I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while.  As a divorce attorney, I see this behavior over and over.  It breaks my heart, frankly.  There are hundreds of articles about parenting during divorce, and so this advice is hardly new.  But on the off chance that one parent will read this, and stop the destructive behavior that harms their children, here are my top ten mistakes divorcing parents make:

10.  Giving up on seeing the child because the other parent is making it difficult.  I see this most often with dads.  Mom moves with the kids to a new location, or re-marries, or is just a screeching banshee at every drop-off and pick-up.  So, eventually, Dad gives up, deciding it’s not worth the trouble.  WRONG.  It is worth the trouble.  NEVER give up on seeing your child.  Even if she makes it hard, even if she calls CPS on you for no reason, even if she creates drama every time.  Do it anyway.  Never give up.

9.    Fighting with the other parent at drop-offs and pick-ups. News flash:  the kids can hear you.  Have those difficult conversations at other times – preferably, via e-mail, because then you can choose not to respond to any attacks.

8.    Not paying child support.  Hey, just pay it.  I don’t care if she’s getting her nails done with it, or if he’s using it to buy a new bass boat.  If you’re not current on your child support, you won’t have a leg to stand on in front of the judge on ANY issue.  If you lose your job or otherwise can’t pay, then go back to court and have the order changed.  Otherwise, pay it.

7.    Not allowing the other parent to see the child when scheduled.  This is just as infuriating to judges as not paying child support.  Unless you can prove that your children will be in danger with the other parent, then let them go.  They may not brush their teeth for three days, or eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, but they’ll probably live.  And you’ll get a break from them, and be a better parent when they return.

6.    Introducing the child to a new romantic partner. It stuns me how often people do this.  Mom and Dad aren’t even divorced yet, and here’s Dad with “your new Mommy,” or Mom announcing that they’re moving in with Bubba, the new boyfriend.  NO.  Just no.  First of all, it’s not good for you to start dating again so soon;  second of all, it’s even worse for your kids.  Don’t start dating until you and the other parent have been separated at least six months to a year.  Then, keep romantic partners out of your children’s lives for at least six months after you start dating – until you’re certain that this person is going to be around a while.  Don’t tell me your kids love the new guy, or that they’re mature enough to handle it.  Put their needs ahead of yours, and keep them separate.

5.    Confiding in the child.  Divorce is a lonely and traumatic time, and it can be tempting to imagine that you and your child are in it together, supporting each other through it.  But that’s way too much pressure to put on a child, even a teenager.  It’s your job to support your child, and it’s your job to find other sources of support for yourself.  I tell my clients that they need a whole team to support them through their divorce – a lawyer, an accountant, a counselor, a spiritual advisor, friends and family.  But your child is not a member of your support team.  Let the child be a child, and feel safe and assured that the adults are taking care of everything.

4.    Trying to get the child on your side.  Trying to persuade a child to live with you so you don’t have to pay child support, or so you do get child support, is just destructive and harmful to the child.  The best way to avoid making this mistake is to let go of the idea that there are “sides” in a divorce. There are no “winners” or “losers” in family law cases, because it’s not a contest to be won or lost.  It’s a transition;  a process of changing the structure of a family.  You and your ex are not on opposing sides.  You should be on the same side, and have the same goal of raising your children in the best possible way.  So instead of trying to pit your child against the other parent, try to work with the other parent in the best interest of the child.

3.    Making an older child care for younger siblings.  This can be very tempting, especially to a frazzled single parent with multiple children.  But it’s very unhealthy for the child.  Let the kids be kids;  make sure that what you’re asking of each child is appropriate for the child’s age and maturity.  It’s fine to leave a 10-year-old with a 13-year-old while you run to the store for half an hour;  it’s not OK to expect an 11-year-old to raise a 6-year-old while you fall apart.

2.    Not allowing the child to communicate with the other parent.  Repeat after me:  it’s best for your child to have a positive relationship with the other parent.  That means regular contact.  I don’t care how mad you are at him, or whether you’re trying to store ammunition for your next round in court.  Let the kid talk to Mom or Dad on the phone.  Every day, three times a day, whenever she wants to.  In fact, help the child remember to call the absent parent and share news, like a lost tooth or a home run.  Because it’s good for your child.

