Children’s Rights in a Divorce

When you’re going through a divorce or custody dispute, your focus is on your rights. Your ex has the same focus. It’s every man (and woman) for himself in this situation. And rightly so—if you don’t stand up for yourself, no one will. However, what is often lost in all of this is your children’s rights.

The Law

Custody laws are not written to highlight children’s rights. They address the parents and what they can seek from the court. The children are minors and have no official say in the case, however their situation, and sometimes their opinion, is very important to the court.

Because of this, courts appoint Law Guardians or Guardians ad litem to represent the children’s interests and to speak for them. Children who are over age 12 have a very important voice in the case, and the older the children are, the more persuasive their opinions will be. But most states do not lay out specific rights that are given to children.

Understanding the Underlying Rights at Stake

Custody cases certainly are emotional and high stakes. Because of this, what is often lost sight of by the parents is what the children are entitled to. Although your state probably does not enunciate your children’s rights, they are understood to have some. Here’s a list of what your children’s rights are in your custody case (the only exceptions applied would be for the children’s safety):

  • To have a meaningful, ongoing relationship with both parents
  • To live in a safe, healthy environment
  • To have their situations, needs, and opinions considered when making custody decisions, without feeling responsibility for anything
  • Not to be used as pawns or bargaining chips
  • To have a childhood that is not plagued by adults’ problems
  • To be adequately financially supported
  • To understand they are not responsible for the divorce or dispute between their parents
  • To receive adequate medical care
  • To be shielded from fighting, arguing, and cruelty between their parents
  • To be able to attend the same school regularly
  • To never be required to carry messages between parents
  • To have some time to spend with friends
  • To live with their siblings, if possible, and spend significant time with half-siblings
  • To spend meaningful time with grandparents
  • To have a parenting schedule that fits their needs first, then the needs of their parents
Did you like this? Share it:

Making Kids Go on Visitation

It happens in every family at one time or another.  You have a parenting plan in place that seems to be working pretty well with everyone’s schedules.  And then one day, your child simply refuses to follow it.  Most often this is a refusal to go on visitation with the nonresidential parent.  It can be baffling and upsetting for both parents when this happens.  The nonresidential parent feels hurt and betrayed and a bit angry too.  He or she begins to wonder if the other parent somehow put the child up to this.  The residential parent feels frustrated and worried.  He or she wonders if there’s something going on at the other house he or she is unaware of.  And both parents are hit with a sudden disruption of the schedule they had adjusted to.

So what do you do when your child won’t go?  The first thing to remember is that while it’s always important to listen to your child’s feelings and opinions, spending time with the nonresidential parent is not optional.  Your child doesn’t get to pick and choose when she is going to go or what circumstances will gain his approval.  There are days when kids don’t want to go to school, but you don’t let your child stay home on those days.  Similarly, you can’t let your child decide to just skip visitation.

Visitation is more than just a schedule.  It is a connection to both parents.  And continuing to have a connection with both parents is absolutely essential for your child.  Children are not in charge of visitation.  Parents are.  Children’s opinions are important, but not decisive.  Children are not old enough or mature enough to hold the authority to decide when and if visitation happens.  If you give your child that authority you will confuse and overwhelm him.  Your child wants and needs to know that both parents are an unconditional part of his or her life.

Now that being said, there can be real problems with visitation that lead to a child’s refusal to go.  Talk to your child and find out why he doesn’t want to go.  Often it’s just a general annoyance with the other parent or a vague sense of dissatisfaction.  This isn’t good news, but it isn’t bad news either.  You have to remember that it will pass.

If your child has solid complaints about visitation, suggest that she discuss them with the other parent.  If your child isn’t able to verbalize this, then it’s ok for you to convey the message, but you must remember that children’s perceptions of things may be skewed.  A complaint of “Dad is always working and never spends any time with me” might in reality turn out to be a case of where Dad had one project he had to finish up last Sunday night and so could not play video games.  If there is a real complaint about visitation, it’s important to remember that this problem exists between the child and the parent.  The other really should not get involved unless it is a dangerous situation.  Part of having a real parent-child relationship is working out problems together.

