Many of us are children of divorce. As children our parents were our source of security and their breakup affected us. Were you caught in the middle of a tug of war, were your parents addicted to fighting, were you confused, angry, did you blame yourself? Or, was it basically a seamless transition, did your parents put your needs first, affirm that you are loved, and stay involved in your social and academic life? Undoubtedly, the answers to these questions have shaped your own history and have affected your adult relationships. Now we are parents ourselves and some of us are separated or divorced. We are making decisions that will shape our children’s memories and impact their future relationships.
Parents can have joint legal custody, meaning both parents have legal responsibility for decision making about the children’s welfare. Some parents with joint legal custody also have joint physical custody, wherein children spend significant amounts of time (i.e., though not necessarily equal time) with both parents.
The Custody Debate. The debate over whether joint custody works should be a parenting issue. What is in the best interest of the children? Which type of arrangement works best for reasonably cooperative parents, for high conflict parents? What have we learned about children and divorce that can guide these decisions?
Thankfully, we have learned much about parenting and divorce since we were children. Both research and practical experience suggest that, in most cases, two parents are better than one. Dr. Braver, Professor of Psychology at ASU and Co-Principal Investigator at ASU’s Prevention Research Center, agrees that children typically fare better when both parents are significantly involved in their lives. Therefore, the current trend is for courts to favor some form of joint custody over sole custody. Proponents of joint custody believe that this type of arrangement forces parents to work together over time. They argue that sole custody arrangements give the non-custodial parent "an out", often resulting in less parental involvement.
Conversely, proponents of sole custody argue that for parents who cannot communicate effectively, joint custody can lead to increased conflict. They contend that poor communication is typically an important reason for the divorce itself and it is not realistic to expect that parents can make joint decisions. Typically, one parent has provided most of the care-taking responsibilities for the child during the marriage and that parent is most able to care for the child and make decisions after the divorce.
Cheryl Wilson, a former resident of Phoenix, says that sole custody would be in her 12 year-old-daughter, Tori’s, best interest. Even though Tori’s parents have joint legal custody, her father’s involvement has decreased over the years and now they have a very strained relationship. "He doesn’t try to fit into my life, he just does what is convenient for him", says Tori. Cheryl believes that if she had sole custody the situation would be easier for Tori. Cheryl explains, "I know that it is best for Tori to have a healthy relationship with her dad but right now it is not healthy and it is not what Tori wants." Cheryl hopes that Tori and her dad will eventually agree to her suggestion to go to counseling. She believes that it is up to the parents, not the custody arrangement, to determine how involved they will be in their children’s lives.
Addicted to Fighting. Experts on both sides of the custody debate agree that joint custody should not be granted when one parent is physically or emotionally abusive, mentally ill, or physically or emotionally unable to take care of the child. What is in the child’s best interest becomes trickier in non-abusive, but high conflict situations. Dr. Sandler, Regent Professor of Psychology at ASU and Director of the Prevention Research Center, has been conducting research on children and families in high stress situations for over 20 years. He states that although most children of divorce are resilient and do not exhibit long-term problems, children whose parents engage in higher levels of conflict are at greater risk for poor school performance, low-self esteem, and less successful social relationships. In fact, as Garrity and Baris say in their book, Caught in the Middle, "Over time, parental wars take a greater toll on a child’s development than any other single factor in divorce."
That said, conflict between parents does not automatically prevent families from having successful joint custody arrangements. It does mean that these parents have a tougher road ahead of them. They need to learn how to: 1) communicate more effectively with the other parent, and 2) buffer children against getting sucked into adult issues.
Divorced parents go through a wide range of emotions when separating; they can be overwhelmed by anger, feelings of betrayal, depression, and fear. More often than not, these feelings dominate their thinking and decisions in the early stages of separation. This is when it is most important to realize that children’s sense of security and self-worth is derived from both parents.
What Children Want. Ask a child of divorce what he/she wants and most give similar answers. Children want both parents to be involved in their lives. As Tori says, "I want my dad to be more involved in my life. I want him to come to my ballet recitals and he never has." No matter whom they live with, children of divorce desperately want both parents to be there for special events, to answer their questions, allay their fears, and share their interests.
Payton Karvis is only three years old but he knows what he wants. His mother, April Lovellette, resident of Scottsdale, alternates weeks with her ex-husband. She says that by the end of the week, Payton starts saying "I miss my mommy or my daddy", depending on whose week it is. April says, " as young as he is, he is able to communicate that he misses each of us when he hasn’t seen us for a few days".
Parenting Plans. Perhaps the most important factor in fostering success in joint custody arrangements is for both parents to develop a parenting plan at the time of separation or divorce. This plan offers some structure for parents to stay focused on the children and map out how specific issues will be handled. The plan will probably change over time as children’s needs and interests change. In general, parenting agreements should describe details concerning how parents plan to meet the children’s medical, psychological, educational, spiritual, physical, and social needs.
More specifically, as the Holiday Season approaches, effective parenting plans can prevent conflict by setting clear expectations. Although the Holidays are meant to be a time of sharing with loved ones, the expectations and traditions surrounding this period can make it an especially stressful time for divorced families. Detailed planning can make transitions and events easier for everyone. Here are some tips for the Holidays.
- Plan Ahead—Decide the arrangement long before the holidays. Decide: 1) whether to swap holidays, or 2) the number of days spent with each parent, and 3) dates, times, and locations for the visits.
