I get asked a lot about Child Custody.
It’s not surprising, since a parent’s love for their children is bigger than any financial settlement. Oftentimes, a parent feels that getting more time with the child is worth more than any divorce settlement can buy. Unfortunately, as a mediator specializing in divorce and child custody here in Los Angeles, I see a lot of clients who try to manipulate their children into choosing sides.
As a kid I remember seeing my friend’s parents getting divorced and wondering, “who would I choose?” It’s a terrible thought, but with all the Law & Order-type shows on TV nowadays and with divorce rates sky-high, it’s one that kids think they might have to make. Fortunately, entertainment is entertainment, and most often it is not the child’s decision. The legal system in the United States and here in California have it set up so it doesn’t get to that point.
Sometimes, however, a child involved in a custody dispute does verbalize or behave in a certain way that makes their wish known. This can be tricky. If they favor your side, you may want to encourage the behavior. This is irresponsible and only creates further damage. A child is young enough where they sometimes don’t know the affect that a decision will have on them. This is why they need to be encouraged (and even forced) to visit both parents. Stress to them that it is both parents’ wish to share time and that they shouldn’t feel that they are dividing loyalties. If it is necessary, consult professional help from a therapist or counselor.
In Los Angeles, Major Family Services offers a number of really terrific, high quality programs on how to deal with parental alienation and high conflict parenting. Co Parenting classes can also be very helpful, and there are many available in most communities.
As a divorce mediator and attorney, I see these delicate situations firsthand. In a mediation session I can offer my advice based on your unique situation. Divorce is not easy. It is tough on everyone, including, and especially, children. There is a clinical term for what a child faces when they prefer not to visit a parent. It’s called Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS. They may disregard the unfavored parent or even express vitriol or hatred towards them. Even if you may think that you are not expressing it to your child, you may be encouraging it by what you don’t say, or even through small behavioral cues that the child picks up on, for instance when you are answering the phone or when you see your spouse’s car pull up in the driveway. The behavior of your child often expresses your subconscious desires.
The important part is open communication with your child and your spouse. Try to get your child to express truly what they feel to get it out in the open. Talk with your spouse about it too. That’s one of the things I love about divorce mediation, the ability to sit in a room and talk it out.
If you feel you are a victim of Parental Alienation Syndrome, you have a few options. First, talk with your child about it directly. If that doesn’t help you can have a loved one, someone who you both trust, like a grandparent, talk to them about it. Above all else, express your love for your child. Let them know how much rejection can hurt, and how you really want to work on your relationship. Ask your child what obstacles are getting in the way. You’d be surprised how honest children can be when confronted directly.
You don’t need me to tell you that dealing with children can be tricky. Sometimes the best way to get a message to them is through the least amount of intervention. If, after speaking with them, you don’t feel like your relationship has improved, you do have legal options. There are motions you can file, such as contempt of a visitation agreement, to get the court to intervene. Detainment and/or financial sanctions could handed out to the offending parent. These are last resorts and we can talk about all your options when you meet with a mediator. Search this website for more details on Family Mediation and Child Custody Laws in California or to set up an appointment.