1.    Telling the child negative things about the other parent.  Children view themselves as a combination of both parents.  So every time you say something negative about the other parent, the child hears it as being about herself.  So if you say, “Your momma is a cheating, lying whore,” your little girl is going to hear you saying that about her.  Chilling, isn’t it?  Imagine saying to a little boy, “You are just a worthless, no-good jerk.”  You’d never do that, would you?  Then don’t say ANYTHING negative about the other parent in front of them.  And instruct all your family and friends to follow this rule as well.  If he really is a worthless no-good jerk, by the time the kids are adults, they’ll figure it out.  And they’ll realize you were a saint for not telling them so.

Look, I know you’re upset.  I know your soon-to-be-ex is a jerk.  I know you’re at the end of your rope. But please, don’t completely lose your mind and do things that will have a negative effect on your children.

I have always been an avid reader, and when life throws a new experience my way, I try to read what I can on it.  These books all helped me through my own divorce eleven years ago.  (I guess they’re considered classics now!)   I would encourage you to pick them up, no matter what stage of the process you are in – as Constance Ahrons says, “It’s never too late to have a good divorce.”

1.  The Good Divorce, by Constance Ahrons. In this 1995 work, Ahrons lays out a startling premise – that it is possible to have a “good” divorce.  I know the idea shocked me when I first saw the title, but I grabbed onto it as a lifeline of hope.  Was it possible for me to end my marriage and not ruin my life, or permanently damage my children?  Here’s a quote from her first chapter:

The good divorce is not an oxymoron. A good divorce is one in which both the adults and children emerge at least as emotionally well as they were before the divorce. Because we have been so inundated with negative stories, divorce immediately carries with it a negative association. Even though we have difficulty conjuring up positive images of divorce, the reality is that most people feel their lives improved after their divorces.

I meet many people who say, “Oh, it’s too late for that.  my spouse is crazy.”  And then they tell me their divorce tale of woe.  But I’m here to tell you, it can get better.  The most important message I took away from this book was that, even if your divorce was 20 years ago, your family will benefit now from you improving your relationship with your ex-spouse.  I kept that goal in mind, and by the time our youngest was in kindergarten, three years after our much-less-than-perfect divorce was final, her teacher commented, “I wish my ex and I could get along as well as you two.” I almost fell out of my chair, but when I recovered from the shock, I realized she was right.  We had finally achieved the good divorce.

Author’s Website:  http://constanceahrons.com/the%20good%20divorce.htm

2.  Mom’s House, Dad’s House:  Making Two Homes for Your Child, by Isolina Ricci.  Originally published in 1980 (and revised in 1997), this book was groundbreaking in rejecting traditional ideas of custody and visitation.  Children don’t have to live with one parent or the other;  they can live with both parents, in two separate households.  Thirty-plus years later, and I still find parents, judges and attorneys who haven’t embraced this idea.  But do a little research on the effect of divorce on children, and you’ll find a consensus that what harms children is not the divorce itself, it’s other factors, including conflict between parents, and the loss of contact with the “non-custodial” parent.  Read this book;  follow the suggestions in this book, and you’ll be doing as much as you can for your children.

Author’s Website:  http://www.momshousedadshouse.com/index.html

3.  Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life: A Reasoned, Practical Guide to the Legal, Emotional and Financial Ins and Outs of Negotiating a Divorce Settlement, by Sam Margulies.  If you have made the painful decision to divorce, this book helps you do it in the “best” way possible.  It is my opinion that litigation is a poor solution litigation is to family problems. Margulies, an attorney and mediator, makes the very valid point that the legal process is liable to lead you to take actions that are contrary to your long-term interests: an effective parenting plan, the maximum financial benefit, and emotional health and well-being. Legal battles drive you apart, escalate conflict, and cost a lot of money.  He suggests mediation as an alternative, and provides a blueprint for the process.

