Two Houses, One Foundation

Tips for Parents with Children Living in Multiple Residences. According to several scholars, one-third of all children born in this country will live in a stepfamily before they reach eighteen. Notions of what constitutes a “traditional” American household are quickly transforming and families akin to the Brady Bunch are rapidly becoming the norm as opposed to the exception.  Divorce no longer means that the minor children to the marriage will lose contact with one parent. Instead, fathers are continuing to play increasingly active roles in the lives of their children post-divorce. As such, many children in this country have two places to call home.

Thus, unlike in the situational comedy mentioned above, real blended families are faced with the reality that not every “character” will be present in every “episode” because he or she may be visiting with the other parent. Although most psychologists have generally encouraged both parents to remain active in their children’s lives post-divorce, some scholars believe that the resulting custodial and visitation schedules which force children to haul belongings back and forth between houses and constantly adjust to the various environments can have a toll on a young person’s emotional well being.

This article provides countless tips for parents who recognize that staying active in their children’s lives, while ultimately beneficial, has its drawbacks if not properly monitored. Perhaps the most important advice when dealing with blended families is to realize that putting children in the middle can unfairly place the brunt of potential conflict squarely in the child’s lap. This suggestion can be honored by not putting down the other parent in the child’s presence and avoiding using children as messengers. Such messages can come in various forms. One author noted that “[s]ometimes the message is something as innocent as a reminder that the child must take her medication before bedtime, [but] [o]ther times, the message may be that the child support payment will be late.” No matter its form, however, any such dialogue which uses the child as the go-between is detrimental and must therefore be avoided at all costs.

Oftentimes, parents who routinely use children as messengers have an underlying problem with communication. This, of course, is a connected problem which must be resolved. Experienced domestic relations attorneys recognize that many divorces result from a breakdown of communication. Thus, the expectation that you will be able to colloquially speak with your ex-spouse is not realistic. It is, however, appropriate to assume that most divorced individuals can carry on a business-like relationship with their ex-spouse. In facilitating such dialogue, it is mandatory that individuals establish rules of engagement. No interrupting the other person. No discussions involving topics other than those related to the children. No screaming. If such boundaries are set and maintained, your business-like relationship will result in thriving production (and of course, you are in the business of child-rearing).

Establishing routines is also helpful. First, it is important to discuss with the other spouse how, when, and where transitions will occur. Although it is also necessary for parents to maintain some degree of flexibility to accommodate unforeseen circumstances, developing a generally followed plan for transitions is necessary. Transitions are by nature stressful for children (and parents). Being late or changing the meeting location without sufficient notice can exacerbate a situation already filled with heightened levels of anxiety. Second, it is a good idea for parents to institute common household routines. No matter how similar your rules are, a child will already encounter two separate and distinct environments in some cases as often as every couple of days. However, by making certain things consistent, such as bedtime or time to complete homework or amount of television allowed on a school night, this minimizes the changes children will be forced to digest.

Encouraging contact with the other parent as well as other individuals with a vested interest in maintaining a relationship with the minor child such as siblings, stepparents, or grandparents is also vital. Although it is appropriate to set boundaries for when a child may call the parent whom he is not currently with, these limitations should be considerate of the need for a child to maintain contact with the other parent while visiting. Such contact facilitates the consistency which necessarily runs through all of the suggestions set forth in this article. If a child feels like he is living on two islands isolated from his other life, he will be much more prone to separation anxiety and other similar emotional problems. Resolving conflict as expeditiously as possible is also critical. Extended periods of conflict take their toll on children. Whether the parents intend to or not, children are all too often placed in the middle of such squabbles.

It is important to limit such heated discussions. However, should you have a conflict, it is important to put out the fire quickly (yes, even if it was not your fault) rather than fighting fire with fire. If your ex-spouse unreasonably denies you visitation, it does not warrant you withholding child support payments.

Children need both emotional and financial support to flourish. If the conflict becomes a long-term problem, children may exhibit psychological and emotional trauma. A child who was seemingly handling living in two households quite effectively may lapse into a period of difficulty upon the remarriage of one spouse. To a child (and often to the adults involved) it is understood as a “second divorce” and a stark reality that one’s parents will not reunite. With the entry of a new player into the game, it may be valuable for the parents to discuss how this may change the rules and expectations previously agreed upon. Will the stepparent discipline the children? Will he participate in transitions? Although it is a myth that children of divorce are damaged forever, it is critical that you follow much of the advice discussed herein so as to best prepare your children to overcome the traumatic time period and continue to grow emotionally.

Benjamin Porter is a Staff Attorney with the Atlanta office of Cordell & Cordell, P.C.

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