Author’s note by Attorney Howard Iken: This report provides advice for parents going through a divorce or separation and how to manage the transition period for their children. It discusses how to create a stable and welcoming environment for the child, how to handle discussing schedules, and how to maintain healthy relationships with the other parent and extended family members. It emphasizes the importance of focusing on the child’s needs and not using them as a pawn in the separation.
When a couple divides their household including the parenting responsibilities due to separation there will always be some routine changes. Each family has a different dynamic, whether it be a mom and dad, two same-sex parents, or extended family members living together raising the children.
Divorcing couples undergo some type of separation prior to the final judgment. In many states, the parties are required to live separately prior to filing for divorce or obtaining a final judgment of dissolution of marriage. Florida does not have the term “legal separation” and parents are allowed to remain in the same residence and still file for/obtain a divorce. The language we use is that the parties are residing together but not as husband and wife and a separation is imminent.
A Child’s Transition to Two Homes
When one parent moves out of the marital residence there is often the ordeal of fixing up a bedroom for the child in the new residence. The child now has essentially two homes and this can feel for the child rather like he or she has no home. The parents make attempts to normalize this transition by dressing up the new bedroom with either similar furnishings, taking the original furnishings with them to the new location, or getting better furnishings to entice the child to want to move with them. Depending on the age of the child I have recommended that parents decorate the younger child’s bedrooms the same or similar. If the child has a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme then try to copy that in the new bedroom. Children tend to feel more anxious when everything is new all at once. Some parents will budget for a room upgrade so the child has a new, cooler ambiance at both locations and this can make the transition a new beginning instead of a devastating separation. One of my parents took her year-end bonus and completely redid her children’s bedrooms post-divorce which helped the transition for the kids.
The transition period once a parent has filed or separated can leave a child unsure of where they will belong. For younger children that are learning how to read or how to understand a calendar, I have recommended that the parents get color stickers (red circle/blue circle) and place the color circle on the days of the week that the child will be with either parent. That is a visual clue for a young child that they will get to see the other parent very soon. If you have an agreed-upon or court-ordered schedule it may be wise to provide the same to the children’s school, coaches, and tutors so everyone is on the same page about who is picking up and dropping off the child.
Discussing Schedules with a Child
While many parents want to talk to their child about what type of schedule they want, this is not appropriate according to the court. Judges discourage parents from discussing the divorce case with the children involved regardless of how old the children are. I heard one judge instruct a party that a minor cannot make an adult decision. He went on to explain how there were all of these studies conducted that actually demonstrate the brain capacity of a minor and how a child’s brain is not developed enough to make adult decisions. The adult decision is which parent to spend time with and how often. I do find it interesting that by rule only one day can separate a minor from a legal adult and this one day makes such a big difference. I see the logic behind the judge’s comment though when a parent is telling me that their 13-year-old wants to only stay with them. I have explained to many a parent that despite the maturity level of their teen or what the teen tells them about not wanting to go to the other parent’s home that it is quite possible the child is telling the other parent the same story. Children want to make their parents happy and they catch the vibe that you are putting off. That is why it is so crucial to guard your expression, speech, body language, and what other family members say about the other parent in the presence of your child.
Most families have traditions related to how they spend the holidays, how they celebrate major events, and how they share time with each other. Children, especially young ones, require routine in their day. Have you ever gone on a vacation and when you return home the children are not the best behaved? Children, despite their age, are affected by a change in their routine. When a family moves or the child changes schools there is an adjustment period. Often in a separation one of the parents moves out of the marital residence thereby opening the door for a child to experience a change in the norm. The courts attempt to do what is in the child’s best interest but it is rare for the court to hear what the child wants or how they feel about the changes. That means that in a hearing to establish a temporary visitation schedule the only people talking about what is best for the child in light of the separation are the parents. No matter how sincere and how compassionate a parent attempts to be there is a definite bias involved. If there is a social investigation, a psychological evaluation, or a guardian ad litem then it is possible to hear the expert testify about what the child wants or what is best for the child. How often does a parent preemptively get a neutral party in the mix? Someone like a school counselor, a therapist, a tutor, a coach, or a Girl Scout leader can really add a necessary ingredient to the court’s decision about a parenting plan. These individuals have the capacity to bond with the child in a way that the parent may be lacking during this divorce process. I have found in my years of practice that a Judge would rather hear from the child’s gymnastic coach about how the child is handling the separation and coping than listen to Dad’s new girlfriend or the maternal grandmother.
Getting Over Things – For Your Child
Whenever possible try to get past your feelings for the other parent and allow the extended family members to remain involved in the child’s life through attendance at school events, holidays, and celebrations. Keep in mind that the other parent may not feel comfortable at your birthday party for your child when the only attendees are your girlfriends that hate his guts. If the child has a special activity or event that they enjoy doing with the other parent then you should consider encouraging this. With the availability of technology these days it is quite possible for the children to see and speak with the other parent on a regular basis. Many of my parents live in different time zones, across different states, and/or in different countries. I encourage them to set up regular contact with the children so there is not an absence. When one parent withholds the child from the other parent it can have lasting negative consequences and it most certainly does not only affect that other parent.
Remember that a child is half of each of you and therefore when you disparage the other parent the child then believes that one-half of them is bad or wrong or negative. It may cause you to throw up a little in your mouth to say nice things about the other parent but I tell my clients it is worth it in the long run. Children when they grow up will remember which parent was bitter and which one was encouraging. Be the best parent you can be in each step of the process of separation parenting.