Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Parenting After Divorce - Celebrating the Children's Birthdays

After a divorce, dealing with birthdays can be challenging for many families. It is especially difficult when parents are just working out the details of their parenting plan.

It's perfectly normal for parents to feel a little possessive or even competitive about the children's birthdays. They often feel like they need to create the best birthday celebrations, in order to help the children overcome the loss caused by the divorce.

The best thing you can do for your children's birthdays is to avoid conflict over the whole thing.

Here are some ways that other families deal with birthday celebrations:

The parents alternate being with the child on their actual birthday, from one year to the next. This is a very common way to handle the issue, but is not the most satisfying for the child. When children are in school, birthday celebrations are often planned for the weekend before or after the actual birthday. If the parenting schedule is interrupted for the actual day of the birthday and then the birthday party needs to be scheduled in an awkward way to fit into the parenting plan, children often feel frustrated that they don't have any control over their special day.

The parenting plan does not change. Each parent celebrates the child's birthday during his or her regular parenting time. This works well when the parents share parenting time on a liberal schedule, even if it's not 50/50. Children get to see each parent on or near their birthday, without the schedule feeling forced or disrupted. Children generally like this plan and parents find that the time tends to equalize over the years.

The parents share the birthday. One parent has time in the morning and the other in the evening, or one for an hour or two in the early evening and the other a little later in the evening. This kind of arrangement is definitely kinder to the parents than to the children. Neither parent has to be left out, but the birthday child spends more time moving around from place to place than actually enjoying the birthday. Children are very resistive to this kind of plan, especially as they get older.

The parents celebrate the child's birthday together. Whether it's on the actual birthday or for the birthday celebration, the parents are there together. When the parents can be cordial and respectful of each other, children like this arrangement. They feel like they are the one who's really important and that the parents are working together to make their day special. Parents who cannot be in the same space with each other without fighting should not consider this kind of arrangement.

Each parent has a separate birthday party or celebration during that parent's parenting time. This scenario is not recommended; it often makes children very uncomfortable, especially if each parent is trying to outdo the other by having the "best" party. Most children understand that this kind of competition is not about them or what they want. But they will often go along with the parents' plans because they don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. The stress for the children in this kind of situation is compounded when each parent invites the same friends to the separate parties, which can be embarrassing for both the birthday child and the friends.

However you plan to celebrate your child's birthday, it's important to consider the child's feelings before your own. Children probably won't even remember each individual birthday event – unless of course, it was filled with the pain and anxiety of trying to smooth over conflict between his or her parents.

© 2008, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center, www.cofamilysolutions.com

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Step-Children and Divorce – Parenting Plans for Blended Families

What happens to your relationship with your step-children after your divorce from their parent? This is a hard question to answer because the lines are so blurry. Mediation can help.

If step-children have lived with you during your marriage to their parent, you have likely developed a close relationship with them, and perhaps they feel even closer to you than to their natural parent. This is not unusual, especially when there's been a lot of conflict between the natural parents. Or, you might be the only mom or dad they know.

Blended families may also include children that the two of you have had together. They consider your step-children to be their brothers and sisters, and often have a strong bond with them.

If you are a blended family experiencing separation or divorce, and there has been a good bond between step-parent and step-children, here are some questions to consider in your parenting plan:

• What will parenting time look like?
• How will this work when the step-children also have established schedules with both natural parents?
• If there are also children from this marriage, how will you ensure that they also get to spend time with the step-children?
• If there are step-children on both sides, do they have a bond with each other that would be beneficial to maintain?

While the courts are pretty clear about establishing parenting plans for children of the marriage, they can vary widely when asked to adopt a plan that includes step-children. The courts are starting to accept the concept that the step-parent can have as deep a psychological bond as a natural parent. And while court-ordered parenting plans involving step-children are appearing more frequently, it is safer to work out your own agreement than leave these important issues up to the unpredictability of the courts.

Mediation is especially helpful in helping couples work through the complexities of maintaining and supporting the relationships that have grown between the parents and children of blended families. In mediation, you have the luxury of trying out many different kinds of schedules that might work for you. And the mediator will help you explore more options when you get stuck.

Creativity is the key. Just as creativity made your blended family work in the first place, creativity can help your blended families ease the pains of separation and divorce.

