For many of my years as a family lawyer I was asked by judges to represent the interests of children going through divorce. As an “ad litem” or “amicus attorney”, it was my duty to talk to my young charges to find out what they were thinking and what was bothering them. In many cases their parents couldn’t agree on where the children should live after the divorce, which parent should have the power to make decisions regarding the children’s day-to-day life, or whether one parent should have the right to move to a new location, far away from the other parent. My experience gave me an insight into how many children think during the turbulent period of their parent’s separation and divorce, and the best way parents can deal with some of the children’s assumptions and misunderstandings.
Insight #1 – children often think that it’s their fault that the marriage is ending; that it is something they have done that has caused the problems plaguing the adults in their lives. Parents need to make it very clear that the children have had nothing to do with the issues in their divorce and that it is not the children’s job to solve the problems. Sometimes I heard from parents that the children were doing just fine – in fact, they had never behaved better than they have since the separation. This may be a warning signal that a child thinks that if he just behaves perfectly that the divorce will do away. A parent would do well to reassure the child that they are loved and will be loved by both parents no matter what happens between the parents.
Insight #2 – if encouraged in any way, a child will take sides in the battle between the parents, sometimes acting as a spy in the other parent’s house and reporting back to the “preferred parent” negative things they’ve seen and heard. Taken to the extreme, this can lead to parental alienation, destroying the formerly loving relationship with the other parent and causing the child resentment and a sense of abandonment. A wise parent will avoid making negative comments about the other parent, encourage the child to spend time at the other parent’s home, and generally support a close and loving relationship with their ex-spouse…and definitely do NOT encourage spying!
Insight #3 – children have no compunctions about being manipulative, pitting the parents against each other in a contest to see which parent can be the most generous gift-giver, and the most lenient disciplinarian. Parents, do not fall into this trap! If at all possible, work with your ex-spouse to enforce behavioral rules consistently in both homes, and communicate with each other when problems arise with the children. If you are working together in a collaborative divorce, plan in advance how you will react when problems arise. Many collaboratively divorced couples schedule weekly or monthly conferences with each other to discuss the children’s development and schedules and enforce each other’s rules consistently. In a world in which it’s them (the children) against us (the parents), it’s in the children’s best interests that the parents win.