When you’re going through a separation or divorce, many times the children feel it the most. While divorce is changing everyone’s lives, it is especially difficult for children who may not be able to process what is going on and how it is going to affect their lives.
One of the big issues that families of divorce deal with is child custody. While the best interests of the child should always be the priority, they can get clouded when parents argue or try to use children as pawns. It’s important for parents to understand the process, what the law says about child custody, and how to help their children through the process.
In this first of a three-part series, we’re going to take a look at how you can help your children as well as how to develop a parenting plan and visitation orders while going through a divorce.
Helping Your Children
Parents will agree that their children’s needs should take priority, but some don’t know how to make this happen. One thing to understand is that your children are going through emotions just like you, if not more. While all children will deal with the situation differently, there are similar stages that many will go through as they deal with their family unit changing. These include:
- Shock and denial that their parents are separating
- Anger over the separation
- Depression as they don’t know how to deal with their feelings of sadness
- Helplessness as they feel like they can’t do anything to change the situation
- Trying to bargain with their parents that they’ll do anything to try to keep them together
- Accepting the fact that their parents are divorcing and life is going to change
One of the best things you can do to help your children deal with divorce is to sit down with them and explain what is happening. Explain that while you will be living separately from your spouse, they will still get to spend time with each parent. Don’t talk about the messy details of the divorce in front of your children and certainly don’t argue in front of them. This will only make things worse.
These conversations are going to look different depending on your child’s age. Younger children will need to feel plenty of love from their parents. You should also reassure them that they will still be taken care of and get the things they need. Let them know that you’ll still be around to play with them just like before.
For older kids, expressing love and support is still just as important. They may have more questions about why the divorce is happening. Many often question whether it’s their fault. You can answer the questions as honestly as possible, but be careful not to give too many details that they don’t need to know about. Also, be prepared to deal with rebellion with older kids, as some tend to act out in response to their changing situation.
No matter what age your children are, be ready to give them the stable and predictable routine they need. Also, make sure that both parents make time for the kids no matter what is going on with the divorce.
Developing a Parenting Plan & Visitation Orders
Part of helping your child deal with divorce is developing a parenting plan with your spouse. This plan also referred to as a “custody and visitation agreement” is a written agreement that details a schedule for when the children will be with each parent as well as how decisions about the children will be made.
The parenting plan will also reflect who has physical custody of the child (who the child lives with) and who has legal custody (making decisions about the child’s life). Sometimes both parents will have legal custody; other times only one will have it. Legal custody includes decisions about such things as medical care, school, and religion.
When both parents sign the parenting plan, it becomes a court order that is signed by the judge and filed with the court. The parenting plan should be in the children’s best interests. It should take the children’s ages into account as well as their personalities.
Some things your parenting plan should include are:
- Consistent times with each parent for day-to-day care, overnights, activities, and holidays
- Enough detail so that it is easily understood
- Details about how vacations will be handled
While you want to have everything laid out, you also want to be flexible. If a child isn’t feeling well you don’t want to force them to go to the other parent’s house when it’s in their best interest to stay put.
Your parenting plan should also make sure that:
- Both parents have information about the children
- Both parents can reach the children
- Both parents have access to the children’s school and medical records
- Parents have each other’s contact information
When developing your parenting plan, always keep your children’s needs in mind and remember to put them first above anything else.
Be sure to check out the upcoming second series of this topic where we’ll take a closer look at custody mediation and supervised visitation.