Divorce is one of those issues that a person can go through in life that will impact him or her in ways that are both similar to other people and unique to them. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances of the divorce. When you work with enough divorce cases you start to see similarities between the different types of cases just as much as you see differences. You see how people are many times dejected to start a divorce then learn to handle and persevere through the case once it gets moving. You see how people start to get hope as the divorce goes from its beginning to its middle stages. Finally, you see the relief when the case is over with. That much is the same across the board no matter how different the other facets of a divorce case may be from one another.
This is how adults approach the subject of divorce. How a child may approach divorce is anything but predictable. Children have no life experiences when compared to adults. Sure- some children have had some things happen in their life that are one-of-a-kind or memorable. However, most children have only experienced life through the prism of a relatively sheltered and limited perspective. Children view the world through the lens that is supplied to them by their parents. Otherwise, we see that children don’t know what to make of divorce until they start to experience the case and the changes that it will bring to their day-to-day lives.
Telling your child about the divorce
Unless we are dealing with infants and toddlers, you are probably to tell your child something about getting a divorce. That doesn’t mean that you need to get into the gory details of the case. Your child probably does not need to know about the exact reasons why you and your spouse are getting divorced. However, what you can discuss with your child is that a divorce is happening and what it means for your family in the short and long term. That’s a discussion to have with an older child. Younger children may need to know even less. Going to stay with Dad in a new house, splitting time between homes, and things of this nature may be all you need to talk about with your child.
I have four kids. One of the tough parts of parenting children, when they are young, is that you do not necessarily know what your child is thinking or experiencing. The same can be said of an older child or even an adult, but at least you can ask the older child or adult what is happening to them, and you can get a response. Younger children cannot describe to you what is going on. Even children once they can speak cannot always muster the right words or form sentences well enough to be able to express exactly what they are thinking. So, what can you do as a parent when it comes to managing your children as you head into a divorce? After you take the time to bring up the divorce and await what they have to say what should you do?
Listen. We as parents are not always good at listening to our kids. We are used to being the ones in charge and in a place where we can dictate what is said to our kids and what we take in from our kids. This is not an ideal perspective to take when you have children who are going to try to tell you how they feel about a big deal like a divorce. Some children will ask very practical questions about visitation with both of you, school, summertime and holiday plans, and other things like this. These kids are already anticipating the changes that are going to come with the divorce and as a result, want answers about what lies ahead. You may not have to wait long for these children to begin asking you questions about the case.
For other children, you need to be able to show some restraint to help your child express themselves about the case. Listen to your child. If he or she does not want to talk to you about the case right now the best, you may be able to do is wait the situation out and allow him or her to be able to tell you in their time and on their schedule about the divorce and all the changes that are going to come their way. This is a natural reaction for children to have. If you have a younger child, then he or she may truly not understand what a divorce is and how the divorce will impact them. Their thoughts are much more immediate than on anything long-term.
What you and your spouse can do, no matter the age of your children is to present yourselves as a united front when you have a conversation with them about the divorce. Now, this may be the last thing that the two of you feel like doing. There may be something holding both of you back from doing this. Your pride, ego or even your hurt feelings about going through a divorce could prevent you from having this type of discussion with them together. However, you should strive to do this to the greatest extent possible. Do not assume that your spouse would be unwilling to do this type of engagement with you. If anything, the two of you can work together to figure out how you could approach this case in a team-oriented way. You won’t be teammates in the legal case of a divorce, but you are still co-parents. This is the ultimate team activity.
The irony is that even though you and your spouse are going through a divorce right now, the rest of your lives you will spend co-parenting together. This is the long-lasting impact of divorce and one that you should not lose sight of. It is easy to become obsessed with or focus intently on the divorce and all of the ins and outs of your case. You do need to focus on the case to an extent and have goals to accomplish in the case. However, to focus solely on your legal case and not only the family dynamics. That family dynamic is exactly why I am recommending that you reach out to your spouse to see if the two of you can jointly discuss the upcoming divorce with your children.
What this does is it gives your child a powerful visual image that can stay with them through tough times. Even when your child feels like nothing is going their way or that nothing you say can change their perspective, seeing the two of you sitting shoulder to shoulder on the couch across from them can give an impression that even though change is coming your way some things, like the love of their parents, will not change. You can present this image to them and discuss it explicitly with them, as well. Taking time to listen to their concerns and answer questions as honestly as you can is an example of an afternoon well spent. You can reach out to your spouse to engage him or her on this subject and see how they want to proceed. Make sure cell phones are put away, the television is off, and distractions are at a minimum for this talk.
