Proverbs 22:6 tells us, “Start children off on the way they should go and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” Parents have an awesome responsibility that sometimes gets lost in the day-to-day. What we teach our children, not only through our words, but through our actions, will inform our kids’ actions and decisions throughout their lives. A child’s home life and the care provided for a child during early, formative years are critical in the child’s physical, emotional, and moral development.
Unfortunately, circumstances often beyond our control, result in situations which can disrupt the stability we seek for our kids. We all strive for the American dream of a dream job, a beautiful home filled with two loving parents and their kids, two cars in the garage, and a worry-free life. But life almost never works out that way. Instead, life is filled with challenges that test our faith and our patience daily.
Sometimes families, despite their best efforts, just can’t make it work and decide it would be best for all involved to move apart, divorce, or develop an alternative custody arrangement. The good news is kids are resilient and can adapt to just about any situation if they are confident their caregivers will be beside them, providing guidance and love along the way.
When the decision is made to dissolve a marriage, the couple’s children should be the parties and the Court’s first priority. The Court will decide who will get primary conservatorship, who will make important decisions about the children’s education, medical needs, and psychological wellbeing, and when and how often visitation will occur.
The children’s “best interest” is the key consideration in nearly all decisions the Court will make in a child custody or divorce matter. The Texas Supreme Court in Holley v. Adams, provided a non-exhaustive list of factors used to determine the children’s best interest:
1) the desires of the children;
2) the emotional and physical needs of the children now and in the future;
3) the emotional and physical danger to the children now and in the future;
4) the parental abilities of the individual seeking custody;
5) the programs available to assist the individual to promote the best interest of the children;
6) the plans for the children by these individuals or by the agency seeking custody;
7) the stability of the home or proposed placement;
8) the acts or omissions of the parent, or potential conservator, that may indicate that the existing relationship is not a proper one; and
9) any excuse for the acts or omissions of the potential conservator.
There are a number of steps parents can take to minimize the impact of a divorce or custody dispute on their children. Following these steps keeps the spotlight throughout the process where it should remain: on the children.
1. Get advice. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”
If you are engaged in a custody dispute or divorce process now, you are not the first and you are not alone. You undoubtedly have friends, colleagues, or relatives that have been through the same process. If you trust them, lean on their experience. Often, folks that have been through the process can tell you what not to do. Take their advice to heart, especially when it comes to how best to serve your kids’ interests.
Be sure to also seek out the advice of mental health professionals, Church counselors, and other spiritual leaders. These professionals can provide a “reality check,” helping you to make sure you are serving your kids’ best interests, as well as providing much-needed emotional guidance through a difficult process.
2. Keep kids out of it. Custody litigation should not be discussed with children, especially when there are still key determinations to be made by the Court. Similarly, kids should not be used as a messenger, tasked with relaying messages between two parents who are not on speaking terms. This puts children in an unreasonably difficult position, forced to choose loyalties between their two parents — a choice they should never have to make.
3. Remember to co-parent. No matter what your feelings are towards the other parent, and no matter what they may have done to you, it is incredibly important to separate your relationship with the other parent, and the relationship he or she has with the kids. Similarly, the fact remains that you are going to be connected to the other parent forever—it is imperative that you work through communications issues and put tools in place to facilitate effective communication so you can discuss critical decisions affecting your kids. You don’t have to be friends, but the ability to communicate effectively is key to a productive co-parenting relationship.
4. Keep things as stable for the children as possible. Stability is key for kids. Changing schools, homes, and neighborhoods are all obstacles that can be overcome by kids (remember, they’re resilient!), but it’s tough when these changes all happen at the same time. Although some change is inevitable, it’s crucial to minimize change wherever possible. For example, there is often a temptation to “cut out” family members from your spouse’s side of the family. If the kids have a strong connection to those relatives though, separation can be especially harmful and difficult for the children.
5. Remove kids from violence. If there is family or domestic violence in the home, it has profound effects on children, even if they are not the subjects of the abuse. Kids should be removed from this environment and placed into safer surroundings as soon as possible.
6. Keep your significant other away until the time is right. If someone comes along while you are in the middle of a divorce, you should keep your “significant other” away from your kids at least until your divorce is finalized. Ideally, you should coordinate introduction of your significant other into your kids’ lives only after discussing with the other parent. A mental health professional or Church counselor may also be helpful here as well.
7. Be actively involved in your kids’ lives. Attend doctor appointments, school events, and extracurricular activities. Call your kids on the phone every night. Become involved with your child’s school. There are a number of things you can do to show your child that both parents will continue to be an active, everyday part of their lives.
8. Promote involvement from the other parent. No one is saying you need to sing their praises every day, but it goes a long way in raising health children when both parents not only refrain from bad-mouthing each other to the children, but actively share information, send pictures, and work at instilling the importance of a relationship with both parents in their children.
9. Create the best visitation arrangement for your child. Kids are disserved when parents squabble over how much time they have with their children so they can declare they “won.” Instead, the focus should always be child-centered, emphasizing a visitation schedule that serves the children’s team activities, school events, Church functions, etc.
10. Always have your children’s best interest at heart. If you follow one recommendation make it this one; the rest of thse tips all stem from it. If you and your children’s other parent focus on what matters, your kids, there will be no doubt that they will come through on the other side stronger and confident in the love of both parents.