“In the best interests of the child.” If you’re ever involved in any type of custody case, you’ll probably hear that phrase quite a bit. This is because family courts make decisions based on what is in the best interests of the child or children involved. But how do the courts know what is best for your child? In fact, how can you be sure that you know what’s best for your child? All children are different, and they need different things. For this reason, custody arrangements can often look quite different from family to family, even when they live in the same area, with the same laws and family court procedures. But there are some general rules about what is best for children in the event of a divorce or parental breakup that parents would do well to keep in mind.
Children Do Best When They Have Two Parents in their Lives
Not all families look the same, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some parents are married, some are divorced, some never marry but live and parent together, and some don’t marry and eventually split up. Some children have two mothers or two fathers. Some children have stepparents. Some are adopted. And some live with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other guardians. None of these configurations are wrong – what’s important is that the adults in the family love and support their children and do their best to provide a safe and nurturing environment.
However, research does seem to suggest that children benefit from having more than one parental figure in their lives. This makes sense if you think about it – parenting a child is hard work. It’s time-consuming, it’s expensive, it’s mentally and emotionally taxing. When there are two parents to share the load, there is more time, there are more resources, there is someone to pick up the slack when one parent needs a break, and this allows both to be better parents.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that single parents are bad. Sometimes single parenting can’t be helped. Some parents die, some choose to leave or choose not to parent, and some are not capable of parenting safely. Single parents can still raise happy, successful children. But if you’re a parent and your child’s other parent is available, fit to parent, and willing to parent, denying that parent the right to parent is probably doing a disservice to your child, and even to yourself, as well as to the other parent. Divorces and breakups are hard, and you may be perfectly justified in having hurt feelings or even anger toward your child’s other parent. But that doesn’t mean that you should try to prevent them from spending time with their child. Unless your child’s other parent poses actual harm to your child or legitimately can’t be trusted to care for them, you should focus on negotiating a child custody arrangement that works for everyone, not trying to block your ex from having contact with your child.
Children Shouldn’t be Placed in the Middle
A parental breakup is already hard on your child. It’s difficult to tell how any individual child will react to a divorce or breakup, but your child may worry that they did something to cause problems between their parents. They may worry that after a divorce, there won’t be enough money for basic things like shelter and food. They may worry that their parents will never stop arguing, even after they separate. They may worry that one or both parents will remarry, have more children, and stop caring about them. Some of these concerns may seem far-fetched to you, but they can be very real fears for your child.
The last thing that your children need is to be asked to take sides, or placed in the middle by you and your ex. Don’t use your children to carry messages back and forth – you and your ex may not be communicating well, but that doesn’t mean that you can make your children responsible for those communications. Find another way. Don’t ask your children invasive questions about what their other parent is doing, like whether or not they’re dating. Don’t speak badly of your child’s other parent to your child – find a friend, adult relative, or therapist and vent to your heart’s content, but do it out of your child’s hearing. Remember that your children’s feelings and needs are the priority now, not your disputes with your ex.
Make Transitions as Easy on Your Child as Possible
When children have to split their time between divorced parents, they have to deal with many more transitions than they did when their parents were together. Every weekend with Dad means saying goodbye to Mom, or vice-versa. This can make children anxious and prevent them from enjoying their time with either parent. But there are things you can do to make these transitions easier, especially in the beginning.
Remind your child ahead of time when a transition is coming, so that they have time to mentally prepare. Help them pack, and encourage them to bring things that will help them feel more comfortable, whether that’s a comforting stuffed animal or a favorite outfit. Establish a routine for when your child arrives at your home so that they know what to expect. Try to arrange transportation so that you can drop off your child to their other parent, and the other parent drops them back off to you – this helps avoid situations where one parent interrupts the child’s time with the other parent. To the best of your ability, keep drop off and pickup situations civil and neutral, even if you can’t be friendly. Getting into an argument will only increase your child’s anxiety and mar their ability to enjoy their time with either parent.
Divorcing or separating from your partner is painful, and it often comes with hurt feelings and anger. But custody and visitation are not about either of you, they’re about your child. If both of you make the effort to put your child’s feelings and needs first, your child will benefit, and with time, you may find that you’ve developed a friendly co-parenting relationship with your ex.