Divorced parents argue, agonize and litigate constantly, over how much time their children will spend with each of them. As these parents are held captive by complicated calendars and negotiate [fight] about parenting time, it has become more and more apparent to me, that the battles are really power struggles due to fear of losing relationships with their children. Their concern is seemingly more about their interests rather than about their childrens’ best interest. Through it all, no one bothers to ask the children exactly how they feel and how it affects them. Parents either assume that their children will adjust, unaffected or are too wrapped up in “sticking it” to the other parent that they simply don’t care. Through informal interviews with children and adults of divorce and blended families as well as a research study done by Dr. Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce, the inconsistency regarding what mattered to the children and what mattered to the parents was amazing. As such, I thought it would be interesting to share with you what the children want you to know.
As you may know, the opinions of children are often overlooked as it pertains to divorce, so they had a lot to say. As a result, I decided to create a series of articles regarding what the children want you to know. The first will be what the children want you to know about living arrangements and parenting time.
What the children want you to know about living arrangements and parenting time
Deciding living arrangements and parenting time after a divorce is just about as painful as contemplating the divorce itself. It’s extremely overwhelming when trying to agree on what’s in the best interest of your children post-divorce. Parents become engrossed by rigid schedules which calculate their respective time with their children to the exact second. They want to be sure that they aren’t being cheated out of their parental rights. Most mothers don’t want their babies bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball between households. They assume that by having their children spend the majority of time with them that they are creating stable households in an already chaotic world for their children. Fathers, on the other hand, desire to remain in contact and involved the way they were prior to the divorce, and feel that having equal time between both parents will allow their children to retain their relationships with each parent. Hopefully, by listening to these children, parents will be able to figure out the most favorable living and parenting time situation for their children.
The results from my study (20 children and adults who are products of divorce/blended families) and Dr. Constance Ahrons study (173 grown children of divorce and blended families) were consistent. All of them expressed that they would have liked to have their needs considered more. Some noted what really upset them, even more than the going back and forth, was the constant fighting over which one had more time. It truly made them feel as if it really wasn’t about spending time with them at all. Instead, it felt like they were more interested in punishing each other. Additionally, they said that they wanted to be able to maintain meaningful relationships with BOTH parents. When one parent limited contact with the other, for whatever reason, it made them feel as if they were losing that parent. It almost felt like a death, to them. They not only lost their family, but they lost a parent as well. All they want is to be able to continue their lives with as little stress and interruption as possible, and suddenly losing a relationship with a parent IS STRESSFUL!
These children also want you to know that transitioning from house to house IS HARD! To them, it feels like they have to deal with change over which they have no control. They want to have their needs considered. For example, older children (12 and up) desire flexibility in the parenting time schedule. Feeling tied to a strict schedule is annoying and unfair. Smaller children want to be reassured that things will be okay. They feel frightened, left out and confused.
When parents are in conflict
When parents are in conflict, children said that they NEVER look forward to going back and forth. They detest being grilled by either parent about what’s going on in the other household. They also despise their parents bad-mouthing the other, putting them in the difficult position of having to choose sides. These children expressed that their parents can reduce stress by at least minimally cooperating and leaving them out of grown up issues. This group also declared that they are smarter than what we give them credit for. Even the parents who are gritting their teeth to operate in what they think is a civil manner, their children still feel a great deal of hostility.
My husband and his ex-wife are a great example of this. I once reached out to her asking if we could sit down and resolve our issues because she clearly had and has a major problem with me. Her response was that she didn’t wish to disrupt the level of calm and civility in K’s (stepson) life at this time. To her, things were calm and K was properly adjusting because nobody was literally tearing each other apart when in the same room. She didn’t take into account that visitation drop-off and pick-up occurs in front of a police station where they each stand on opposite sides of the street, while not even making eye contact with each other and delivering handwritten notes via K. But, even K and M (my son) could tell that there was a problem; which was why I tried to reach out to her. Often times K and M (at 6 and 7 years old) would debate about how much K’s parents (my husband and his ex-wife) HATED each other, and they used that specific word. So, parents just because you aren’t yelling and arguing back and forth at each other doesn’t mean that your children don’t pick up on the obvious tension.
When parents get along
About one fourth of the entire group noted how beneficial it was to have their parents cooperate with and even like each other! They appreciate their parents talking to each other, in a friendly manner, instead of passing notes via the kids. Having parents who get along helps ease the transition between households; it helps to normalize their dsyfunctional family. They expressed a feeling of security and were less worried about the changes of divorce. These children felt like they adjusted faster and didn’t dwell on their parents being back together again.
In my case, my ex and I cooperate with each other and communicate our disagreements pretty well. I will not say that we agree on everything, but we make every effort to hear the other out, work out an optimal compromise and don’t involve our son. We definitely put his needs above our own interests. We remain flexible with our parenting time schedule and he has unlimited access to either parent in our respective households. Drop off and pick up occurs at our respective homes, and we always have a friendly conversation at those times. As a matter of fact, all of us (me, my husband, my ex and his wife) are friendly with one another. Our son has taken notice of this as well. When he was 6 years old (during that same conversation that he had with my stepson about his parents hating each other) he said that his mommy and daddy liked each other. I asked him how he could tell and he replied, “Because every time you each other, you smile and give each other a hug.” Recently, I asked him if he ever wanted his biological parents to be back together again; and he responded with an emphatic no! He said that he is happy with the way his family is and he wouldn’t change a thing.
What is evident is that regardless of parenting time and living arrangements, children hate being put in the middle. They want their parents to consider their feelings more and work together to resolve conflict that makes an already stressful situation even more stressful. Most importantly, these children want the opportunity to maintain stable and meaningful relationship with BOTH parents. They’ve already lost their family; they don’t desire to lose a parent, too.
Interesting Fact: Children whose parents were constantly in conflict after the divorce grew up to have trust and commitment issues in their own relationships. Almost all of them blamed the divorce on these issues. However, children whose parents cooperated, got along, and encouraged contact and relationships with either parent grew up to embrace family and seemingly adjusted better than the other children post-divorce.