Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Doing the best for your children after divorce

Summary of a conversation on a Video made in March 1981 by the California centre for Judicial Education and Research. Full text

Judge Donald B King of the Superior Court, San Francisco County, is talking to Dr Judith Wallerstein, Executive Director of the Centre for the Family in Transition:

How parents can help

King: At the time of the divorce how can parents be the most helpful to their children ?

Wallerstein: A lot depends on how they act and a lot depends on what they tell the child. I'll take both of these separately because this is really important and it helps parents to know this.

Rational behaviour

The child needs to think of his parents as rational, as reasonable, as having taken this act - this decision to divorce - in a careful and thoughtful way. He needs to think of his parents as people whom he can really emulate and admire.

That they made a mistake about the marriage, but that they are dealing with their mistakes in an adult and mature way. That they're putting aside their angers, and that they are seriously concerned about what happens to their children. That's hard for grownups to do, its hard for us always to be at our best, but it's most useful to the children if the parents can behave and look to their children as people who are thinking and behaving reasonably and who are sorry that the marriage didn't work out, and are able to say so to the child.

What a child needs to hear

The child needs to hear first of all is what's going to happen in the future. Because he is so worried about what's going to happen. He needs to know where they're going to live, who's going to take care of him, that the parent - child relationship isn't divorcing. It's the parents who are divorcing each other.

The child needs to know where each of the parents is going to be, and what's going to happen in the immediate future.

The child doesn't need to be told any sugar coated fairy tales about everything in the future is going to be just wonderful from here on out. It's much more helpful to say to the child "Look for the next couple of months, for the next year, things are going to be pretty chaotic around here. But we're trying to put together a really good post-divorce family. We're trying to make things better - that's the point of divorce - to make things better".

The child needs to be told clearly that he or she is going to be taken care of, and that he or she won't be forgotten. Children are terribly afraid they're going to be forgotten, especially when they see their parents going at each other hammer and tongs. They're terribly afraid that no-one is going to listen to them.

Children need some moments of intimacy and quiet with the parents, with both parents separately at the time of the divorce.

They need special care when they're being put to bed. A lot of parents would avoid a lot of the problems they're having at bedtime with the children, if they could put a little bit of extra time at the time of the crisis (the divorce) with the child.

What a child needs to know

They need to know when daddy is coming, or when mummy is coming if mummy is visiting, because otherwise the visiting parent appears like a jack in the box, and the kids never know when he or she is going to come again, and they figure that "Maybe this is going to be the last time I see them".

They need to have some feeling when they're going back and forth between mother and father, that it's not a no-man's land or no-child land where its dangerous to cross, and they need to feel that they know when daddy or mummy is visiting so that they won't feel that maybe this is the last time; that I'd better be good, or I'd better behave or daddy or mummy won't come again.

They also need to understand in ways that are appropriate to the age of the child, why the parents divorced. They don't need to know details, but they need to know and they need to be told that the parents loved each other, they thought it would be a good marriage, they hoped it would work out, and they have discovered they made a mistake and they're sorry, and they're going to try to do better from here on out by themselves and by the children.

Support for the other parent

King: How important is it for the parents to be supportive of the child's relationship with the other parent ?

Wallerstein: It's very important, because sometimes the child feels that he or she is betraying the one parent if he or she loves the other parent, and that puts the child in a great quandary and a great conflict. The child really needs to be told. I know this is very hard for parents to do when they're unhappy with each other and angry and caught up in their own concerns. I really appreciate that, but nevertheless I think parents do a lot for children when they realise its important, and what a parent needs to be able to tell the child is "Because I and your father don't get along, it does not mean that you can't get along with your father, because he is your father although he is no longer going to be my husband".

And this kind of loving permission from a mother to a child, or from a father to a child, will probably build more mental health in that child than any single thing that that parent can do.

King: Well, then you'd agree that the parents who we see occasionally who come in and say they don't want their child to have contact with the other parent are really doing a disservice to their child.

Reduction of conflict

Wallerstein: Yes, and I want to say that I'm profoundly sympathetic to their feelings. Parents are people and parents have feelings and I guess what we're saying to parents at this time is that if you can create a conflict-free zone sort of a miniature de-militarised zone between you in which you DON'T fight, that you will in the end be very happy about it because we've also found that when parents try to involve children on their side against the other parent that this more often boomerangs than not and that two or three years down the road the child will remember that with anger at the parent whom he originally allied with against the other parent.

King: With this information, and with help from a skilled and experienced family counsellor assisting you to mediate your disputes about custody or access, you will find that you will be able to reach an agreement as to what is in the best interest of not only yourselves as parents, but more importantly the best interests of your children.

Transcript and subheadings by David Cannon

Summary and adaptation by Margaret Pearce (MATCH - Mothers Apart from Their CHildren)

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