One caveat: some of the information in this edition is slightly out of date, since it is from 1992. Also, if you are in a community property state (such as Texas), much of the advice on dividing up the marital estate is going to be inapplicable.

Author’s Website:  http://www.sammargulies.com/

4.  Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, A hands-on, practical guide to coping with custody issues that arise with an uncooperative ex-spouse, by Julie A. Ross and Judy Corcoran.  I love this book because the title is so great.  Everyone thinks their ex-spouse is a jerk, so it draws them in.  However, the contents are much more balanced than the title.  The point of the book is, you can’t do anything about his or her jerk-like behavior.  You can only change your own responses to it.  I will never forget the first time I used a technique from this book with my ex.  I was driving my car in rush hour traffic, and he was pestering me for an answer on something.  I said, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.  If you give me some time to consider it, that answer may change.”  Worked like magic.  Now, I no longer think my ex is a jerk – I think he, like all of us going through a divorce, was acting out of fear.  But learning to look at my own behavior really helped our relationship, and this book helped me start to do that.

Author’s Website:  http://www.parentinghorizons.com/

5.  The Collaborative Way to Divorce:  The Revolutionary Method That Results in Less Stress, Lower Costs, and Happier Kids – Without Going to Court, by Stuart G. Webb and Ronald D. Ousky.  This was the first book on Collaborative Divorce in the U.S., and it’s one I routinely give out to clients.  The authors are based in Minnesota, so some of the points on property division and child custody won’t be the same as in Texas.  But the basic outline of the Collaborative model is here, and it’s a great place for divorcing couples to start. I firmly believe that the traditional, litigated divorce process makes most divorces worse, not better, and that a collaborative divorce can set the foundation for a healthy, financially stable post-divorce life.

Author’s website:  http://www.ousky.com/ousky/book.shtml

These books encapsulate my whole ethos of divorce:  that it’s possible to have a good divorce; that children are better off with regular, healthy contact with both parents; that it’s possible to work cooperatively to reach a divorce settlement that doesn’t ruin your life; that you can parent effectively even when other parent is trying not to; and that the collaborative model is the best, safest way to reach a healthy end point of the process.

Note to readers:  This is a re-post of an entry originally posted September 18, 2009.

“I heard that once my child is twelve, she can choose whether she wants to live with me or her dad.”

“My son just turned twelve, and he says he wants to live with me now, and not his mom.  So how do we do that?”

“You can’t make me!  When I’m twelve, I’ll just go live with Dad!”

This is one of the most persistent myths in Texas family law.  I hear it all the time from potential clients, and that last quote, unfortunately, came from my own child.  It never was accurate, and now the Texas Legislature has eliminated the section of the law that gave birth to the myth.

A previous version of the Family Code provided that a child age twelve or older might file an “affidavit of preference” with the court.  Section 153.008 provided:

“A child 12 years of age or older may file with the court in writing the name of the person who is the child’s preference to have the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child, subject to the approval of the court.”

The judge could then take that information into account when deciding disputes over conservatorship and possession.  Note that the child could not determine “custody,” – parents could still be joint managing conservators, with equal time of possession.  The only difference would be, one parent would have the right to designate the child’s primary residence.  This provision had been in effect since 1999, when the age was raised from 10 to 12.

Unfortunately, what the courts and family law practitioners found was happening in practice was that parents were filing “dueling affidavits,” both saying that the child preferred to live with them.  Or, parents were offering children incentives to live with them – “Say you want to live with me, and I’ll buy you a car.”  And of course some unscrupulous parents were trying to change the child’s primary residence to avoid paying child support.

Feeling that this pressure on children was inappropriate, the Legislature repealed Section 153.008 altogether, effective September 1, 2009.  If appropriate, a court may still interview a child in chambers under Section 153.009.

So hopefully this myth, never accurate, may now be laid to rest completely.  Ideally, questions of conservatorship and possession are decided by agreement of the parties; failing that, they are decided by the court, with the child’s best interests being the primary consideration.

And I can tell my teenager that she’s stuck with me, like it or not.