As summer rolls to an end and back-to-school comes into focus, my divorce mediation practice grows busy.
One set of parents experimented with a trial separation over the summer, when the kids were less likely to be disrupted. Now that school is back in session, they need a real plan. Their negotiation is complicated in that the father isn’t willing to truly call the marriage over. Openly, he is negotiating about time with his three kids. Beneath the surface, he doesn’t really want to work out a parenting plan because that would only facilitate divorce, something he doesn’t want.
Another set of parents is debating about what school is best for their rising middle-schooler. Should she continue in her current district, where Dad resides? Or shift to the marginally better school in Mom’s district next door? The parents had been throwing threats back and forth all summer. Now they are looking for their 11-year-old to break the tie. But there is a problem: They each think she wants what they want.
In a third family, a 16-year-old boy says he’s tired of his week-on, week-off schedule under the joint custody arrangement. Mom claims that her son has been complaining for years and that he wants to live mostly with her. But Dad doubts his son’s motivations. He thinks his son wants to live with his mother because she coddles him.
Like millions of parents who raise children in two homes, these families face tricky problems. And emotional volatility greatly complicates their negotiations. The pain of lost love can propel former partners to act impulsively out of hurt, anger or spite. The fear of being manipulated can cause them to dig in their heels. And while teenagers should have a voice, adolescents don’t always make the best choices for the best reasons.
When I mediate with parents who live apart, I ask them to do what I want all parents to do, married or divorced: Talk. Listen. Don’t act rashly. Mull over problems and alternative solutions. Look at the issue from all sides, especially from your child’s point of view. Keep an open mind. With a little time and perspective, maybe the problem won’t seem so impossible to resolve. Put your children’s needs (mostly) above your own feelings. Maintain a united front, even when you disagree. Be a team with discipline. Encourage your children’s relationship with their other parent, even if you do not like everything that parent does. Bask in the warm glow of a child who is well loved by you both.
I want divorced parents to just act like parents, so their kids can be just kids, not “children of divorce” or “children from broken homes.” I hate labels that define children by something that happened to their parents’ romantic relationship.
To help explain this, I created a “Hierarchy of Children’s Needs in Two Homes.” It’s modeled after Abraham Maslow’s famous “Hierarchy of Human Needs,” in which biological needs form Maslow’s base, essential emotional needs fit in the middle, and at the top, Maslow placed “self-actualization.”
Even after three decades working as a psychologist and an academic, I don’t know what self-actualization is. But for children living in two homes, I have a goal that is close enough: getting to be a kid. If divorced parents act like parents, their kids can be kids. That is the pinnacle of my Hierarchy of Children’s Needs in Two Homes.
The base is survival and safety. Sadly, some children are unsafe in the care of one of their parents. Until that parent can protect them from danger, contact with the children needs to be carefully supervised.
The middle section includes three psychological needs: The most basic emotional need is to have one parent who loves them and is firm but fair. Next is freedom from exposure to or entrapment in parental conflict, which can be toxic for kids. Children hate being in the middle of parental disputes, and they will play their parents against one another if given the opportunity. The third is having a relationship with both parents. Children want this, and they benefit from love and guidance from two parents who are on the same side: their child’s.
But just because a parent is available doesn’t mean a child’s emotional well-being is set. A study by psychologists at Arizona State University identified three types of divorced fathers’ involvement: very involved dads with lots of conflict with their exes; moderately involved dads with few disputes; and pretty uninvolved dads with moderate conflict.
The profile that predicted better adjustment nine years in the future? Low conflict and moderate involvement. Young people whose fathers were very involved but fought frequently were no better off than those whose dads were uninvolved.
This is why it’s important that divorced parents act like parents, not like litigants or spurned lovers. They can find a way to love their kids more than they may hate their exes.
There are new ways to help parents living apart to work through their disputes, including mediation and collaborative law, where lawyers push settlement by refusing to represent their clients if they go to trial. Mediation helps separated parents act like parents. In the long run, this is what their children desperately want, even though mediation may seem completely wrong, emotionally, to their parents.
I know the dad I mentioned earlier doesn’t want a divorce. But he does want his children to have a childhood. I have encouraged him to express his longing to his wife or to deal with his grief directly, instead of resisting divorce indirectly by obstructing negotiations over a parenting plan.
I have urged the parents disputing middle schools to listen to their daughter, like parents do. I’ve asked them to really try to hear her wishes and concerns, and not just project their own desires onto her. She may desperately want to stay with her friends, or maybe she’s ready for a change. Or perhaps her most fervent desire is for her parents to stop putting her in the middle.
I told the parents of the teenage boy to call a family meeting, where their son is free to express his wishes without consequences. After listening to him, together, maybe they will decide that their son’s reasoning is sound. Or maybe they will discover that changing the schedule isn’t the real solution. Maybe the schedule should stay the same, but Mom needs to coddle her son a little less – and Dad needs to coddle him a little more.
These parents, like all parents, will make mistakes. But if parents living in two homes focus on being parents, their kids can be just kids. And they will experience the form of self-actualization called childhood.
Robert Emery is a psychology professor and director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia. He is the author of the new book “Two Homes, One Childhood: A Parenting Plan to Last a Lifetime.”
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