May 2019

8 Do’s and Don’ts for Divorcing Parents

Author: Beth Ann Prince

As a family court lawyer, I dedicate a great deal of my practice to custody and visitation issues. One of the first orders of business is discussing with a client his or her custody goals. Part of determining a client’s goals is exploring the reasons why he or she seeks a certain custodial arrangement. Invariably, the client expresses that he or she wants what is best for the children. I believe most parties truly are trying to do what they believe is best for their kids, but there are many misconceptions about what is best. It helps for me to explain the various options along with the pros and cons of each. We also spend time discussing how to best help kids navigate the process.

The visitation model of every other weekend to fathers was based entirely on practicality and an outdated family model of one parent working outside the home (usually the father) and the other parent working as a homemaker (usually the mother). Unfortunately, because this model became ingrained in our culture, a lot of clients mistakenly believe it is what’s best for kids. Modern studies show that is not necessarily true. As a result, many states are moving toward a presumption of shared or equal custody. South Carolina is not one of those states, but our family courts have taken note of the trend.

The most important factor in reducing stress for kids and minimizing the negative impact of divorce is for parents to get along and have a healthy relationship with each other. Helping my client maintain a positive relationship with the other parent is an important part of my job. Sometimes, such as in cases where abuse or addiction is present, that is not possible, and we must do whatever is necessary to protect the children. Thankfully, most cases are not that extreme. Divorcing parents can use the following do’s and don’ts as a general guideline to find common ground and minimize any negative impact on their children:

1. Do not speak negatively about the other parent. This is one of the golden rules. Children absorb information like sponges. It confuses them to hear one parent speak negatively about the other, because the child loves that parent. That confusion can cause additional stress and anxiety in an already uncertain time. It is good common sense to refrain from disparaging the other parent to your kids and is a huge consideration for judges. Don’t do it. It’s bad for your kids and bad for your custody case.

2. Do encourage a positive relationship with the other parent. It is shockingly common for kids to begin resisting visiting with one parent because they feel it will make the other parent “mad.” For example, if you are the mother, and the father has visitation every other weekend, do not interrogate your kids about what they did all weekend with Dad. Don’t make snide comments if he is taking them to expensive places or indulging them in fun activities. Children can often end up feeling guilty about enjoying their time with Dad if they feel Mom does not approve.

3. Do not ever coach your kids on what to say. Custody battles inevitably involve a Guardian ad Litem, who is an attorney appointed by the court to investigate the custody issues and report their findings to the court. They are often referred to as the attorney for the children, advocating for what is in the children’s best interest. Too often one parent will accuse the other of coaching the children on what to say, including (falsely) accusing one parent of abusive behavior. While it should be obvious that this is a terrible idea, it bears repeating: It is damaging to your kids and damaging to your custody case. Don’t think the guardian and the attorneys won’t notice if the kids were coached. They will.

4. Do not talk to your kids about the custody case. Of course, you can and should tell the kids if you are getting divorced, but it is important to do it in an appropriate way. The kids need to know that Mom and Dad are going to live separately because they can get along better that way, and that both parents love them very much. If you need more detailed suggestions on exactly what to say, ask for help from a professional. Good literature and many Internet sources are available to help guide you on this topic. The general idea is to make sure the kids know they don’t need to worry, and although things will change, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Children are amazingly resilient.

5. Do focus on what matters. I cannot stress this enough. Pick your battles. Ultimately, you chose the other parent. Absent extraordinary circumstances, the other parent is capable of helping with homework, feeding your kids sufficiently nutritious foods, and getting your kids to bed at a decent time. The court usually does not micromanage exact bedtimes and dietary habits. The court is not interested in how bad one parent might be at “new math.” This is where compromise is important. There is no one right way to raise a child, and parents will inevitably differ in certain areas. However, if a parent completely fails in one or more of these areas, that can be serious and must not be overlooked.

6. Do attend your kids’ functions, even if the other parent will be there. Unless there is a legitimate safety issue, don’t avoid going to school or sports functions because the other parent will be present. You are the adults. If you are able to sit together like grownups, please do. If you can’t, then sit on other side of the bleachers if you must. But don’t stay home because it’s easier to avoid the other parent. Put your kids first. Whatever you do, do not get into a confrontation with the other parent in public.

7. Don’t make your kids be a messenger. Don’t let your kids transfer child support payments. Don’t ask them to relay important information between you. Your kids should never be placed in the role of a go-between. By asking your children to do this, you are ultimately relaying the message that you cannot and will not communicate directly with the other parent. Your kids should not be burdened with your responsibility.

8. Do be civil to the other parent—always. I know, I know, I know. It’s hard sometimes. Do it anyway. Behave in a manner at all times as if every word you say will be recorded and played in court. You do not want your children to absorb or assimilate your negative feelings about the other parent. You will never regret taking the high road and being civil, even if you are not treated the same way in return.

Divorce is stressful, but by following these tips, you can gain control over how the divorce will affect your kids. Knowing your kids are okay will provide you invaluable peace of mind and will help build the foundation for successful co-parenting in the future.

Beth Ann Prince is a family law attorney at Prince Law Firm, located at 200 Central Avenue, Suite B, on Hilton Head Island. For more information, visit www.bethprincelawfirm.com or call (843) 681-9000.

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