Tips to give children access to quality parenting after divorce
My husband and I decided divorce is the best way forward, but we want to minimise the damage to our children, and we don't want to spend years in court. Do you have any guidelines on what is the best child-access arrangement? We want to get over the process and move on with our lives as fast as possible, but we can't agree upon access arrangements.
I know the feeling of wanting to end the relationship when you know it can't move forward. But a quick or pain-free divorce rarely happens. We enter marriage hoping it will last - and a divorce is the dream shattered. Few couples end a relationship with ease, especially with children involved. If both of you are able to do that, you are likely able to be mindful enough to work together and keep the family together.
Each family is unique. In order to reconstruct your lives as two families so that your children can thrive, you need to consider all the options and reach an outcome that is in the best interests of your children and the two of you.
While not in a position to offer legal advice, I often ask parents to write out what is best for each child (based on developmental, emotional and educational needs) instead of what is convenient or best for the parent. I've often seen people use access arrangements as a tool to negotiate finances or, in some cases, to stop the other parent from moving on with a new partner.
Access arrangements are not set in stone - they need to be adjusted for the changing needs of the children, and it's hard for the courts to compel a parent to honour an arrangement.
Children and adults experience the grief of divorce very differently. Your goals should be to help your children adjust to a new routine, accept the permanence of the divorce, and find a new way of being a family with each parent.
Before being able to focus on the best interests of your children, be honest and use this time to access your fear, your goals and your concerns. You are then more likely to make informed and objective decisions that focus on reducing the pain and turmoil for you and your children - not to mention the unnecessary litigation.
If both of you can be honest about your fear and anger, that will greatly improve the efficiency of the legal advisers helping you focus on the needs of your children and reaching a middle ground that is best for all involved.
Instead of rushing to finalise the divorce, you and the father should sit down with a legal professional to ensure that neither of you makes a hasty decision that is not in the best interests of your children or one that you might regret and cause resentment in the future. You can avoid a high-conflict divorce, especially if you can get professional help early on, to rebuild a constructive and business-like relationship that helps you evaluate what's best for your children, and develop boundaries and expectations for both of you to follow.
A question exercise I often ask parents might help you put yourself in your children's place:
- What will remain the same for the children?
- What is the loss that your children will experience?
- What can your children gain from the divorce?
Once you are able to put yourself in each of your children's places, instead of what you think you are seeing, you will appreciate how they are experiencing the divorce, what you can do to help them accept the divorce by anchoring them with what can remain the same even with just one parent, and what they can gain from the divorce. What could remain the same might be as simple as going to church on Sunday, grocery shopping or story time, even with just one of you. In many divorces, children gain a calmer household.
One frequent complaint from children and teenagers I work with might help you decide on access arrangements - the decrease in "quality time" with the parents. Parents generally want some distance in order to move on with their lives, so children often have to travel back and forth between two homes. Given school, after-class activities, tutoring and the distance between the two homes, many children find themselves spending a lot of time shuffling from one parent to another.
I often suggest each parent should have at least some of the entire weekend together with their children, so that the children can stay with one parent without back-and-forth traveling. Children need time to relax and slow down, and this is probably the best time for parents to bond with their children.
Access arrangements should enable your children to have two homes where they feel loved and cared for, and allow them to have quality with each of you. You do not want your children to live out of a suitcase or be shuttled around to suit the needs of each parent.
Lora Lee is a registered psychologist and parenting counsellor working in private practice as an adjunct to her work at St John's Counselling