents' benefit as well. When they cooperate the following is possible: Better parent-child relationships; fewer problems for the children; more personal satisfaction for the parents and less frustration; fewer visitation problems; fewer child support problems; less going back to court; easier sharing of responsibility; more freedom from conflict; fewer health, emotional, school and social problems.
It is a myth that parents who were not able to get along as marriage partners cannot work together as parents. They can.
3. How can parents ease the hurt for children?
Some common emotions children and parents experience in connection with separation and divorce are disbelief, anger, anxiety, confusion, guilt, helplessness, loneliness and depression. Children can best deal with these feelings when parent’s cooperate. What is damaging to children is the loss of ongoing relationships with each parent or witnessing continual conflict. Serious problems can usually be prevented when parents are willing to put their children's interest before their own anger. Contrary to what many people believe, parents can work together even when they don't like each other.
Avoid: Blaming each other; arguing and fighting in front of the children; threatening to send the children to live with the other parent.
Work Toward: reassuring children that the divorce is not their fault; encouraging them to express their feelings such as fear and anger; giving them permission to continue to love both parents and not take sides; reassuring them that they will be taken care of; preparing the children for the changes.
4. How can parents prepare children for the separation or divorce?
Whenever possible it is best for both parents to call a family meeting to prepare the children for the separation or divorce. Give the children a simple explanation that they can understand about the divorce, without blaming anyone. Tell the children both parents will care them for, even though the parents won't be living together any more. The children need to be reassured from time to time that they will continue to be cared for and loved by both parents as well as grandparents and other relatives.
5. What kinds of things are especially damaging for children?
It is damaging to children when:
6. What kinds of parenting plans are there?
There are parenting plans in which one parent has most of the responsibility for the care of the children, such as in sole custody plans. There are plans in which both share time and responsibility for the children more equally, such as in joint legal and joint physical custody plans. The most beneficial plans are those that are discussed and accepted by both parents.
7. What kind of parenting plan is best for children?
The best plans are those based upon the changing needs of the children. Such plans encourage and promote a close, separate and ongoing relationship with each parent. In addition, plans should encourage children to maintain contact with their relatives, especially with their grandparents. This assures that the children will receive the love they need.
8. What special needs do children have at different ages?
Preschool-Age Children's Needs: very young children need frequent contact with both parents. Even short periods can be reassuring for young children. They need to be held, fed, bathed, read to, cuddled, played with and spoken to. Changes should be made as gradually as possible. Young children are very dependent and they need caring people to look after them.
School-Age Children's Needs: school-age children need longer periods with each parent. Sleeping over in each parent's home helps them adjust to the loss of the original family unit and helps them to feel at home with both parents. Six-to-eight- year-olds may need special reassurance that they did not cause the divorce. They need permission to love both parents and all the people in their lives who are good to them. School-age children benefit when both parents are interested and involved in their education and when both parents participate in teacher conferences and special school activities.
Adolescents' Needs: Adolescents are striving toward independence. They need: privacy; activities with other adolescents; some flexibility so they can reschedule plans with parents; freedom from overwhelming responsibility for major family decisions; continued guidance from parents about rules and standards for their behavior; parents who act like parents, not like pals; parents who do not constantly lean on them for moral support; cooperative parents who encourage them not to take sides; ongoing contact with both parents so they can experience each parent's strengths and weaknesses.
Children of all ages need to know that neither parent will abandon them and that family life with each will continue.
9. Why does a child need ongoing contact with both parents?
If children lose contact with one parent following the separation or divorce, they experience great pain and a sense of rejection, even if they do not express this outwardly. Many children find it difficult to trust and forgive a parent who left them. The hurt brought about by the loss of a parent can remain with the children throughout their lives and may keep them from being willing to love and trust others.
Some children imagine the missing parent to be "perfect," instead of a human being with strengths and weaknesses. The more they are kept from seeing a parent, the more they want to be with that parent.
Increasingly, courts are now favoring the parent who encourages access with the other parent. Experience shows that children tend to do best when they have ongoing contact with both parents.
10. What if a child does not want to see one parent?
It often helps if the parent gives the child a chance to express their feelings. After listening, it is important for the child to be reassured of that parent's love. Children need to be given permission to love and enjoy both parents. When a child refuses contact with one parent, family counseling is often recommended. If this problem is neglected or ignored, the child may carry the anger and hurt into adulthood and lessen his or her chances for happiness.
Lynne A. Ustach
450 Main Street, Suite 202
New Britain, CT 06051