May 22, 2019 Practice Management

Practicing Family Law with Civility: Counseling Clients to Consider Children’s Long-Term Psychological Health

By Elise F. Buie

While going through a divorce, clients typically feel compelled to fight for what is best for themselves. This observation is not earth-shattering and should not shock anyone practicing divorce and family law. Dissolving a marriage is complicated and expensive. Clients want to make sure they come away with the security required to piece their lives together the best they can once the dust settles. Because they want out, or, too often, revenge on their spouse, clients tend to ignore the collateral damage they incur along the way from their egocentric actions. The inevitably result is a prolonged divorce process with a higher price tag.

There is, however, another cost, a higher one, that clients often overlook: their children’s psychological well-being, which can suffer when not tended to with the care it deserves. Even in situations where clients put their children’s needs first, they still may not be doing enough. It thus becomes up to the attorney to ensure that clients understand the psychological impact divorce can have on kids. That is if the attorney is up to supplying tough love to their clients and stepping outside the role of being only a client advocate and, instead, becoming one for the entire family, the soon-to-be-ex included. As a divorce and family lawyer, here is what you can do and why your guidance can make all the difference to your clients’ well-being and, more importantly, their children’s for years to come. In my years of experience advocating for children’s best interest as a guardian ad litem, I have seen that the two are inextricably related.

Parents Must Not Underestimate the Importance of Stability to Children

A key aspect of children’s psychological health is stability. Children must feel secure in their daily life to be at their happiest and healthiest. When parents do not cooperate during their divorce, children pick up on their discord no matter how subtle. In the long run, this negatively impacts children’s psychological health, causing them stress and possibly depression. To minimize the damage divorce can do to their kids, attorneys should instruct clients to cooperate with their ex-spouse when it comes to negotiating logistics and finances, even the “little things,” because, as we all can attest, it doesn’t take long to build a mountain out of a molehill.

A simple example of this is transporting kids to and from school and activities. Children should feel secure in the fact that their parent will consistently be there to drop them off or pick them up. However, kids should not become part of the discussion about who is responsible for what. Including them in such conversations can lower their self-esteem because they may consider themselves the source of the conflict even if their parents repeatedly tell them otherwise. Words only carry so much weight.

Parents need to further protect their children’s sense of security by adhering to the schedule they create. Phone visitation is an essential part of maintaining stability for children, for instance. Kids look forward to hearing a parent’s voice after a long day of school and activities if they are not going to see them that night. When parents forget to call, and children are expecting them to, they will be disappointed, devastated even, believing they have been ignored or are unloved. For those parents who don’t “get it,” the attorney must help them understand the ramifications of their actions or, in this case, inaction.

Parents Should Always Prioritize Children Before Their New Significant Other

It is crucial to understand that the effect divorce has on children is long-standing. After some time, parents may begin to date again. For children, that period is frequently emotionally charged. They may not “get over it” as fast as parents believed they would. Parents need to be patient with their children and should work on the relationship they share with their children before engaging in a romantic one with someone else. That includes putting their children’s financial needs before their new significant other’s. A relatively typical illustration of this is a man who showers his current girlfriend with expensive gifts but fights with his ex-wife about paying for his children’s expenses. Although the issue is a personal one, attorneys need to address it with their clients.

After divorce, parents may likewise start dating people who also have children. It is commendable when parents show support for their new significant other’s kids. However, they must not prioritize these kids over their own, or give the perception they are, if they expect to protect their children’s psychological health. It is difficult for some parents to see the problem with spending time and going to activities with their new significant other’s children, even when their own are in tow. Their children may take the shared time to mean their parent is replacing them and that they are no longer wanted. That interpretation could harm children’s psychological well-being. Again, it is up to the attorney to ensure that their clients’ children’s best interests stay a priority even when clients think they are doing right by everyone involved, which may mean beginning yet another uncomfortable conversation.

Attorneys offer value to their clients through honesty, not by merely being a mouthpiece for them. Attorneys must be real with their clients so that they can help their clients and, in turn, their children, to the best of their ability. Honesty breeds long-term success for families. The goal of divorce is to negotiate the best long-term solution after the dissolution of a marriage for all, not just one. If attorneys do not account for children’s needs during the divorce process, they fail at achieving this end.

Attorneys Should Inform Their Clients of Co-Parenting Techniques

Parents should foster a cooperative household to ensure their children’s success, long after their household splits into two. Attorneys should make their clients aware that if they do not cooperate when it comes to co-parenting issues, children may only feel sympathy for the parent “left behind.” At the same time, attorneys should also ensure that their clients let the other parent be a parent. Micromanagement is unhealthy for children’s psychological well-being as children may become unnecessarily dependent on parents who, for logistical reasons resulting from the divorce, cannot be depended on, and, at the same time, are not receiving the vote of confidence they need from parents to assume age-appropriate responsibilities required for growing up to be responsible adults.

Before taking any action in the divorce process, attorneys should ask “how will this impact the children?” From there, the attorney should decide the best course of action and share those recommendations with their clients. Options may include co-parenting coaching sessions or classes and reading books about co-parenting, such as Karen Bonnell’s The Co-Parenting Handbook and her more recent book with Patricia L. Papernow, The Stepfamily Handbook.

Attorneys Should Communicate with the Other Parent’s Attorney, Too

Similar to how parents must communicate to most effectively raise their children, attorneys must communicate with the other parent’s attorney to most effectively resolve the disputes associated with the dissolution of their clients’ marriage, no matter how small. Attorneys should work together to prevent disputes between their clients from escalating. Heightened conflict can only hurt the psychological well-being of the clients’ children. With open communication, attorneys can negotiate reasonable solutions that protect the whole family.

Keep Divorce Out of the Courthouse

As much as possible, attorneys should deter their clients from using litigation to settle their divorce disputes. Court proceedings can get nasty, and vitriolic declarations made as part of this process are written and accessible to all. Litigation is not useful for achieving peacefulness over the long haul. A jarring lack of emotional intelligence in some attorneys, which is highly problematic for settling divorces amicably, leads proceedings to devolve into tit-for-tat exchanges. This mentality ultimately hurts clients and their children because it treats divorce like a battle in which the winner takes all; in reality, there are no winners in such scenarios.

Attorneys should instead introduce their clients to other tools more conducive to allowing parents to move forward in a cooperative manner, such as alternative dispute resolution. Litigation inevitably prolongs the divorce process, and the longer the divorce, the more of an impact it will have on children’s mental health. Attorneys should likewise counsel parents to veer away from thinking of themselves as solely opposing spouses and, preferably, conceive of themselves as “Co-CEOs of Team Child” with the common aim of raising their children to be their best, psychologically sound selves.

Conclusion

I believe attorneys have a moral and ethical obligation to remind clients to think about their children and the long-term psychological effects associated with divorce. The problem is clients, and many attorneys, become embroiled so quickly in an expensive and stressful legal process that they lose sight of what is really at stake: the children’s long-term psychological health. To break the cycle, attorneys must guide their clients through the divorce process by underscoring how every decision they make has an impact, what the consequence of each decision is, and who is impacted by their actions. Attorneys must strive to mitigate the damage caused to their clients’ relationship with their children. To do this, they need to be honest with their clients and communicate regularly with opposing attorneys. And, most importantly, they must negotiate a long-term solution that works for all the parties involved in the divorce, especially the party who often lacks a voice but needs one the most: the children.

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Elise F. Buie is the founder and principal of Elise Buie Family Law Group, PLLC (elisebuiefamilylaw.com), in Seattle, Washington. Her practice focuses on family law, dependency, and guardian ad litem work, and she strives to bring civility into her professional world through each and every interaction.