Having observed family court as a lawyer, as a mediator, and as a divorcing parent, I can say from experience that the ugliest, meanest, most brutal litigation is that involving child custody and visitation. Parents in family court face a desperation that is perhaps unknown outside of the criminal division, because the stakes are so high. After all, what would a person give in exchange for his/her most important relationships? And, how do parents usually react when their parenting is criticized? Now imagine your parenting ability being attacked in open court, with allegations of poor parenting, neglect, or worse, of abuse.
As I write on this Saturday after Thanksgiving, my 2 young children are sitting next to me watching cartoons. I just cooked a pancake breakfast, and earlier the boys and I watched YouTube clips of fighter jets flying in formation. I felt the surge of gratitude that can only come from happy family time, and I am moved to share some tips this morning on how you can have plenty of quality time with your kids after divorce, whether you are man or woman, and no matter what parenting plan you have currently. These 5 tips are the first installment in some sage advice for parents seeking more quality time with their children after divorce.
1. It’s all about the parent-child relationship.
Whether you have a week-on, week-off child share or 2 hours of professionally monitored visitation every week, the most important thing you can do to increase your time or keep your current time is to focus your energies on building a special relationship to each of your children. It is critical that court professionals, such as the Family Court Services mediator, perceive you as being focused on your children’s interests.
This seems self-evident, but I can’t tell you the number of parents I have seen whose focus is on winning the custody war, not building the relationships. These parents’ primary focus is on tearing down their co-parent, perpetuating conflict, and gathering evidence to impugn the other parent’s parenting.
The most important advice I can give you is to stop thinking about the other parent, and start thinking about your children. Stop focusing on getting more time, and use the time you have to build a special relationship with them.
Guys, do you have a daughter? Take her out on a date. A woman learns from her father how men should treat her, and if you treat her with consummate chivalry, she’ll accept nothing less from her future boyfriend and husband.
Parents with younger children can benefit from focused play. Watch your children with their dolls or building blocks, and simply comment on what they are doing. Sprinkle in a little labeled praise, such as “I like how you built a strong base to your tower before making the top–you are a smart builder.” Get on your hands and knees and get in their world. Get in touch with your inner child and engage them in games of pretend.
2. Disengage from conflict.
A wealth of studies have shown that the most harmful aspect of divorce for children is conflict between co-parents. Such conflict is hard to avoid, as divorce issues are complicated, involving all the hopes and dreams you had for family. It is the rare divorcing couple that is able to cooperate in the early stages of separation, and for most, some form of disengagement is necessary. The level of disengagement will depend on the level of conflict.
What do I mean by “disengagement”? I mean turning away from, or avoiding, opportunities for conflict. Examples of disengagement include:
- Refraining from sarcastic or snide comments about whatever caused the breakup, even when it is tempting to do so;
- Deciding not to file order to show cause hearings over every issue;
- In many cases, it means avoiding face-to-face contact, instead engaging in parallel parenting.
- It means doing whatever it takes to keep conflict at bay, for the sake of your children.
There are many excellent courses that teach skills in disengagement, such as Brook Olsen HHP’s High Conflict Diversion Program or Dr. Deena Stacer’s High Conflict Intervention Program. Take these courses before you are ordered by the court to do so.
3. Agree on a therapist for each child.
One unfortunate byproduct of custody litigation is that children find themselves in a loyalty bind, caught “in the middle” between warring parents and being asked, either directly or indirectly, to choose sides. It is never a good idea to enlist your child’s allegiance against the other parent. It’s bad for the child, and evaluators and judges simply hate this tactic.
But how do you take your child out of the middle? One way is to get a therapist for the child to talk to. Having a therapist has these advantages:
- Divorce is difficult for children under the best of circumstances, and a trained therapist can help children adjust.
- A good therapist is a neutral person, and your child can discuss issues in both homes with him/her without fear of alienating either parent.
- If your child wants to discuss issues in the other home with you, you can express support for your co-parent to the child, while encouraging him/her to discuss problems in the other home with the therapist, instead of with you.
- A therapist can help you and your co-parent create consistency and healthy parenting techniques in both homes and help you both solve any behavior problems.
- By encouraging children to discuss their family problems with a neutral third party, you reduce the likelihood of children trying to play one parent off against the other.
- A therapist allows you to remove your focus from the other home, and place that focus where it belongs, on your relationship to the children.
- In extreme cases, where you suspect abuse, a therapist is a mandated reporter, required to report any allegation of abuse to the authorities.
I work with some excellent therapists, and I would be happy to give you a referral. See my contact information at www.myfamilylawoffice.com.
4. Build your own ideal world.
When you are able to disengage from conflict, your next step will be to create the ideal “mommy’s world” or “daddy’s world” for your children. If you’ve moved out from the family home, it’s important to find a place with enough bedrooms to allow each child to have his/her own space in your world. Have a fully-stocked set of clothes and possessions in your world, an alternate self-contained home for your child, where he/she feels comfortable and safe. For younger children, make sure you have adequate baby supplies, such as sturdy, safe cribs and changing tables. Make sure your home is baby-proofed. There are tools available for this at your local home improvement store or Babies R Us.
5. Be involved in your child’s education.
K-12 education provides numerous opportunities to be a mentor and guide to your children. They will certainly need help with homework, and in dealing with school social life.
Your involvement in the child’s training and education is a vital factor that courts use to determine parenting time. I advise my clients to contact teachers directly to request that duplicate report cards be sent to the non-custodial spouse. If you can bear it, attend all parent-teacher conferences with your co-parent. If you can’t bear it, arrange for a separate parent-teacher conference. Ask the teacher how you can support classroom activities and encourage good behavior.
You may remember Bill Clinton’s slogan when he ran against the elder George Bush in 1992, “Its the economy, stupid.” In custody disputes, substitute the words “parent-child relationship,” and you have an excellent formula for influencing court mediators and judges, and getting more time with your children. Always remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and the seeds you sow in relationship now are likely to bear fruit years later in the form of healthier, closer family relationships, and happier children.
The above list is not exhaustive, and I will have more tips in future posts. Until then, I remain …
Very truly yours,
Disclaimer: Thomas D. Ferreira is an attorney licensed only in the State of California. The information set forth in this blog or on our websites are not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, nor are they intended as legal advice on your specific matter. This information is not intended to apply to cases or jurisdictions outside the State of California, and those viewing this information outside of California, or having business before jurisdictions outside of California, should consult a local professional or lawyer. The information in this blog is not a substitute for the advice of competent counsel, and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as a guarantee, warrantee or prediction regarding the results of your legal matter.