If your child refuses to go on a scheduled visitation and there is no real reason for the refusal, you and the other parent must present a united front.  Insist together that there is no other option.  If the residential parent gives in, he or she becomes an accomplice, making the other parent angry and proving to the child that he or she does not really respect the other parent’s role.  If the nonresidential parent gives in, this is a sign to the child that he or she doesn’t really care and is seen by the residential parent as yet another failure.  The best plan is to work together to get your child to go.  If your child refused to get out of bed to go to school, you would find a way to make him go.  You’ve got to do the same in this situation.

If your child is a teen, she may need more control over visitation than younger children are allowed, however this does not mean that she can write the other parent out of her life.  Teens need to feel some control over their lives, and need time for school, jobs, friends, and activities, but they also do desperately need real connections with both parents.

It is upsetting for everyone involved when a child refuses to go on visitation, but if both parents insist together that there is no choice, then no one will be the villain and your child will have to cope with the reality of the situation.

Did you like this? Share it:

Could Nesting Work for Your Family?

Instead of getting a divorce and having two separate homes the kids rotate through, nesting is a newer concept where the kids remain in the existing family home and the parents take turns staying there. Some parents each get their own new place and rarely some will share one other place that they are never actually in together. Often parents rotate on an every other week schedule, but any schedule that works for the parents is definitely possible.

The idea is that the kids remain safe and sound in the “nest” or family home. Their living arrangements don’t change and they aren’t shuttled around from place to place. It allows the kids to have a more stable environment and familiar surroundings as they adjust to the divorce. The children experience as little disruption as possible and can continue with the same school, same activities, same schedule, and essentially the same life as prior to the divorce. The benefits of that are huge.

Nesting can be quite expensive though. Maintaining the existing family home as well two additional homes is a huge financial burden most families cannot take on. Nesting can also be challenging for the parents. You’re sharing a home with your ex even though you’re never there together. You don’t actually see each other (except for planned meetings or occasionally passing on your way out) yet you’re sharing a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living area. All of the conflicts you had about not doing things the same way or disagreeing about how a household should be run will continue.

It can also be difficult to uproot yourself every other week and stay someplace else. Packing clothes, work things, toiletries, medications, and everything else each week can result in some giant mix-ups.

Another challenge is that after divorce, it’s common for the parents to gradually evolve and make some changes about who they are, what they think, and how they live their lives. This is often gradually reflected in parenting styles that can change. If this happens during nesting it can be confusing for kids who may find the parents suddenly are implementing different rules within the same home (Mom says no eating in the family room, but Dad says it’s ok, for example).

I worked with some families who tried nesting and most found that it worked as a short-term transitional method. It wasn’t something they wanted to do long-term, but they found that for a few months to a year after the divorce it was a great way to help their kids adjust and also give themselves time to figure out what to do with the family home and to find other places to live permanently.

Did you like this? Share it:

Teens and Divorce

Photo by Sujin Jetkasettakorn

If you and the other parent divorced while your child was younger, the teen years can present some challenges in terms of your visitation schedule.  A schedule that worked for an elementary school age child is not going to fit a teen.  And, if you and the other parent have split during your child’s teenage years, it can be difficult to devise a plan that will work for everyone involved simply because the teenage years are so difficult to parent during.

Big But Not Big Enough

The first thing to remember is that teens may look and act a lot like adults, but they aren’t yet completely mature.  They still need to have two parents and they still need to have those parents involved in their lives.  Teens are working hard at learning to be independent, and this means that they do need special consideration, but it does not mean that you and the other parent should throw up your hands and say “there’s nothing we can do.”  It can be difficult to continue to parent someone who doesn’t want to be parented, but that’s your job right now.

Flexibility Is Key

Friends, school, sports, activities, dating, and jobs are essential to teens.  If you have a visitation schedule that severely restricts your child’s ability to enjoy those essential activities, all you’ll end up with is resentment.  Instead, you need to try to create a balance in your teen’s life.  He or she should have plenty of time to do the things that matters to him, but he’s also got to make some room for spending time with his parents.

When you all lived in one house you probably did not tell your daughter she had to skip the field hockey game because you wanted to spend time with her.  You didn’t tell your son he couldn’t hang out with friends on Friday night because your spouse wanted to spend time with him.

