How to Parent During a Divorce? [High-Conflict Divorce Effect on a Child]

Divorce brings monumental change for the parents and child. Taking the high road and co-parenting with good intention and kindness may feel impossible. But doing so benefits your child and improves your chances for appearing like a good parent before the court.

During a divorce, both parents should try to keep the best interests of the child at the forefront. This means being discreet about the case and the other parent. Parents must also maintain the status quo regarding the other parent’s time with the child. 

Courts consider each parent’s ability to foster the child’s relationship with the other parent. So, besides mitigating the effects of the divorce on the child, playing nice with the other parent also makes you look better in court.

It is easy to be in the heat of the moment while going through a divorce. Read on to learn some specific tips, including apps to help, for parenting during a divorce and the reasons behind the recommendations. 

Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for legal advice. Please consult a licensed attorney in your state if you have questions or believe you have a legal situation.

How to Parent During a Divorce?

During a divorce, parents need to act to minimize the impact of the divorce on their children. But they should also be cognizant of how their parenting decisions will look if there is a custody hearing. Fortunately, these two goals are usually in sync. 

Mind What You Say

The number one rule of divorce is to mind what you say to the child about the other parent. This is so important that courts often put non-disparagement clauses in custody orders.

As we discuss more below, the legal standard used in custody proceedings is the best interests of the child. One factor in that determination is whether a parent can foster the child’s love and relationship for the other parent.

Quite simply, trying to paint the other parent as a villain or inferior parent does not make for a happy and healthy child. It may feel good in the moment to get your child on your side of things, but it is a dangerous parenting strategy.

In the long term, children feel less close to parents who denigrated the other parent. Some consider parental alienation to be a form of child abuse because of its painful impact on children.

Maintain the Status Quo

Maintaining the status quo competes with non-disparagement as the number one rule for parenting during a divorce. Failing to follow this rule causes many parents to get in hot water with the court. 

Maintaining the status quo is a term used in custody cases that encompasses many smaller ideas. Overall, the premise is that things should continue as they were until the parents reach a mutual decision or the court decides.

This applies to financial support of the children, parenting time schedules, decision making, school enrollment, and other child-related issues. Essentially, this means that if a parent moves out of the home, he or she still gets parenting time. 

As painful as it may be, two wrongs do not make a right. If the other parents stops contributing funds to the child’s care, this is not a reason to withhold parenting time. 

When parents devolve into a tit-for-tat approach, the court sees a case with two parents acting badly. It is much better to be the parent with clean hands in this situation. 

If the other parent fails to maintain the status quo, you likely have recourse through the court. It is so frowned upon that some states, including California, Colorado, and Oklahoma, issue an automatic temporary injunction to prevent this very behavior.

The states that issue an automatic temporary injunction require that the parents maintain the status quo for the pendency of the case. They take effect upon filing for the initiating parent and upon receipt of service for the responding parent.

Even if no automatic temporary injunction is in place, parties to a divorce can request temporary orders from the court. This resolves issues where one parent is not maintaining the status quo.

Prepare for Compromise

Tempering expectations is one of the most important things you can do to prepare for the psychological marathon of divorce. The courts do not base physical custody on the gender of the parent. 

Additionally, courts are moving away sole physical custody in favor of arrangements where both parents have significant parenting time. The very hard reality is that when a marriage ends, each parent will have a lot less time with their child.

Accepting that you are unlikely to get everything you want should make the process more efficient and less vitriolic. Of course, this does not apply to the rare situations where one parent is truly dangerous or unsuitable.

The state courts that handle divorce proceedings provide two different frameworks for cases. First, if the parents can agree, they can essentially create their own court orders. This is done by submitting stipulations or joint agreements to the court. 

By doing this, parents can choose schedules, exchange locations, and other custody details most convenient for them and the kids. This can be done with the assistance of attorneys or mediators or entirely on your own.

Second, if parents cannot agree, then the court will decide. The judge applies the “best interests of the child” standard.

How to Parent During a Divorce

Keep in Mind the Best Interests of the Child

All states use the same standard in custody cases: the best interests of the child. This means that when deciding what should happen moving forward, the judge should do so with the best interests of the child in mind. 

Each state defines what factors go into that best interests determination. That may be done through a specific set of factors or through a statement of overarching goals.

To know exactly how your state sets the determination, look up your state’s child custody laws on FindLaw.com. Remember that the state laws are subject to the interpretation of the judge in your case. 

Currently, 22 states have statutes that specifically identify the factors that the court should consider when determining the best interest. This means that the judge would analyze what combination of parenting time would maximize these elements.

Here are some of the common factors:

  • The importance of family integrity and preference for avoiding the removal of the child from his or her home. 
  • The health, safety, and protection of the child.
  • The emotional ties the child has with parents and other family members.
  • The capacity of the parent to provide a safe home and adequate food, clothing, and shelter. 
  • The mental and physical health needs of a child. 
  • The presence of domestic violence in the home.
  • Parties’ ability to encourage the child’s love toward the other parent.

Yes, you read the last one right. When allocating parenting time and decision making, the court can consider whether a parent has the ability to be decent toward the other. 

Ultimately, turning the child against the other parent or fostering intense loyalty toward a parent is not healthy for the child. This dynamic has long-term effects on the child and is part of the custody determination.

You Are Still Stuck with the Other Parent

Another point of acceptance that will improve overall satisfaction with the divorce is knowing that the other parent of your child will never completely be out of your life. 

Use this awareness to guide settlement and parenting interactions. This is a person who is not going away.

Engaging in scorched-earth tactics during the divorce will make co-parenting harder. This negative effect does not end when your child turns 18. Many weddings, graduations, and births of grandchildren are marred by the parental relationship created in the divorce. 

