You have decided to divorce your spouse and, as a consequence, recently moved out of your house. It has already been a big adjustment for you and your soon-to-be-ex. However, what you may not realize is the change can have an even more significant effect on your children. Typically left out of discussions until the eleventh hour, children in these situations often wake up one morning to find themselves packing their things to spend time in a new home they have never seen before.
It’s no surprise this becomes the cause of great distress and worry for children, even teens. Therefore, it’s smart for the parent who is leaving to comfort their children during this challenging transition and prepare them for the possibility of a custody battle.
Minimize your children’s stress.
The top parenting priority for the spouse who is leaving is to minimize their children’s stress during this time of change. There is no single right way to reduce children’s anxiety. How well children fare will depend on their age and maturity, relationship with their parents, temperament, and coping skills.
Great ways to keep children’s stress levels down are to continually reassure them that you and your spouse still love them, despite the fact you are splitting up, and not to have “adult” discussions or arguments in front of them. That said, to protect your children’s sense of security, you should keep them in the loop about any changes that will affect them directly, including what their new custody schedule will look like for the foreseeable future. It also entails keeping the communication lines open for children to ask questions and voice any concerns they may have about where they and you will now be sleeping.
Finally, it’s beneficial to enlist the assistance of a mental health professional and a lawyer. Both will help make the transition as smooth as possible for the children while not compromising any critical legal issues that could cause future conflict.
Keep a parenting journal and calendar.
In many divorces, the fight over custody causes the most strife. Emotions are raw, especially where children are concerned. Raw emotions can be the source of disruptive and destructive behavior from either spouse because there are often few documents and verifiable facts to back up daily occurrences and conflicts transpiring between them. Because there are usually few documents and verifiable facts concerning custody, an expensive and hurtful battle of “he said, she said” can follow.
Therefore, the spouse leaving the house should keep a parenting journal and calendar beginning the day they move out. The calendar should objectively detail where the children spend each overnight and include special trips, events, and vacations. Though tempting, you should leave out any negative commentaries, sticking to the facts only. The journal should contain greater detail about significant events and behaviors, particularly any destructive behavior from the other spouse regarding parenting.
A calendar and journal help memorialize details that couples might otherwise forget, offering an accurate, real-time picture of the current custody situation. It can also be beneficial information for negotiating custody arrangements or, if necessary, making a case before a judge.
Establish a workable custody schedule from the get-go.
It’s crucial to enter into a desirable custody schedule as soon as possible after moving out. The initial plan that a family follows can quickly become the “status quo.” Once it does, unless it is disadvantageous to the children’s best interests, it can be challenging to alter even at trial. Because children of divorce already endure turmoil outside their control, many judges will choose to leave the existing custody schedule in place if the plan works reasonably well to promote stability.
There are times when spouses negotiate or a judge rules that the status quo custody schedule should change. But that requires fighting an uphill battle rather than engaging on a level playing field. Entering into a custody schedule that is undesirable long-term is merely setting the family up for more problems later.
A few final thoughts.
Creating a stable environment for your children during this difficult period will be a process of trial and error. Sometimes you will get it right, and other times you won’t. The key is to remain aware of how your children respond to any changes, even small ones, that you make in their lives and respond accordingly, so they stay as comfortable as possible.
With your attention, guidance, and, most importantly, love, your children will adjust more quickly and easily to their new normal. And enable you and your children to enjoy a new, hopefully, improved parent-child relationship, one unencumbered by the stress of your marriage.