You can help your children most by doing everything in your power to keep them separate from the court contest. Be careful what you say on the phone or to visitors; children usually have much more information than parents think they do, albeit filtered through their own eyes and ears. Do not talk to your children about the dispute, except to inform them of its initiation, to answer their questions, to assure them of both parents’ continued love for them, and your desire to be their parent in all respects, whatever the dispute’s outcome.
Do not grill your children about the other home or use them as informants, detectives, or messengers. Your information must come from elsewhere. If you cannot find it, and your children are not complaining to you directly, then perhaps you are blowing issues out of proportion. Click here for a kid’s guide to divorce.
Pay attention to the stress level your children are expressing. They may be more manipulative or angry. They may be echoing your complaints about the other household; you’ll especially want to note if your spouse reports the opposite. Then your children may be “telling” you they are caught up in loyalty conflicts. They may be demonstrating increased anxiety around transitions between parental homes, or between their primary home and day care, school, or after school activities. They may be regressing in their behavior, going backwards to a previous developmental step. Or they may be discipline problems at home or at school. If you pay close attention, you may be able to trace the change in behavior to specific events, such as the house being sold or a parent’s move to another town. Or you may observe a slow deterioration as the custody dispute wears on. Click here for more children’s resources.
In any case, when you note negative changes in your child’s demeanor or behavior, you should first talk directly to your child (assuming they are verbal) to ascertain what he or she understands about his behavior, and to learn more details about what she is feeling. Talk to the child’s attorney or guardian to discuss changes you might make to facilitate your child’s improvement. Certainly, notify a teacher or therapist already in the picture.
If, upon discussion with other professionals involved in your child’s life and the case, you decide that either you need more information than the child is giving you, or that your child needs intervention, don’t wait until the dispute is over. Get help sooner rather than later. You could seek individual therapy or, in conjunction with your spouse, couples counseling specifically geared toward helping the two of you help your child. Or you could have your child seen by an outside mental health professional. Parents often complain at this stage that so many people are involved in the dispute that they are loathe to invite one more person in, especially with time and money already scarce. Your child did not ask for this dispute, and he or she shouldn’t bear the brunt of it. So if at all possible, you should get short term help, or just provide someone not connected to the dispute for him or her to talk to confidentially. It may help the child manage his or her stress level, and cope with the ongoing dispute.
Excerpted from Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce (Simon & Schuster/Fireside 2001). For more information: http://www.yourdivorceadvisor.com/.
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