Custody battles, which put kids in the middle of warring parents, are what family therapists and divorce professionals urge parents to avoid at all costs. The recent downfall of Britney Spears, leading to her losing custody of her two children to their father, Kevin Federline, is the kind of no-win situation that taxes the concept of "in the best interests of the children" to its limit.
Thankfully, few custody battles are as high-profile as Britney's. But as DR. SHARON FRIED BUCHALTER points out, every divorcing couple risks putting:
Kids in the Middle
Divorce is stressful for a family. If there are children involved, the situation is even more heartbreaking. Though it would be great if every divorcing couple could amicably decide on what is in the best interest of the children in terms of custody, we know that things don't always work out that way.
As if what led up to the divorce wasn't chaotic enough for the family, the parents turn their attention to fighting over the kids. Can you imagine a more awful place to be if you're 5, 10 or even 15 years old?
The very worst position a parent can place a child is the position of having to choose which parent he or she wants to live with.
Except in cases of extreme abuse where there is no question which parent the children will stay with, what's best for the kids is a decision that should be made by their parents, not the courts. When the choice ends up in court, things usually get pretty nasty.
Here are some tips for parents to help make the divorce and custody decision less painful for children in the middle:
NEVER make your children choose. So Mom and Dad have decided to divorce. That doesn't mean their parental duties no longer exist! A parent's job is to 1) always put their children first; and 2) protect them from being rushed into an adult world, prematurely facing adult decisions. Making a custody decision is difficult, and parents should never put that burden on the children, no matter how old they are. The decision must be based solely on what is best for the children. If one spouse is staying put and another is moving away, how would taking the kids out of school and away from friends and other family members affect them?
Teenagers are sometimes better equipped to help decide about custody, but the topic should be approached as a family - and that's not Mom and Dad sitting Junior down at the table and asking him where he wants to live. Broach the topic by letting teens know what the living arrangements will be after the divorce. A teenager who takes part in sports or is in his or her last few years of high school will most likely not want to move.
However custody is divided, assure your children that both Mommy and Daddy are going to be available at all times --that no one is leaving them. And if you make this promise, keep it.
NEVER badmouth your spouse in front of your children. The most painful and chaotic time in a couple's marriage is during divorce. Depending on what brought on the divorce, it is completely understandable for a parent to be hurt or angry about the situation or at their soon-to-be ex-spouse. No one expects divorce to go happily.
However, no matter how upset you are or how much you "hate" your spouse, you cannot convey those feelings to your children. That person may not be your husband or wife anymore, but he or she is still a parent to your children and you must respect that. If your children hear you badmouthing your spouse --either to them or in conversations with others --they may feel like they must do the same. Or they may become defensive of the other parent. Don't put your kids in this position.
DON'T fight in front of the kids. Sure, an argument in the car can sometimes occur, but for the most part, parents should control their anger or frustration to be sorted out at another time when the children are not present. In fact, cooling off for a little while can help diffuse anger and may eliminate the need to "fight" altogether.
A great deal of "fighting" can go on during a divorce. Do NOT do this in front of or within earshot of your children. It will make them feel as though they've done something wrong. It also sets a bad example for how to handle conflict. If you and your spouse have trouble being in the same room together, or if the divorce is still a new wound, seek professional help and learn how to communicate with each other and to maintain civility. Better yet, try doing this before you divorce.
DON'T completely cut your ex-spouse out of your life. It's important to continue communicating with your spouse even after the divorce. Ex-spouses still maintain a bond through their children. Do not leave it up to your children to tell your ex that you've started dating again. If something happens to the extended family, such as a death or other significant event, contact your ex in person. After a divorce, your kids don't become messengers for you. This may be hard to do at first, but it's important.
DON'T forget that you are still a parent! If you happen to be the spouse who moves away or does not have full custody of the children, do everything you can to keep the lines of communication open. In today's age, technology makes it virtually impossible to be "out of touch." If your kids are old enough to use the Internet and email, take advantage of this convenience to keep in touch. If you live near enough, attend sports games and school events. Be civil and respectful. You are still your child's parent, no matter what happened to your marriage. Don't also "divorce" the kids.
It is very easy for a couple to become consumed by divorce. The most important thing to remember, from the time you decide to split to the time the ink is dry on the divorce papers, is that you are still both parents! Your children are your responsibility, and it is your job to protect them from the pain and damage that can be sustained when a marriage ends. Do not make your children choose. Do not badmouth your spouse. Do not cut your children's other parent out of your life or attempt to cut them out of your children's lives.
Custody is not about who loves the kids more or who has more money to spend on them; it's about making the smartest decision about what's best for the children. It's your divorce, not theirs. Always put them first -- and you'll be less likely to find yourself on custody battle lines.
SHARON FRIED BUCHALTER, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, family/marriage therapist, relationship expert and author. Her new book, "New Parents Are People Too: 8 Secrets to Surviving Parenthood as Individuals and as a Couple", provides relationship advice for couples entering parenthood for the first time. Dr. Sharon's tools empower parents to be their own child's life coach and mentor. Visit her website at: www.peopletoounlimited.com