When the wedding vows are spoken, and the rings exchanged, the last thing on the newlyweds’ minds is divorce. But, according to the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, more than 22 percent of first marriages end in divorce within five years and 53 percent dissolve by 20 years.* When unions include children and custody arrangements, there are ways to make the situation less difficult and healthier for the entire family.
Parents undergoing custody mediation should keep their intentions on protecting the well-being of the child throughout the process, according to Licensed Professional Counselor Daniel Nelson of Fredericksburg. Parents often harbor anger and resentment toward each other, and it can hinder making the child’s needs the top priority. It’s important to shield children from adult issues as much as possible, avoiding exposure to arguments about custody. Parents cause unnecessary distress to children by openly criticizing or blaming the other parent for the divorce.
Licensed Professional Counselor Janet Suffel, owner of Healing Hand Christian Counseling in Fredericksburg, stressed children aren’t property to be divided between parents.
“It’s OK for children to love both parents,” said Suffel. “They’re not divorcing their parents.”
Avoid comments like, “If dad loved you, he’d pay child support,” at all costs. Don’t bring the monetary aspect up to the child—that’s between the parents, she said.
During different stages of a child’s life, consider the following suggestions when negotiating custody agreements.
● These are the years when children tend to cling to mom, but it’s important for dad to have equal opportunities to nurture them too.
● When it’s time for visitation with the other parent, it may greatly reduce the child’s separation fears by saying, “This is your time to spend with mommy/daddy. He/She loves you and is going to be so happy to see you. I know you’ll have a great time. You always do.”
● Both parents should be aware of school activities and events and do their best to participate. Dividing field trips and attending parent-teacher conferences gives each an opportunity to support their child.
● Both parents should receive the child’s report card and any important documents from the school.
Preteens & Teens
● At these ages, they’re in the middle of their developmental stages and figuring out who they are. As they begin to explore their own relationships, parents should stress that while their marriage ended it doesn’t mean their child will have the same experience.
● It continues to be vital for parents to communicate with each other in a positive way and to avoid painting the other parent in a negative light. While teens can process life issues better than small children, their relationship with the either parent should not be influenced by one parent or the other.
In all stages, Nelson said to be as fair and flexible as possible when coordinating holidays and special events. In addition, never interrogate the child or “pump” him for information when he returns home from visiting the other parent. This causes significant distress in most children.
“It’s important to encourage your child to enjoy his time with you and the other parent,” he said. “The child shouldn’t feel he needs to be more aligned or take sides with one parent.”
Suffel added that children in every stage should be allowed phone contact with the noncustodial parent, if they desire.
Many children feel responsible for their parents’ divorce but don’t openly share their feelings. Parents should reassure children that separation or divorce isn’t their fault and let them know they’re loved.
“It’s essential for parents to take care of themselves while going through a separation or divorce,” said Nelson. “Seeking help from family, friends or a therapist can help to minimize the appearance of distress to children. It’s necessary to comfort children through this process and not the other way around.”
Nelson said to consider finding a therapist for children, as it can be helpful to have a neutral party to support them during the transition.
*National Survey of Family Growth 2011-2015 data