As attorneys practicing divorce and custody law in the Denver, Metropolitan area we have all become familiar with what I call “the Judge Speech.” At the end of many divorce or custody cases in which either a hearing is conducted or an agreement is arrived at in court, the judge hearing the case will congratulate the parties for arriving at an agreement or getting the case done and will launch into a speech about the children, getting along for the children, research says…, etc. Each judge will have his or her own words of wisdom put forth to the parties with the hope of sending them on their way and that they don’t come back.
After over a decade of hearing “the speech” and seeing many people disregard it down the road, an attorney can become jaded to the words of wisdom. While in court yesterday, coupled with an incident at my daughter’s swim practice which will be discussed below, my optimism that the words of wisdom being worthwhile and my faith that people might actually listen was renewed. People generally don’t realize, but family law attorneys are constantly swimming in the pool of fighting and negativity. As such, it is nice to have that hope renewed.
Divorce can impact all involved. I have heard references to divorce being as emotionally painful as a death in the family. I believe it. This can be particularly true for the children. The effects of divorce on children can be different than the effects in a custody case in which the parents have been apart for years or were never living together. In many custody cases, the children are already accustomed to two households and two families. In a divorce case, the children are faced with uncertain times and the loss of the security of having one home and two parents there to love and care for them at the same time. This is not to say that children in custody cases do not have the same life-changing event, it is often just different.
Going back to the judge, while in court yesterday, after finishing up a post-divorce custody matter in which the parties have been battling off and on for nearly a decade, the judge gave her speech. I sat back and listened to her well put words and thoughts about whether these people had ever heard her words before, over many years and many battles. I also pondered that people need to know. There are many books out there on divorce and the effects on children. In this day and age, who really has time to read a full book when caught up in an ugly divorce case?
The more parents get along and show the children that they get along, the better off the children will be in the present, and years down the road. Parties to a divorce case with children need to learn to let go of the battle, or at least put up a united front for the children. Kids feel the tensions. They hurt from the fighting. Ultimately, they will learn to adapt. They will tell mommy what she wants to hear, and daddy what he wants to hear. Their survival instincts will kick in, and they will change in whatever manner they need to to shield themselves from the conflict. As they get older, they will likely learn to tune one or both parents out. Additionally, the constant conflict can have great ramifications as they move into the teenage years. Behavioral problems can arise. Depression or other mental health issues can set in. They will learn to play the two of you against each other for their own needs (common teenage behavior anyway). Most importantly, they can end up just sad and scarred by the process they did not choose to engage in. We all want our kids to grow up to be happy, healthy adults. This can be true for all kids, including kids of divorce.
Parties to a divorce (or custody) case should keep a few simple behavior rules in mind for helping their children through the process and childhood:
1. Do not talk negatively about the other parent to the chilldren, no matter how tempting.
2. Do not share aspects of the legal case with your children or make them promises regarding custody and visitation.
3. Do not involve them in your arguments with each other or fight in front of them.
4. Do not blame the other parent for financial woes with the children, such as “you can’t play soccer because your dad doesn’t want to pay” or “we can’t go out to eat because mommy does not pay us enough child support.”
5. Do not try to manipulate them into feeling like they want more time with you or less with the other parent (they will know they are being manipulated).
6. Do not deny the other parent his or her court ordered visitation (barring any safety concerns and taking proper legal action).
7. Do not use the children to convey adult messages or child support.
8. Do not overreact at every scrape or bruise. Listen to what happened and communicate with the other parent (true abuse or injury excepted).
Your children live and feel your divorce, too. Parties should do what they can to make it easier on the kids. Parents in a divorce should put up a united front of love and discipline and should show the kids that even though they are apart, they are a team working together to love and care for them. In the end, your kids will likely be happier. I have seen happy kids years down the road. I have also heard horror stories of kids who ultimately self destructed as a result of the anger and fighting over the years by their parents. You have a choice as parents to work together. Years of fighting does not mean you can’t sit down tomorrow, talk, and change for the future. Engaging in the behaviors above can also get you into serious trouble with the court.
Going back to swimming, while at practice yesterday, a swimmer dove into the pool at the wrong end and hit her head on the bottom. The initial fear is always paralysis or worse. The paramedics and ambulance came. The girl was able to move her arms and toes. I am guessing she will be fine. As I watched the events unfold, the first thought in my head was “what if that was my baby?” I made sure I hugged her a little tighter that night. The second thought was “how would divorced people handle this?” The hope would be that they would work together without blame to help their child. Those who follow the simple rules set forth above would. Those who do not would likely center the tragedy within the confines of their divorce case, letting that take precedence over the real issue, their child. Sad but true. Don’t let that be you.
Be good to your kids and be safe swimming this summer.