© 2008, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center, www.cofamilysolutions.com

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Try to Think Like a Child When Working On Divorce-Related Parenting Issues

Parents spend untold hours dealing with parenting issues during and after their divorce or separation. But often this effort has the wrong focus. Instead of looking at these issues only from their own perspective, parents should try approaching them from the children's perspective.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Parenting Time

I don't know why I can't see Daddy more. I know I spend the night with him two times a week, but each time is so short. It's not enough! By the time Daddy picks me up from daycare on Tuesday, I barely get time to spend with before I have to do my homework. Then it's time to go to bed. He drops me off at school the next day and I don't see him again until Friday night for one more night. I feel like I spend more time saying good-bye to him than I do actually spending time with him.

While working out a parenting time schedule, parents will pour over calendars, counting up days, hours, and even minutes in an effort to design a schedule they think is fair. They spend very little time, however, actually putting themselves in their children's shoes to see how the schedule might feel to them.

School Activities

I'm so excited about my concert next week at school. The choir is doing a whole program of patriotic songs and I'm singing a solo! I'm hoping everyone can be there - Mom, Daddy, Nana and Papa, and Grams and Gramps! I'm nervous about singing a solo in front of everyone, but I'm even more nervous worrying about everybody getting along okay. I get so embarrassed when they say mean things in front of other people.

Sometimes, parents who are still angry and hurt over their separation or divorce don't know how to stop themselves from acting out with the other parent or starting arguments. This kind of public display in front of the child and others is horrifying to children and makes them want to dig a hole and jump in. You might think you are making yourself look better by showing the world and the children how bad the other parent is, but such behavior really makes the children think less of you.

Sports Activities

I really, really want to play baseball! Mom is okay with it and she's even willing to pay without asking for help from Dad. But, Dad says he won't let me play games on the weekends I'm with him, even if Mom drives. If I can't make it to games, I can't be on the team. I used to like spending time with Dad, but I hate it when he won't let me do any of my normal things when I'm at his house. It's not even like we're doing other fun stuff together, half the time we just watch TV. So what's the problem with him taking me to my games and watching me play?

Parenting time is a time for you to parent. That's why it's no longer called visitation. Parenting includes letting your children do the things kids do, like participating in activities outside of school and home. If you prevent your children from taking part in sports or other activities, you might gain some one-on-one time, but you risk damaging your relationship. Then, once they're old enough to choose, they might decide they don't want to spend time with you at all.

You can gain valuable insight if you allow yourself to think like a child when facing divorce-related parenting issues. The voice you hear might sound very different from your own. Hopefully listening to that voice will help you shape the choices you make in your divorce.

© 2008, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center, www.cofamilysolutions.com

Friday, July 11, 2008

Change In Publishing Schedule

I have been publishing new posts on Tuesdays and Fridays. Now that summer is in full swing, I am changing the schedule to publish only on Tuesdays until September 2. Beginning September 2, I should be back to publishing new posts on Tuesdays and Fridays.

As always, if there is a subject you would like to see me address, please add a comment letting me know.

Happy Parenting!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Older Children are Affected by Your Divorce, Too

Many couples wait to separate or divorce until their children are teenagers or older, thinking they can avoid the negative effects of divorce on the children. Much has been written about how divorce affects young children. But the impact on older children, even adult children, can also be profound.

Parents are often surprised at the strong reaction of their older children to their decision to divorce. But, when you think about it, the reaction isn't really all that surprising.

First of all, older children may have already experienced for themselves the hurt and anger that accompany a rocky or broken relationship. Based upon their personal experience with relationships, older children are likely to closely identify with their parents' emotions surrounding the divorce.

Secondly, as older children become more independent, their relationship with parents may shift to one that more resembles friendship. Because of these blurred lines, parents of older children frequently share more details of their marital problems and divorce with their children than they should. Unfortunately, this puts the older children in a very difficult position. They want to know what's going on, but they don't really want to be that intimate with their parent(s). They want to be supportive, but they aren't necessarily ready to see their parent(s) as regular, vulnerable human beings.

If parents divorce when the children are young, their parenting plans tend to focus on the day-to-day task of raising and caring for the children. Since older children need less structured care, parents may not think they need a parenting plan. But divorcing parents of older children have plenty of details to attend to, as well.

For example, how will you handle high school and college graduations? Will you be able to handle weddings without drama? Can you behave congenially for the grandchildren's special occasions?

It takes finesse to navigate these waters. Don't wade in there without a plan, just because your children are older.

© 2008, Mary Wollard, J.D., Family Solutions Center, www.cofamilysolutions.com