Divorce is one of the most stressful things that can happen to a family, and when there are children involved, everything is that much more painful.
In fact, that’s why the trope of staying together for the kids is so common among couples with marital problems – no one wants to expose their children to this kind of familial fracturing, but sometimes it’s the best thing for everyone involved.
When parents divorce, though, they also have to address a critical question that childless couples will never understand: where will the kids live?
Child custody decisions are as individual as couples themselves, so there’s no default answer to this question.
There are, however, a number of standard considerations that all respond to the overarching issue, which is, “what is in the best interest of the child?”
In general, experts agree that it’s in children’s best interests for parents to have shared custody so they can build relationships with both of them.
Shared is not the same as equal, though, and should take the individual family’s circumstances into account.
Furthermore, while shared custody may theoretically be best, there are certain factors that automatically disqualify a parent from having custody, including any history of abuse or neglect.
Parents may also be disqualified from receiving custody because they have significant physical or mental health problems that prevent them from meeting the child’s needs, or extenuating circumstances such as homelessness or living in an unsafe place.
These factors tend to result in hard and fast rulings about custody, though depending on the issue, some parents may still have supervised visitation rights or other planned interactions with their children.
Your Behavior Matters
Custody disputes can be tense, and many become downright mean.
As parents, though, you need to do your best to rise above the conflict.
Keep your emotions in check and make it clear that your child is not a pawn – you aren’t using custody to try to win a victory over your ex.
It’s also particularly important that you keep any fighting and negativity about your co-parent far away from your children.
While older children may want more of an explanation, parents should never try to turn their child against the other parent.
Because of how much added tension and anxiety litigating custody can add to a divorce, many lawyers recommend trying to reach a custody agreement through mediation.
This approach is meant to be non-adversarial, though it can still lead to the courtroom if you can’t reach an agreement.
Given that you’ll be coparenting for years to come, however, it’s worth trying mediation and working to build your communication skills.
Children Have A Say
Young children are often required to accept shared custody arrangements if that’s what the court decides is best, and both parents want to take that route.
As they get older, though, child preference carries greater weight.
Judges try to ensure that children feel heard in custody considerations, since they know fighting their preferences can create lasting resentment and other relationship problems.
Children’s preferences also tend to reflect existing relationships with their parents, which is another factor that judges weigh when making custody decisions.
This Isn’t Forever
During the struggle over custody, people tend to forget that these arrangements aren’t meant to last forever.
Rather, custody arrangements reflect what’s best for your family at a given moment in time.
That means that, when circumstances and preferences change, you’ll have the opportunity to revisit this agreement and adjust it.
It’s entirely possible that parents and children won’t like everything about their custody agreement – in fact, it’s common.
Like everything about navigating the divorce process, however, this is about adjusting to a new normal.
All that matters is that you do your best to make it work and participate in the plan as it’s laid out.
The best interests of the children can be hard to define, but they are always the top priority.