- Stay Flexible—Planning ahead doesn’t mean being rigid. For example, if you have out-of-town relatives coming to visit this year, ask in advance for the kids on those days.
- Accept Differences—In terms of parenting styles and discipline, make a commitment to agree on basic values (i.e., not buying violent video games or letting the children go to R-rated movies) and accept inconsequential differences (i.e., what time the kids go to bed when their cousins are visiting). Remember to choose your battles; while overall consistency in parenting is a must, absolute consistency, especially over the Holidays, is impossible.
- Be Fair—Creating a fair plan does not necessarily mean splitting equal time between parents but rather that both parents are involved, their needs are considered, and final decisions are made in the children’s best interest.
What works. Michelle, of Scottsdale, has an eight-year-old daughter who spends equal time with her and her ex-husband. Michelle and her ex-husband have worked hard to establish consistent bedtimes and homework schedules for both households. As Michelle puts it, "we have had numerous discussions concerning schedules, and have had to get past some resistance and defensiveness on both sides, to come to an arrangement that is in our daughter’s best interest. I really believe that maintaining a consistent schedule is crucial for children who spend considerable time with both parents."
Patrick Karvis, Payton’s father, agrees that consistency is essential for children who live in two households. He adds, " having patience and staying focused on Payton are keys to being a good co-parent". Patrick says the hardest thing about being a single father is finding a support system because he does not have family in Arizona. Since none of his friends are single fathers, when Payton is with him they are on their own.
Tips. Here are some other important tips for making joint custody arrangements work.
- Healing with Time. Dr. Braver suggests that time is an essential element for divorced parent. He says that one to two years after separation parents have often dealt with their own issues and are able to re-focus on parenting issues.
- Focusing on Children’s Needs. Placing importance on the children’s needs helps parents focus on commonalties (i.e., parenting) versus differences. Learn to separate adult issues from parenting issues.
- Learning to Negotiate. As co-parents, it is helpful to learn negotiation and communication techniques to use in stressful interactions. As suggested by Drs. Thayer and Zimmerman in their book, The Co-Parenting Survival Guide, when emotions run high, keep the interactions short and simple, focus on your goals, seek to understand the other’s perspective, and listen to what the other parent is really saying.
- Dealing with Problems Before They Escalate. Think of creative ways to solve problems. Dr. Joy, a Scottsdale Therapist, says that many legal conflicts could be avoided if parents would think creatively. Based on her experience working with the Arizona Court System, she helps families use "out of the box" thinking to find solutions to visitation and other custody issues.
- Supporting your Child’s Relationship with the Other Parent. Children need both parents. Even if your child would rather go to a sleepover, parenting time with the other parent is important and should be mandatory (e.g., except in cases of suspected emotional or physical abuse)
- Coordinating Busy Schedules. It is often challenging to keep parents’ and children’s schedules straight. To prevent children from feeling "shuffled" between households set clear schedules and stick to them. If changes need to be made, parents and children should discuss the changes.
- Parenting Disagreements. As Dr. Joy says," parents should create the illusion that they get along with the other parent in front of the children". Experts emphasize that parents should never degrade one another. Be careful of subtle body language and voice tone; your children will pick up on it.
- Taking Advantage. Smart as they are, children can quickly learn to take advantage of parents by exploiting inconsistencies to get what they want. For example, "Mom lets me go to the mall with my friends why won’t you?" Consistent schedules and rules set clear expectations and reduce potential conflict.
- Trusting the Other Parent. What happens when one parent is often late or doesn’t keep promises? Trust erodes and resentment builds. Trusting the other parent to be dependable and reliable can be very difficult. Use your communication and negotiation skills to discuss these problems.
- Creating Loyalty Conflicts. Well meaning parents can place children in the middle of their conflicts. Children should not be asked to speak on parents’ behalf. Even in times of conflict, parents should support parenting time with the other parent.
- Parenting Classes. Research, by Dr. Sandler and Colleagues at the Prevention Research Center, indicates that children of parents who took parenting classes showed significant reductions in a wide range of problems six years after the classes including, drug, marijuana and alcohol use; behavioral problems; and the number of sexual partners.
Families can take parenting classes privately or through the court system. Although Arizona Courts now mandate that divorced parents take a parenting class, one class may not be enough. As family situations and dynamics change, parents may need more help guiding their children. To meet these needs, Dr. Sandler and Dr. Braver of ASU’s Prevention Research Center, are working on a innovative collaboration with the Arizona Court System to implement state-wide services for divorced families such as parenting classes and children’s education classes. For more information, call the Prevention Research Center at (480) 965-7420.
- Private Counseling. Therapist Marlene Joy, of Scottsdale, says that parenting counselors are an undervalued resource for divorced families. Therapists can help parents’ sort out tricky situations that could escalate if not handled effectively.
- Family Court Advisors. The Arizona Court System has a wide range of free services that are offered to divorcing families. Family Court Advisors are assigned to families dealing with ongoing custody conflicts. Other services range from parent conflict resolution classes to mediation services. For more information about services offered by the Arizona Supreme Court, contact Megan Hunter, Court Specialist, at (602) 542-9253 or visit www.superiorcourt.maricopa.gov
As parents, we try to do the best we can. Children’s needs—to feel loved, safe, and capable—are universal. The hard part is for parents to stay focused on these needs during their own crisis. Awareness and knowledge help. Once we know better, we can do better--for our children and ourselves.