Accept Different Parenting Styles

Parents who micromanage each other’s parenting styles quickly find themselves in higher-conflict divorces. This isn’t to say that it is easy to watch someone parent your child in a way that you do not like. It is not.

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However, assuming the behavior is not dangerous, you probably cannot do anything about it. Courts have neither the time nor qualification to adjudicate minor parenting differences.

Co-parenting after divorce becomes a series of choosing your battles. If every disagreement regarding screen time or sugar ends up in court, it will make for a very long 18 years.

Do’s and Don’ts During a Divorce

Knowing the overarching tenets of parenting during divorce described above is one thing, but putting them into action is another. Here are some of the areas where people most commonly get caught up in the moment and experience clouded judgment.

Things to Do

The goal of each parent in the divorce should be to shelter the child from some of the hard truths of the process. Doing so can protect the child from the long-term negative effects of being a child of divorce.

Remember that your child is just a child. They likely love the other parent, and it will be hard for them to reconcile your dislike of them.

In addition to tending to your own emotional needs in the process, be sure to keep an eye on your child’s feelings. If they have only known a life living with the both of you, divorce can be a hard adjustment, especially if new schools or homes are involved.

Here are some specific actions to implement during and after the divorce:

  • Be honest with your child in an age-appropriate way about the changes that are happening.
  • Check-in with your child regarding their concerns about the divorce.
  • Work with the other parent to ensure consistent discipline and rules.
  • Coordinate with the other parent to ensure your child’s needs are met.
  • Conduct legal discussions with the other parent away from the child.
  • Think twice about the parenting exchange locations. How will it impact the child to make weekly visits to a police station or bring their suitcase to school.
  • Try to avoid spending your child’s college fund on litigation with the other parent.

These items all relate back to the idea of keeping the focus on the child and keeping their best interests in mind. 

How Not to Parent During a Divorce?

There is no denying that some divorces are harder than others. Everybody’s situation is different, and at the end of the day, some people are just hard to deal with.

No matter your good intentions, you cannot control the other parent’s actions. Sometimes the best you can do is monitor your own to avoid doing additional harm.

  • Do not make your child feel guilty about what they forget at the other parent’s house.
  • Avoid using your child as a sounding board or person to vent to regarding the divorce.
  • Your child should not be the go-between or messenger to the other parent. 
  • Do not interfere with the other parent’s time with the child, and this includes excessive phone calls or text messages.
  • Avoid expressing value judgements to your child regarding the amount of child support the other parent pays. 

Most importantly, let the child be a child. Mom and dad should try to contain the uglier parts of the divorce process.

Why is Co-Parenting Important?

Co-parenting during and after divorce is one of the hardest things any parent will do. Doing it well is one of the most important things that can be done for a child. 

When parents end their marriage, not only are they losing an important relationship, but they will also lose time with their child. Divorce effectively requires that everyone involved do with less than they had before. The same amount of money has to support two households. Those two households have to share a child who can only be in one place at a time. 

Given this tumult, it surprises no one that the period of time where the divorce is pending is a major learning experience. Parents can easily fall into an adversarial relationship as they compete for their child’s time, among other resources

This change threatens the perception of self for those mothers who have long been the primary caregiver. It is plain frightening for those who doubt the father’s capability to safely parent. 

Many women have sat incredulously in courtrooms as fathers request sole custody for children whose diapers they never changed and decision-making for children whom they’ve never taken to the doctor.

Choosing to co-parent with maturity can only be described as self-sacrifice. Mothers give up things for their children all the time, but this may be the most painful. 

Effects of Divorce on Children

Studies that tout the consequences of divorce for children may be enough to scare a parent into staying in a bad marriage. Decades of research connect divorce to poor academic and mental health outcomes for children of that marriage. 

The science indicates that most children are severely and negatively impacted by divorce at first. However, they adapt to a new normal and most do not suffer long-term mal-effects. Children who lived through high-conflict marriages adapt the best to life post-divorce.

Parents actually have the ability to mitigate some of the long-term consequences. Research indicates that the following factors, in descending order, impact a child’s long-term mental health. 

  1. Less effective parenting;
  2. Interparental conflict;
  3. Economic struggles; and
  4. Limited contact with one parent, typically the father.

By using the tips and following the themes outline above, parents can avoid three of the four of the problems. I

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How to Parent During a High-Conflict Divorce?

Despite media portrayals, only about 15-30 percent of divorces are considered high-conflict. Post-divorce decree, about 10 percent of these relationships remain in high conflict.

Increasingly, experts are attributing these cases to the personality disorder of one or both parents. Parents dragged along in the other parent’s conflict face unique challenges. 

Frequently, these types of cases can be very personal and even abusive. The costs are often higher due to more attorney and expert fees. 

Engaging an attorney in this type of case can be the best course of action. At that point, all case-related discussions will be handled through the attorney. 

Attorneys can also coordinate the services of parenting experts. These experts submit written reports to the court regarding parenting time recommendations. The recommendations are based on the expert’s interviews and observations with the parents and child. 

Technology can also help improve the experience of high-conflict divorces. Our Family Wizard facilitates communication and schedules regarding the children. It also tracks reimbursement requests. 

TalkingParents is another popular communication tool for parents. Both of these programs are popular because they can generate reports regarding the communication to submit to the court. This feature makes the parents safer with each other and helps keep the exchange productive and appropriate.

Final Thoughts

Going through a divorce is a hard time on a personal level, but it is an important time for parents to step up for their kids. Parents have an important role during this time in buffering their children from the legal proceeding and providing stability.

Both parents will be trying to find a new normal. For the long-term benefit of your child and sanity, try to remember that even as the marriage ends, you two will be co-parents forever.

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