Once you talk to your children about the divorce, there is less pressure on the two of you when it comes to managing the case and having to go about the sometimes-difficult business of actually getting divorced. This means that you all can focus your attention not only on your children but also on the case itself. You know that you spent time going over the case with your children as a joint effort and that when this step is done you can set your sights on accomplishing goals and acclimating your children to their new lives. It is not enough to simply assume that the kids will figure things out as far as the divorce is concerned. Rather, the two of you need to be able to at least try to break the news of the divorce to your children together rather than allow the case to get out of hand before ever talking to the children about what they are going to experience.
From there, you all will need to make decisions which are based on the ages, maturity levels, and needs of your children. If you have younger children, they may not even be involved in shared custody yet. Infants and toddlers may not be able to leave mom’s side yet so if you are a dad, you may have all your visitation at the old house. Sort of an awkward setup for you but remember that this is something that you are doing which is in the best interests of the children rather than in your own best interests. Try to make the best of a bad situation and you will find yourself in a stronger position as a spouse and parent.
Visitation – what it means to your children and how to protect them
Probably the most noticeable impact of a divorce on children is that they are going to have to bounce back and forth between their new home and the family house that they used to live in. The first thing that comes to mind in this situation is that you can minimize the disruptions to your child’s life if you choose to move somewhere that is close to the family home. Rather than moving across town to the area where you’ve always wanted to live, why not live close to the family home, for now, to cut down on travel and help ease your children into the divorce? You can always move later if you want to. Or you may find that reduced travel time for your children is in everyone’s best interests- including your own.
Living apart from one of their parents always can be a significant change for some children who are used to you and your spouse both being always at home with them. They may not be aware of the tension and acrimony that exists between the two of you which has led to the divorce. As a result, your children may only notice that rather than being able to spend time with both parents at the same time they are only able to do that with one of you at one time. That will be something that they need to get used to but it can be a shock to their system no matter how old they are.
Working out a temporary visitation schedule with your spouse can be an emotional challenge. You are going to want to be as aggressive as can be when it comes to negotiating time. However, if you plan on following a Standard Possession Order (SPO) then the schedule that you choose to implement in your family can be figured out for you all before you even start negotiations. You may want to consider the schedules of you and your spouse before you start to engage in real negotiations since an SPO may not work out perfectly for you all, however. Otherwise, an SPO is a tried-and-true method of dividing up time between parents while going through a divorce.
So much of making the visitation time work for your family is showing respect to your co-parent as well as your children for their time. If you are going to be the parent who has visitation time on the first, third, and fifth weekends of each month then you need to be able to arrive at your spouse’s house on time and then drop off the kids at the correct time, as well. Spending more time than necessary in the care is no fun for your children. Picking up the kids and dropping them off at odd times may suit you as a parent but it probably does not suit your spouse. This is only going to frustrate her which will impact your interactions in other regards.
Instead, extend the same courtesies to your spouse that you would like her to extend to you. Show her respect and she will reciprocate more than likely. This is not hard stuff. These are the sort of lessons that you probably learned a long time ago. However, they can be difficult lessons to put into practice now that you are going through a divorce. Remember that your spouse is probably not your favorite person in the world at this very moment. As a result, you may want to do anything but show her respect. When you remember that you are showing her respect for the benefit of your children rather than for your benefit then it can be done that much easier.
Where do the kids want to live?
One of the big questions that parents typically ask in a divorce situation like the one you may find yourself in right now is the role that the child’s wishes play in determining where he or she will live. Many parents operate with the understanding that their child gets to pick where he or she lives in every situation. That is not true. A child over the age of 12 will have the opportunity (if you ask) to speak to the judge about where he or she wants to live. This could be a situation where your child has a plan and a true preference. In some cases, you may not want to put your child in a situation where he or she is being asked to choose between parents.
Children under the age of 12 may have an opportunity to tell their judge their wishes but this happens only if the judge allows them to do so. It is optional for a child and required for a teenager or child of 12 to be able to speak to the judge. Even then, the judge determines how much weight to place on the preference of the child. Otherwise, the judge still needs to decide where your child is going to live based on the best interests of your child. This does not change because your child wants to live in one home or the other. Kids have opinions that change like the wind changes directions and judges are aware of this.
Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as how your family’s circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody lawsuit.