I am concerned about our children.

We have all heard too many stories of children who suffered significantly as a result of conflict between their parents.  The choices that parents make during divorce are likely to affect their children for many years.  Parents who want to protect their children from the harmful effects of divorce need to gather as much information as possible about their options before taking the first steps toward divorce.

Divorce is usually difficult for everyone in the family, including the children.  Certainly some children suffer significant harm from the effects of the divorce.  However, there are also many children who emerge from the divorce with everything they need to live the happy, healthy lives that we all want for our children.

The choices made by both parents during the divorce will likely have a very large impact on the future of your children. Deb Clemmensen, a leading Minnesota child psychologist, sums it up best when she tells parents that “children should be at the center and not in the middle.”   If both parents are able to truly place the needs of the children at the center, there is a good chance that the children will not only “be okay” but will go on to lead the lives that you have always hoped they would have.

That is impossible to determine without knowing the parenting environment that exists in your current home.  If your children are in a stable home with two loving parents, it is likely than an intact home is the best environment for them.  However, if at least one parent is considering divorce, it is likely your family is under considerable stress.  Whether the stress of your current situation is better or worse than the stress of the divorce needs to be carefully examined, probably with the help of professionals.  If you believe your marriage can be saved, it will be best to focus your efforts on improving your home life.  For information about saving your marriage, click here.  On the other hand, if  at least one parent decides that a divorce is necessary, it is important to focus on how to get through the divorce in a way that helps you protect your children’s essential needs.

That depends on your particular circumstances.  In most households, both parents are capable of providing something positive for the children.  If you have one of the rare circumstances in which your spouse cannot provide suitable care for your children, perhaps as the result of an active addiction or a severe personality disorder, you should consult with an attorney about the best ways to protect your children.  On the other hand, if you have two parents who are capable of providing a healthy home for your children, (at least some of the time) you will want to focus on developing a parenting plan that gives your children the best of what both parents can offer.

  • Substantial time in both households.  Among other things, you may want to find a way to allow the children to spend substantial time with both parents.  Please note “substantial time” in both households does not necessarily mean “equal time” or “joint custody.”   Generally, that will mean creating a “parenting plan” that describes how that will occur and finding a way to communicate with the other parent.
  • Parenting Plans:  Under Minnesota Law, the parents can make a “parenting plan” to help them decide how to parent their children.  A parenting plan is, as it sounds, a plan that describes how you and your spouse are going to co-parent your children after the divorce, including the parenting schedule, how you will make certain decisions, etc.

Download a Collaborative Team Parenting Plan

Download a Parenting Plan Worksheet

Sometimes it is best to hold off on thinking about the custody labels and to focus on finding a  way to help your chIldren benefit from the best of what each home can offer.  This section has started by discussing parenting plans, rather than “custody” or custody labels, because the labels can sometimes be confusing and often get people thinking in a way that is not helpful to their parenting.   Often children get “caught in the middle” because one or both parents have become focused on these “custody labels” and not on how to parent their children.   Very likely your children need a healthy relationship with their mother and their father and they need to be free of conflict more than they need a custody label.   Nevertheless, custody labels still do have  some impact, so you will need to have some understanding of what these labels mean.  For information about the custody labels, click on the section labeled “The Law”” on the left side of this page.

Often parents go into a divorce with an idea of wanting a particular “percentage of time” with the children (such as 50%).  It is sometimes confusing to look at percentages because there are so many variables. For example, does school time or sleeping time count the same as weekends?  Does a parent who has only 40% of the time but sees the children during the weekends have less parenting time time than the parent who has mid week time.  More importantly, your children very likley do not care about percentages of time. They may want 100% of mom 100% of the time and 100% of dad 100% of the time. Therefore, focusing strictly on percentages of time can put the children in the middle of your conflict instead of at the center.  Perhaps the parent who is insisting on 50% of the time is truly saying that they do not want to be a “lesser parent” in an way.  If that is the real concern, (and it can be an understandable concern), there are likely ways to give each parent equal stature and worth that do not necessarily require parents to count all of the hours in the week or to focus on percentages. The suggestion of focusing on the real needs of the children, rather than custody labels and percentages of time is based on a theory called “interest based” decision making.   Under that theory, people make better decisions when they start by focusing on what they really care about, (i.e. their true interests) rather than on “positions” such as custody labels and percentages of time.  To learn more about what is meant by the phrase “interest based decision making” please click here.

While some people are able to develop strong parenting plans on their own, most people can benefit from getting some help in creating a plan that truly addresses the needs of your children.  There are many different types of professionals who can help you with your parenting plans and many different roles that these professionals may have.  So, your success may depend on determining the kinds of professionals that can help you.  Let’s look at the professional options separately.

The two big questions in getting help:  Expertise and Neutrality.

In deciding what kind of help will be most useful, (with parenting or any other issue) it is best to think about two key questions.  What kind of expertise do you need and do you want a “Neutral” or an “ally” (or some of both)?

Expertise: Professionals who work in the area of divorce generally have one or more of the following areas of expertise: law, negotiation, child development, communication and relationships, and financial.  Successful parenting plans sometimes require some expertise in all of those areas.  But let’s start by thinking about what is the most critical expertise that you need.

Lawyers and Judges: A common mistake that people make is to think that their best resource for determining parenting issues in a divorce is either an attorney or a judge.   Although lawyers and judges may have a role in your final decisions, it generally makes sense to look outside of those professions.   Almost any judge who has worked in divorce will agree that you do not want a judge to decide details of the parenting of your children if you can make the decision yourselves. No matter how well intentioned the judge may be, he or she does not know as much about your family as you do and their background is in law and not child development.  As a result, fewer than 3% of final parenting decisions are made by judges.

While it is much more common to have lawyers help with parenting decisions, lawyers like judges, do not generally have backgrounds in child development. Therefore, while lawyers can help you sort out your options, think about negotiating strategies, or draft your agreement, they are not generally the best experts available to tell you about the unique needs of your children.

Mental Health Professionals:  Often the best professionals to help you with parenting plans are mental health professionals.  Child psychologists who focus on working with divorcing families can provide valuable insights about how to address the developmental needs of children in divorce.  They can also meet with your children and help you understand the specific needs of your children.  (This is different than child therapy, although one of the things that a child psychologist may recommend is therapy.)   Mental health professionals who work with divorcing adults can also help you with your parenting plan or help you on the emotional issues or communication problems that may be impacting your ability to coparent your children successfully.   Again, this is separate from therapy in that the focus is specifically on helping you with specific issues relating to your divorce.

The best parenting plans are generally created with the help of people that know the most about parenting and relationships.   While that may seem obvious, most people have difficulty finding parenting assistance.  While there are many people in our communities who have expertise in parenting or relationships, there is often confusion as to where these people fit in the divorce process.  If you ask for any professional to assist you with you on your parenting plan, (or any part of your divorce), it is important to distinguish the people who are hired to help both parents from the people you hire to work on your behalf.

Mediators.   Mediators are neutral professionals who can help you will also aspect of your divorce, including your parenting plans.  Mediators can come from from a variety of professional backgrounds, including attorneys, mental health professionals and people with background in business.  For more on mediation, please go to the website section on process choices.