This Blog is the first in a Series for divorced and/or separated parents, specifically addressing healthy outcomes for children of divorce. First, we start by making four important assumptions.
- We assume that parents reading this Blog love their children. Love usually comes in two flavors. The first type of love is the loving feelings that people have toward their children. This is extremely important because it drives parents to take care of their children, protect them and give them the nurturance that is necessary for them to develop trust. The second type of love is the focus on teaching/raising children to be independent, competent and confident people so that when they take over their lives as young adults, they have the ability to make their lives go well. This second type of love sometimes contradicts and overrules the first type of love, because often it means doing things that frustrate and anger our children. When we set limits on our children, discipline them, force them to do schoolwork or engage in activities they do not like, or even do chores, they suffer. Both types of love are essential and either type can trump the other type, depending on the circumstance. If while doing a chore a child is injured, the first type of love forgets about the chore and sees to the injury. When a child resists doing a chore because they are “tired,” the second type of love ignores the child being tired and insists that he or she do the chore.
- We assume that when parents separate, unless one parent abandons the children, the parents will raise their children from two homes, regardless of the actual physical custody schedule. This is the same family, but now with extra logistical problems.
- We assume that because the parents are separating, usually wishing that they had been able to stay together, they have problems in their communication and in resolving differences and disagreements. Because of this, separating parents start out their co-parenting partnership with a challenge, because effective co-parenting still requires communication and addressing differences and disagreements.
- We assume that the children in your family are safe. These Blogs are not intended for families in which there are serious problems with substance abuse, violence and/or serious mental health problems.
Healthy Outcomes for Children of Divorce
With these assumptions in mind, we want you to “pick the right battle” if you want to “win,” meaning if you want healthy outcomes for your children after divorce. This is best explained by presenting an unfortunate irony and a scientific finding:
- The irony: When negotiating a settlement of child related issues, lawyers and parents generally focus on physical custody, decision-making and child support as their main emphasis and priority. This is where they believe the action is- or worse yet, should be. There is where the litigation occurs. This is where substantial fees are incurred. This is where serious damage to the children occurs. Why ironic? They are fighting the wrong battle!
- The science: The science is clear as to what affects healthy outcomes for children of divorce. Unfortunately, the legal system views the award of physical custody as a “distribution” of children, as if they were property. The legal system focuses on which parent “owns” the right to decide where the children live and at what times and days. Also, the legal system requires a decision as to which parent “owns” the right to make major decisions about the children’s lives. However, based on the best social science available, where the children reside (meaning their physical custody) is the least important factor that determines how children actually turn out.
Seven Factors Affecting Healthy Outcomes for Children of Divorce
Based on the social science, the following are the factors that affect healthy outcomes for children of divorce- in order of importance. Note the order- especially the first two and the final factors.
- Level of conflict and the degree of effective communication and cooperation between the parents and other important adults (e.g. stepparents, grandparents, and so on), i.e., the co-parenting relationship
- Quality of parenting in each home
- Pre-divorce adjustment level of the child
- Social capital of the family (e.g., extended family, involved friends, child care, schools, etc.)
- Mental health of the parents
- Socio-educational-economic status of the parties’ post-divorce at or below the poverty line
- Physical custody schedule
Notice that the physical custody schedule is the least important!
The first two factors, the co-parenting relationship and the quality of parenting are together the most important, although the pre-divorce adjustment level of the child, which is often the result of the quality of parenting and of the parental relationship, is also quite important. A fairly well-adjusted child in a family with a good co-parenting relationship and good quality parenting will likely do well in any schedule. The opposite is also true- that a troubled child with a poor co-parenting relationship and problematic parenting will likely do poorly in almost any schedule.
What this clearly means is that if parents want to have healthy children who do as well as possible after a divorce or separation, they should focus on the other six factors, much more than on the schedule.
We earlier noted that these Blogs are not for families where children are in unsafe circumstances. However, this assumption is not universally true. If two parents agree to work toward a family that is safe, substance abuse, violence and mental health problems can be treated as an obstacle to that goal, where a Plan can be developed to overcome any or all of these obstacles. Stay tuned!
Beginning with the next Blog, based on the social science, this Blog Series will address in reverse order, that is, from the least important to the most important, the factors that affect healthy outcomes for children of divorce. Your authors are drawing on social science research that has produced reliable information on the subject; we will ignore non-scientific information. For example, you will find shelf after shelf of self-help books on how to be a good parent, many of which have very helpful suggestions. However, research has identified several skills involved in quality of parenting that actually affects outcomes for children, which in a future Blog, we will detail.