As the divorced parent of a teen, you’ve got to flex the parenting schedule to incorporate the things that make your kid who he is.  If your spouse has visitation this weekend, but your teen has a dance to go to, the parent whose scheduled time it is should take the teen to and from the dance, and spend the rest of the available time with him.  You need to find a balance between your teen’s need to be a kid and the need for him or her to have time with both parents.

Create a Minimum

Since teens schedules are busy and your and the other parent’s schedules are also probably pretty packed, it’s important to agree to some kind of minimum time per month with the non-custodial parent. For example, decide that you’ll try to arrange things so that the non-custodial parent sees your child for at least four overnights per month and 4 other evenings or afternoons – this is the flexible way to fit in the “every other weekend and one night a week” plan into a busy life.  Fit parenting times in where they go the easiest.  Be creative with your time sharing.  Take turns taking your daughter to basketball practice.  Have one parent commit to teaching him how to drive.  Have the other parent be involved with weekend band or cheerleader activities.  Some parents have a hard time being so flexible because it feels like a loss of control.  In fact it is just the opposite – you set a minimum and then work with your child to make it work for everyone.  It takes a bit more cooperation, but in the end, you will both have a better relationship with your child and he or she will feel more fulfilled and connected.

Stay Connected

Teens are big on technology, so the non-custodial parent can maintain a close relationship with text messaging, cell phone calls, andSkype.  Non-custodial parents can have a difficult time staying connected during the teen years – teens certainly aren’t know for being open with their parents!  And, if a family divorced when the daughter was 7, she’s a very different person at 15 and it can be hard to stay in the loop.  Find out about her interests and activities and make yourself a part of them – either by showing up to cheer, by offering help, or just by asking friendly, non-intrusive questions.

Surviving the teen years requires a mutual understanding – you take your teen’s life seriously and he or she will take both parents seriously as well.

Did you like this? Share it:

Keeping Summer Vacation Fun in a Divorced Family

photo courtesy of federico stevanin

Kids wait all year for summer vacation.  But when parents are divorced or separated, summer vacation becomes more complicated.  Kids look forward to long days with their friends doing nothing.  When they have a parenting schedule to live with, summer loses some of its fun.  Your child needs to spend time with both parents – that’s a given.  So how do you keep the parenting schedule from messing up your child’s summer dreams?

Plan around it. If you and your child dream of lazy days at the beach or crazy afternoons at an amusement park, plan your family’s schedule around the parenting schedule.  Try to work, clean the house, or do volunteer work while your child is with the other parent.  Save the big events for days when your child is with you.  If you have children and step children with conflicting schedules, talk with both sets of parents and look for a way to make adjustments so that you can all have family time together once in a while.

Welcome friends. One of the biggest concerns kids have about schedule is not being able to see their friends.  Make it clear friends are welcome at your home anytime.  If you’re the non-custodial parent, go the extra step and offer to drive the friends (who probably live near your child’s other home) to your home.

Make other plans. Whether you’re the custodial or non-custodial parent, it’s impossible to be with your child the entire time he or she is at your house.  Look for alternatives that will keep your child happy and occupied while you’re busy.  Look for a class or day camp that ties into his or her interests – zoo camp, art camp, soccer camp – the choices are huge.  Planning this activity will give your child something to do and will ease any guilt you might feel (you shouldn’t!) about not being completely available.

Think of yourself. Be sure to plan some adult fun for the days your child is away.  You’re supposed to enjoy the summer too and those days on your own are the perfect times to explore new places, meet people, and expand your own horizons.

Remember what it’s like to be a kid. There were plenty of times when your idea of a good time was sleeping till noon, spending 4 hours in front of the tv, or plugging yourself into a video game.  The same probably holds true for your child.  Let him or her have time to just veg.  You don’t need to plan excursions and events every time your child is at your home.  Let there be time for just being a kid.

Relax. Stop pressuring yourself to create the perfect summer for your child.  If you look back you probably will find that your favorite summer memories are of small, everyday things.  You’re not a cruise director; you’re a parent.  There’s a lot to be said for quiet dinners on the porch, picnics in the backyard, ice cream cones on a hot night, and fun in the sprinkler together.

Did you like this? Share it: