Working through a divorce can be a worrisome and daunting task. There is a pile of confusing and meticulous paperwork to sift through, and missing an important detail can hurt your case. You need someone who understands the financial and emotional issues that arise in family law cases.
Jill Frieders is a partner at the Rochester law firm, O’Brien and Wolf. Jill specializes in all components of family law, including custody matters, divorce, adoption, and paternity. As a featured guest on the local weekly podcast, Justice for All, Jill gives her advice on on how parents can keep the children out of the middle..
Let’s join in on their conversation:
Charlie: Unfortunately, sometimes when a couple is going to break up or call it quits, the children get in the middle of things. We’re going to talk today about what parents can do to make the best of this situation.
Jill Frieders (JF): That’s right. I’ve been working on divorces cases my whole career and most parents, I think all parents, want to do right by their children, but sometimes people take the wrong path; they take the low road instead of the high road when they’re going through a divorce. So, I think it’s good to give people some pointers on how to do right by your children even if you’re going through a divorce.
Charlie: And of course it’s an adult situation, but children find themselves in the middle. There are things that adults can do to prevent them from feeling like they’re part of the problem, or in the middle of the problem.
JF: Right. Most mental health professionals would say that children feel that the divorce is their fault. So, the more you involve them in it, the more they feel like it’s their fault. It’s important to let them know that mom and dad love them, and mom and dad are separating but it’s not because of the kids – it’s because of mom and dad. They’re going to continue to have a relationship with both parents and will be able to have time with both parents.
Charlie: And I suppose there are little things that you maybe don’t even think of that could be harmful; like, using a child as a messenger.
JF: Yes. Some things may be very innocuous like, “remind your dad that play practice is tonight at 6.” That’s fairly innocuous. But it could be a more difficult message like, “remind your dad to pay support”. Expecting a child to be the messenger puts the child in a very difficult situation. Those kinds of messages need to be between the adults. And with text messaging and email – all the ways we are connected this day and age – there’s no reason to put the child in the middle. Text the other parent, email, or call them.
Charlie: Yes, having a good means of communication is important.
JF: You know, there’s even software that’s been developed for divorcing parents that allow them to exchange calendars and medical records and all sorts of things regarding the children. Many people benefit from that.
Charlie: Maybe they’re trying to find out what the other parent is up to and they use the child to do some investigative work for them.
JF: “So is your mom dating?”
Charlie: Yes, sure, I can just hear it.
JF: Mom and dad should have those conversations; they shouldn’t put the children in the middle.
Charlie: Right. And any kind of conflict is bound to come up. The idea is to resolve it quickly.
JF: That’s right. The quicker you resolve your disputes – and you’re going to have them – the less stress it’s going to be on your children.
Charlie: When it comes to child support, I don’t know if child support goes hand-in-hand with parenting time. I would imagine those two things are maybe best separated, left apart.
JF: That’s right. Some people think the other parent isn’t paying support, therefore they shouldn’t visit. It’s not that way. Or you might say, “I’m not getting to visit so I’m not going to pay support.” Those are two separate things. They are not tied together. You are obligated to pay support and the parenting schedule is to be followed. You can’t withhold one for the other.
Charlie: One other thing that a parent should always keep in mind is the child has their relationship with themselves, as a parent, but the other parent has a special relationship with the child, too.
JF: I think most children understand that they are half mom and they’re half dad. If mom is putting down dad or dad is putting down mom, of course the child is going to internalize that at some level and feel maybe they’re part bad too.. You have to be careful about that. You should really respect the child’s right to have a relationship with both parents and give the child an open and meaningful opportunity to have a good relationship with the other parent.
Charlie: Right. And, I suppose there are certain things parents can do when the child is going back and forth from one parent to the other. There’s probably another way to make that as smooth as possible.
JF: Many mental health professionals say it’s good for the child to have a picture of mom at dad’s home and a picture of dad at mom’s home. Especially with younger children, if they have a favorite blanket or a favorite stuffed toy, it should probably go back and forth. The children are going to have favorite toys that they’re going to want to bring back and forth. It’s important to facilitate that and make sure that the toys and special items get back and forth.
Charlie: Is it okay if the child is with mom and has a chance to talk on the telephone once in while to dad?
JF: Of course. Even by statute in Minnesota the parents are required to allow reasonable telephone contact. In this day and age sometimes it’s email, sometimes it’s Skype, sometimes it’s text messaging. I’ve got a client right now who has a toddler who understands text messaging is communicating, but doesn’t know how to type. So, she just does random letters and sends her other parent a message.
Charlie: Now, for a child living in a home with both parents there’s a household routine. But, once the parents are split and you’re going back and forth, there are different household routines. If the parents really do care, they might try to take the extra measure and make it similar.
JF: With little kids you want to have comparable bedtimes, comparable meal times and that takes a lot of communication between parents. Now, if bedtime is at eight o’clock at parent A’s home, and parent B has no bedtime at all, you could see how difficult that might be for a child. Kids like structure. A lot of them thrive with structure, so a lot of communication is important.
Charlie: Besides the two parents, there are grandparents and other extended family. Is it a good idea for the adults to keep that in mind and support that kind of contact?
JF: Absolutely. I often say to my clients, “your children can’t have too many people that love them.” So, remember grandparents on both sides of the family, aunts and uncles, and cousins. Make sure your children continue to have opportunities to interact with extended family.
Charlie: All of this gets based on a schedule – which is the way it probably has to be – but I would think from time to time the schedule’s going to need a little adjustment.
JF: That’s right. It might be your weekend, but it might be the other side’s family reunion. It might make a lot of sense to switch up. Or, maybe there’s a wedding, funeral, or another special event. It’s good to be flexible. You don’t want the schedule to be so flexible that there is no schedule, but on the other hand treat the other person fairly, because someday you may need to switch the schedule for your family event.
Charlie: And I can see, for instance, vacations. That might be one thing where you just have to accommodate that if you really are trying to work with your ex.
JF: If both parties are taking the high road and doing the right thing, this is all very easy. If one or both of the parents are choosing something other than the high road, this can be very difficult – a lot of fighting. And the kids are just right smack dab in the middle.
Charlie: Ok, one last thing. I would imagine if the child is going back and forth that a routine would be good in the picking up and the dropping off of the child. Right?
JF: It’s nice to have the same routine. For little kids where transitions are difficult, making sure the transitions are quick, as opposed to lingering. “Oh, I’m going to miss you, Betsy. I’m going to miss you!” Then Betsy sees mom or dad sad and it gets all drawn out. So just make it quick, efficient, business-like. Say your goodbyes and get on with it.
Charlie: That sounds like common sense. The idea is, as always, the best interest of the children.
JF: That’s right. That sums it up nicely!
Divorce brings up a mountain of child support, custody, and visitation concerns. You don’t have to take on the beast alone.
For more information or if you have further questions, ask Jill Frieders at O’Brien & Wolf.