Divorce is never easy, especially when children are involved. Above all, parents dread they will lose touch with their children, and children worry “What will become of me?” In this tension-ridden atmosphere, it is enormously difficult to agree on a custody plan that puts the children first and is still fair to both parents. Divorce and custody should not leave children feeling like another piece of property in the settlement. They should know they are loved by both parents, and that, above all, their interests and happiness continue to count.
Today, custody is not just the traditional split-up of a mother and a father. More accurately, divorce is the separation of two parent figures, since the courts may have to settle custody between two unmarried parents or a same sex couple. Or they may have to factor in grandparents battling a son- or daughter-in-law for visiting rights, or even for custody of the children.
For children, the toughest moment comes when they learn the divorce is going to occur. No matter how rocky the marriage, news of impending divorce makes them wonder, “Who will care for me?”, “Will both parents still love me?” or “If I stay with my mother, will I ever see my father again?”
Ultimately, most children understand and accept the conditions of custody. Although it is difficult for them to imagine another life, post-divorce, young children are resilient, and adolescents generally bend custody arrangements to fit their changing lives. For most families, the new arrangements soon become routine. Discomfort lessens, and everyone feels better as parents move into new relationships.
The final word on custody comes from the family court judge. However, before reaching this decision, the judge may refer the family to a qualified psychologist, who can supply a detailed, objective evaluation to help guide the courts to an equitable custody arrangement.
Why can’t families make their own arrangements without a therapist’s recommendations? Occasionally this happens: a family works through the process on its own and finds a solution that agrees with everyone. In fact, homemade arrangements can be among the best. But more often, parents fear custody will be “winner takes all,” depriving them of meaningful contact with their children. During a divorce, anger and depression interfere with normal communication, preventing a couple from focusing on the children’s best interests. Strained finances are common in divorce and further contribute to the stress-ridden atmosphere.
When a family court judge requests a custody evaluation from a psychologist, it is not to determine “who’s right, and who’s wrong.” It is to evaluate the family objectively, creating a clinical picture of the family through testing and interviews.
The psychologist evaluates the parents’ emotional stability and notes how close they live to each other as well as their willingness to cooperate to maintain order in their children’s lives. It is important to factor in informal arrangements that have worked for the family during their separation, such as how often the children visit, and to evaluate what other pressures could arise to interfere with custody.
The psychologist meets with family members individually and as a group. The judge occasionally meets with the children individually to include their priorities in the custody arrangement. To broaden the picture, the parents may also supply a list of people who can add good insights about the family. This would include guidance counselors, pediatricians, and, sometimes, close friends. Teachers in particular can help by observing whether an outgoing child has become withdrawn or listless, whether or not child are keeping the same friends, and how well prepared they are for school each day.
What suits the adults in the family may not always be good for the children. Moving back and forth between households can be emotionally and physically exhausting for children even when their divorced parents live in the same community. If one parent later decides to move away to a new job or a new relationship, the courts can re-adapt the custody arrangement, but a custody plan should always seek to create stability by preserving a child’s friendships and interests in school, as well as activities like scouting, and sports.
For their children’s well-being, parents need to bury their own grievances. They should encourage visits to the other parent and both parents should attend special events such as school performances, parent conferences and games. Major holidays as well as birthdays and Mother’s and Father’s Day should also be respected as part of a custody plan.
Dr. Gordon is a Fellow of the Professional Academy of Custody Evaluators. His has a private counseling practice with offices in Princeton Junction and Somerville. Living Well is contributed by members of the Mercer County Psychological Association. For information or a referral, call the New Jersey Psychological Association at (800) 281-6572.
Kate O’Neill collaborated with Dr. Gordon on writing this article.