During a recent custody trial, I was privy to an interview between the judge and a child who was the subject of the matter. Although the judge tried to make the interview as painless as possible, asking the child mundane questions about school and activities like a well-meaning relative or adult friend, no one in the room, the child included, could evade the tension and heaviness in the air.
We were all waiting for the judge to get to the crucial questions. The questions about the child’s preference in residence: mom or dad’s house. While the judge would never ask such a question outright, the goal was to elicit the information.
Most children choose both mom and dad
In this case, there was no smoking gun, no “bright line” choice. In fact, like every child I have seen interviewed over my 20-plus year career as a family lawyer, this child did not choose mom or dad; instead, the child chose both. Like most kids, this child did not want the divorce, did not find it painful to live with both parents, and truly wanted to see things to stay the same.
Two custody considerations
There are typically two considerations in custody battles:
- Legal custody means decision-making power for major decisions made on behalf of the child, and it is usually shared.
- Physical custody regards where the child lives, and it is the consideration that frequently causes the most conflict. Both well-meaning parents want to maximize their time with the kids. Both often want to be the primary caregiver, relegating the other parent to secondary status. But kids cannot be split in two, although 50/50 custody arrangements are becoming the norm, not the aberration.
No ‘best’ solution
So, is there a “right” or “best” custody arrangement for all kids? The short answer is no. The guiding principle for determining custody is supposed to be the best interest of the child. Nonetheless, many divorcing parents are mostly focused on their own best interests, which do not always coincide with what is truly best for their children.
However, there are some tips that parties are wise to consider when they are figuring out custody and transitioning their children from an intact, albeit unhappy, household to two separate households that are not only physically different, but that might also have different sets of rules and different people residing there, like stepparents, stepsiblings, et cetera.
4 tips for transitioning to separate households
#1 Work on communication
Parties must work on their own ability to communicate. No matter who did what to whom, both parties must be parents first and work to put bad feelings aside for the benefit of their kids.
Children look to their parents as role models for behavior, and if parents are unified in their decisions for the kids, the kids will usually feel secure in those decisions.
#2 Understand your child’s personality
Parties need to truly think about the personalities of their kids. Are the kids flexible or rigid? Are they good with transitions, or do they need time to adjust to change? The answers to these questions will help parents determine a custody schedule that is best for the kids.
There is no cookie-cutter schedule or one-size-fits-all model. The good news is that parties can agree together on what they think will work; if they leave the decision to the court, they may end up with a schedule that fits their kids like a square peg in a round hole.
#3 Seek professional advice
There is no harm in enlisting the help of professionals. A therapist can give the children an outlet to air their feelings. A co-parent counselor can help both parties with their communication and coach them through misunderstandings or disagreements over parenting issues.
#4 Have an open discussion and allow for adjustments
Once the details of a parenting arrangement are finalized, the parents still need to get the kids on board. If the kids are old enough to understand, it is helpful if the parties can set aside their animosity toward each other and jointly tell the children about the impending custody arrangement before it begins.
It is important that the children know that the custody schedule is not set in stone. The kids should not call the shots in custody, but they should know that their feelings will be acknowledged and that they still have some control in the situation.
Lastly, all parties involved need an adjustment period before they determine if the schedule is working. Divorce can bring a slew of changes to the entire family, and everyone needs a chance to get comfortable with the “new normal” and leave the past behind.
The goal: Happy and well-adjusted children
Custody matters are difficult. There is never a true winner when it comes to moving children from home to home. However, if parties follow the guidelines above and have patience with the situation and each other, they can make the effects of divorce less traumatic for their children. Remember that when the kids are happy and well adjusted, the parents will feel better as well.