Adele’s new album about her divorce came right on time. She sings heartbreakingly about sadness for herself and her son at a time when a growing number of families around the world are grappling with the grief and confusion of breaking up.
Divorces are on the rise. Many of the data show spikes in some states and countries, particularly as courts reopen after the pandemic-strained core relationships. Families are once again facing the complexities and anxieties associated with marital break-ups.
As a clinical and forensic psychologist, I am frequently involved in divorce and child custody cases. Divorce is an emotional and anxiety-producing time for parents and children alike. Child custody decisions are uber-important, for they will have a major impact on a child’s present and future. How custody issues are resolved will influence a child’s psychological, educational, and social adjustment into adulthood.
Most parents approach divorce with great trepidation and a feeling of impending doom. They have little or no understanding of what the research literature tells us about the dilemmas they face. For example, parents do not know that there is robust science about the best custody arrangement for children. Or about the negative consequences of loyalty tests for children. Or about the equal importance of mothers and fathers in children’s lives.
Divorce is an acutely stressful time for children. All children react to divorce by feeling unsettled and uncertain. Many don’t understand what is happening to them. Children rely on their parents for sensitive and careful guidance at this wearisome time in their lives.
I use my role as a psychologist to educate, inform, and guide parents as they embark on the legal process of separation and divorce. Here are the main rules of thumb based on cutting-edge research by Richard Warshak, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Linda Nielsen, an education professor at Wake Forest University, and others. Moreover, there is consensus among social scientists about many of these guiding principles.
1. A child’s sense of stability and safety must be a top priority during a separation and divorce. A child must feel loved by both parents. The child’s familiar places and daily routine must be maintained as best as possible.
2. No matter how upset or angry parents are, they must not place their children in the middle of their tension or strife. It is unhealthy for children to be exposed to hostility, blaming and vindictiveness by their parents.
3. A child must not be forced to pick a favorite or preferred parent. Children naturally want to love both parents equally without impediment or interference. This desire cannot be disrupted by imploring the child to make a choice. Loyalty battles undermine a child’s healthy adjustment.
4. A child needs both parents to be actively involved in his or her life. A child’s long-term adjustment is based on a close relationship with each parent. Efforts to keep the child away from one parent must be resisted.
5. Shared custody arrangements are superior to sole custody on most dimensions of measurement. Shared custody does not necessarily mean 50-50 in the strictest sense. But something akin to it is ideal. The notion that a father cannot parent an infant or young child has been dispelled by research. Shared parenting can begin at birth.
6. In general, parents are not allowed to relocate with a child because it runs contrary to a shared parenting philosophy. In certain circumstances, however, this principle can be broken.
7. Divorce and child custody matters can be resolved amicably through a collaborative process with an attorney. High-conflict and expensive court proceedings can be avoided.
8. Coparenting is the ideal because it involves active communication between parents about their child’s daily well-being. Parallel parenting, in which parents sharply divide responsibilities to minimize contact with each other, can work also.
9. If parents can focus on what’s best for their child rather than on their own needs or on their unresolved grievances, custody and post-divorce issues can be maneuvered efficiently.
10. If a parent has been verbally, physically, or sexually abusive to a child, these rules change. Shared custody will not make sense. Protecting the child from further abuse must be the overriding mission.
These rules constitute a practical guide for parents as they go through divorce. It is important for parents to appreciate these principles because they hold the key to successful navigation of a challenging life event. And these rules will help set the stage for a child’s healthy adjustment now and in the future.
Having as much information as possible is vital for divorcing parents. But sometimes, even with up-to-date information and the best intentions at heart, the separation and divorce process can go haywire. If that happens, mental health professionals are available to provide help and emotional support. It is a sign of strength — not weakness — to seek out resources at a time of great stress.
Divorce and child custody matters do not need to be an enigma. In fact, parents can become experts once they have access to the right fund of knowledge. And being an expert can go a long way to minimizing the scary part of the process.
Alan D. Blotcky is a clinical and forensic psychologist and a clinical associate professor in psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.