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Practical strategies for a child-centred divorce

by Stephen Morgan

Family lawyers and clients talk about divorce a lot, but the real work takes place when you’re negotiating a separation. If you’re splitting up and children are involved, there’s the added work of restructuring your family and how you will co-parent in two separate households. 

As a family mediator and collaborative family law lawyer, I’ve seen plenty of bad behaviour from separating parents. Yes, it’s an emotional time in your life, but you can’t lose the ability to be the parent your children need you to be. If you turn to your kids for comfort, put them in the middle of conflict or, worse yet, treat them as a card to play, it’s harmful to their emotional health and will likely leave a lasting impact on their ability to form healthy relationships in the future.

It’s crucial to arrive at negotiations with the right mindset concerning the kids. Sometimes I will physically place a picture of the children in front of the clients as a touchstone throughout the process. It might sound gimmicky, but it can be a very effective tool for refocusing when things get heated. Keep your kids’ physical and emotional needs as your primary concern, and every decision made should be viewed through that lens. It’s not just about custody arrangements; financial decisions also have significant implications for your kids.

If you are committed to keeping your kids’ best interests front and centre, it’s possible to have a child-centred divorce. It’s challenging, but here are a few strategies that can help.

Break the news together

Although the term “divorce” may be benign for grownups, it can be scary for the kids. So, when you’re ready to tell them, prepare as a couple and be on the same page. Agree on what you’re going to share, how you’re going to answer specific questions and be ready for tears, anger or the blame game.

When you tell them separately, they get two different versions and may not know where the truth lies. They may lash out and blame one parent. It’s better if both parents are there to deal with the emotions and emphasize the importance of working together.

Only share what they can handle

Determining what to share depends on your children’s age and maturity level, but you should have a good sense of what they can handle. By reinforcing that you both love them and that everything will be OK, they get reassurance from both sides. 

Naturally, children focus on how this is going to affect them. Acknowledge those concerns, admit that it’s a challenge, but you’re going to work closely together to take care of them. Usually, kids are content with that, but they may want to know more. That’s where preparation is vital. 

A common refrain I hear from clients is that the kids have a right to know the truth. Sure, honesty is the best policy to a point — but they don’t need to know that mom had an affair or dad gambled away the mortgage money. 

Don’t talk about the process in front of them

Constantly talking about the details of the separation can fuel a child’s anxiety. It may dominate your life, but don’t let the situation define their lives. If they ask how things are going, stick to a mantra of “we’re working on how we’re going to restructure our family, and we’ll tell you what you need to know.” Remember, this is a massive change for your children, so be patient with them when their worries arise. 

Speak respectfully

Don’t speak disrespectfully about your ex in front of the kids. I’m shocked at how many people do this. I don’t know whether they’re acting out their anger or looking to take down the other parent in the kids’ eyes, but it’s incredibly harmful. 

Whether you’re talking directly with your children or speaking to a friend or your lawyer while your kids are within earshot, watch what you say. Hold your tongue no matter what you think of the other parent. If you slip into this type of behaviour, stop yourself and acknowledge that it’s inappropriate. Children often internalize criticisms directed at one of their parents as personal criticisms directed at them. 

Find support

Not every child whose parents are going through separation needs therapy, but they might need some extra support. Although it’s an added expense, therapists are an incredible resource because they’re objective, and your child can unload their feelings in confidence.

If they say something to a friend, they might worry that the information will make its way around the schoolyard. But, if they are in a safe, private space with a trained therapist, it can be powerful. They can share their feelings, and it won’t get back to mom or dad. That’s huge. Depending on the age and stage of your children, there’s talk therapy, play therapy, or peer support groups. Some might even be subsidized or covered by your employment benefits. 

Navigate your dispute out of court

Avoiding litigation gives parents the best opportunity for a child-centred divorce. One of the reasons I like collaborative family law and mediation is that you can have a therapist as part of the team in some instances, which keeps people focused on child-centred resolutions.

By design, alternative dispute resolution builds the needs of the children into the process. It’s integrated. In litigation, it’s more of a struggle to keep people focused on their kids because partners frequently become adversarial and antagonistic. 

Plan for the future

Ideally, it’s helpful for parents going through the separation process to look at how they will resolve issues that will almost invariably come up in the future. 

For example, how are you going to adapt when the parenting schedule needs to change? When should a new partner be introduced to the kids? If the children are young, how will you plan to pay for post-secondary education? Do you want to include a dispute resolution process for the problems that you can’t foresee? 

You may want to consider a parenting coordinator — typically a social worker or counsellor — who helps parents resolve disputes in a way that minimizes the conflict. A parenting coordinator can be a great resource for day-to-day problems. Think of them as a coach who can help when there’s a hiccup in the parenting arrangement. 

If you’re going through a separation or divorce and would like to explore the best path for your family, give us a call at Morgan and Phillips LLP.

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by Stephen Morgan

Stephen Morgan practices exclusively in family law and is highly skilled and experienced in litigation. He aims to guide clients through a difficult and stressful time in their lives with understanding, support, and practical advice.