I have been a divorce attorney for over ten years, and was a paralegal for a divorce attorney for several years before that. In all the years that I have been working on divorce cases, meeting with divorce clients, and litigating hearings, I have come to see some patterns in people’s behavior that is destructive to the children.
It is rare that parents purposely involve the children in the divorce process; however, frequently they involve the children, not even realizing that that is what they are doing. The purpose of this article is to give you some ideas of where I have seen people go wrong in my practice so that maybe it can help you avoid these pitfalls, which cause even further emotional damage to your children.
One of the most common things I have noticed is that clients will call me to discuss their divorce case, and I can hear their children in the background. The children, no matter how young, should never be in the room when a parent is discussing the divorce with their lawyer, their spouse, or anybody else. Sometimes it is easy to forget the kids are there when you make a quick call to your attorney while you are in the car. Always make sure the children are not present when you have to make these sorts of phone calls.
I have even had parents bring children into my office, stating that the child “already knows everything,” and it is okay for them to sit in on the divorce consultation. It is never appropriate to have your children be in on any discussion between you and your attorney, or you and anyone else, regarding the divorce. If you must take your child to the attorney’s office, make sure ahead of time that there is a separate room that they can be wait for you in. The children should not even know what sort of office they are in, and if they are old enough to know what a “lawyer” is, they should not be going to a lawyer’s office at all. The best thing to do is to arrange for someone else to watch the children when you must go see your attorney in person.
Colorado courts require a mandatory parenting class if you have minor children and you are going through a divorce. This class is very helpful and will give you some sound advice as to how to help your children get through this process with as little damage as possible. If you feel that the kids are struggling, you may want to seek counseling for the children. Unless you have been given sole decision-making, make sure that you consult with your spouse before arranging any counseling for the children. Counseling is a “major” decision and must be agreed to by both parents. There are occasions where one spouse does not believe in therapy, and in that case, you may have to ask the Court for permission to put your children in counseling. It is unlikely that the Court would deny a parent’s request to put the children into counseling.
One of the things that is so difficult when you go through the divorce process is not saying negative things about your spouse to the children. I have been through this process myself, and I know how hard it is. When you are angry, sad and disappointed, and your spouse does something to infuriate you, it is incredibly difficult not to share this at least in part with the children. It is really difficult, when the children come to you and tell you things that your spouse has said about you, not to defend yourself and share your position with the children. I advise my clients that if your child comes to you and tells you something negative that the other parent has said about you, tell them they should always remember there are two sides to every story, and you love them too much to tell them what “your side” is. This lets the child know that you do have a “defense,” but that you are trying to put them first, and will not involve them in this process. Therefore, you will not discuss it with them.
The older the children are during the divorce, the more likely they are to want to know details. They are insecure about their situation, they are afraid, and they feel that having knowledge will be helpful. You may be tempted to think that they are old enough to share certain details with them. This is rarely the case. No matter how old the children are (including adult children), it is best not to share the details of the case with them.
It is also challenging if your spouse is involved with another person, and they are allowing this other person to share time with the children during the divorce process. It is completely inappropriate for them to do so, but many soon-to-be-ex-spouses do just that. They are in a new relationship, happy, ecstatic, and they want to share this with the children. They do not understand how harmful and confusing this is for the children. If you have serious concerns about the safety of your children while around this new “significant other,” you can always run a background check on them if you just know their name and approximately how old they are. The best place to run a background search when you have minimal information is www.cocourts.com. You can set up an account with them and then run a check on the significant other. My advice is that you do not narrow the search to any particular county or types of cases; run a general check. The site will bring up any case that this person has been involved with, from traffic infractions to felonies. If you find that your soon-to-be-ex-spouse is dating someone who you consider dangerous for your children to be around, then there are actions that you can take in your case to try to prevent your children from being exposed to this person.
Many times parents are tempted to film the children or record the children to help their case. People do this with the best of intentions so that an outsider can see how the children are acting at home and what things they are saying. The judges have a real problem with parents recording their children for this purpose. Therefore, under most circumstances it is not a good idea to do so. You should consult counsel before you do this if possible. It is also a bad idea to quiz the children when they come home. It is totally acceptable to ask the children if they had a good weekend or say, “Did you enjoy spending time with Daddy?” These should be general questions and they should be given in an upbeat manner so that the child knows it is okay for them to have had a good time with their other parent, and that you hope they had a good time with their other parent.
In many of my cases, parents will tell me that the children never want to have visitation at the other parent’s house. In many of these cases, I am told that the children cry when they find out that they have to go to the other parent’s house. This is totally normal, as children are going through the grief process, and change is very difficult for them. A simple change such as going to see the other parent for the next two or three days is difficult for them, and they may act out by saying they don’t want to go, or by crying. What parents do not realize is that the children might be doing the same thing to the other parent when they have to come back to you. There are, of course, instances where a child is being ill-treated or abused at the other parent’s house, and they genuinely don’t want to go to that parent’s house. There are experts that you can employ in your case that can explore whether this is going on with your child.
It is easier said than done, but staying as positive as you can about the other parent in front of the children will be very helpful to your child during the divorce process. Children sense if it gives you a little bit of “joy” when they say negative things about the other parent. You need to make it clear to the children that you are expecting them to have a good time at their other parent’s house, because the other parent is a great parent. I realize how hard this is to do, however, it is really important for the children. If the children feel that it is okay to have a good time at both parents’ houses, they are less inclined to feel like they are being asked to choose sides.
There are lots of good books out there that you can read on getting your children through the divorce process, and it is a good idea to go to the bookstore and take a look through some of the books available. No matter how amicable your divorce is, the children are going to suffer some consequences. However, it doesn’t have to be devastating to them. The best thing that you can do is to keep the children away from the divorce process as much as possible. Never discuss it in front of them, never leave your paperwork lying around so the children can accidentally read it, and try to avoid saying negative things about the other parent. These are all difficult, but doable most of the time. We are only human, and every once in awhile you are bound to slip up. Just do your best and try to keep in mind as much as possible that the goal is to get through this process with the least amount of damage to the kids.