At the Sisemore Law Firm, one of the big goals we try to achieve when negotiating child custody agreements is to put orders in place that will minimize the likelihood of a future custody modification in Texas. Believe it or not, we don’t want repeat business. We want to help clients get things right the first time around. Unfortunately, frequent high conflict custody exchanges lead many parents back to court to modify orders for child custody and visitation.
Going back to court costs money, so why not take steps to avoid it? Following are eight ways you can minimize conflict during custody exchanges, as well as the likelihood of going back to court.
No. 1: Think long and hard about the logistics of the official exchange point. Figuring out the best place and time for the custody exchange usually takes time. You and the other parent may hit some bumps in the road along the way, and it’s best to allow yourself the time to go through the process – test some options out, if you will – before the final orders are signed. You might find out traffic is an issue or realize a child’s extracurriculars complicate matters – life happens.
That’s one reason temporary orders are put in place – to allow you to work those things out before the divorce is final and adjust if needed.
Choosing a neutral location is typically best because exchanging the child at one of the parent’s residences may bring on territorial instincts – similar to the way a dog protects its home. We’ve also seen issues where one parent gets the child to go in and remove things from the other parent’s home. Picking a public location that works well for both parents and is comfortable for the child helps take territorial issues off the table.
No. 2: Do your best to minimize stress for the child during the exchange. One situation that arises in many custody exchanges is where the child doesn’t want to go with the other parent. This isn’t because the child doesn’t like the other parent or because the parent has done something wrong. It can happen with any child, where you pull them away from mommy, which leads to screaming and crying.
That’s why it’s important for both parents to anticipate the situation and prepare for it. Otherwise, you may end up with a mama bear or papa bear scenario, with one parent trying to defend their little one. These situations often escalate when third parties are involved, like a new spouse or girlfriend. A family therapist or counselor can offer insight on how to minimize the stress and trauma for children during custody exchanges.
No. 3: Do your best to follow orders pertaining to custody exchanges as written. Being flexible and willing to change the exchange point as a one- or two-off deal usually isn’t a problem, but you need to be careful. Say you decide to change the exchange point and it works out well for awhile. Then, after a couple of months, it isn’t working out, and you want to go back to the original order.
Flip-flopping back and forth can cause tension and may even break the enforceability of the order. Be sure to ask your family law attorney what risks you could face by not following the orders as written. Again, this is why it’s so important to think through the exchange point before the who, what, where, when and why of your orders are finalized.
No. 4: Take co-parenting classes. We always encourage our clients to be proactive about healthy co-parenting, and co-parenting classes can really help. These classes teach parents how to behave as parents after separating. Parents also learn how to communicate in a healthy way, from simple things like, don’t argue in front of the kids to how to peacefully weigh options for schools and extracurricular activities.
If you’ve never had to co-parent with an ex before, that doesn’t mean you’re not capable of doing so successfully. Co-parenting classes can help arm parents with the tools they need to do what’s best for their children.
No. 5: Be proactive about communicating. If you’re stuck in traffic, you missed your flight or an important meeting is running over, let the other parent know as soon as possible. Just be respectful of the other parent. They may still be upset that you’re going to be late but at least they know why, which may help cut down the tension.
Keep in mind, if you consistently “do the right thing,” your lawyer is going to have much higher odds for success in the courtroom. Try to be on time, but if you are running late, apologize and give the other parent ample warning. Doing so via text is also a great way to create a record of your communications and provide context, should the other parent claim you are consistently late.
No. 6: Don’t sweat the small stuff. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Life happens. Plus, there may be little things you do that bother your ex about you. The truth is, the court typically doesn’t care that he was 12 minutes late to drop your daughter off or she forgot to turn her blinker on when she turned into the parking lot. Save your energy for the big stuff – you’ll need it.
No. 7: Be proactive about de-escalation. If the other parent wants to get into an argument with you, don’t argue back. Even if you know you’re in the right and the other parent is in the wrong, just keep your mouth shut and smile. It takes two to have an argument, right? By not responding, you can prevent an argument from taking place. Keep in mind, your kids will see and hear everything, and the minute you respond, they see that as one parent attacking the other one. That’s not healthy for them, and it’s not healthy for you either.
Another way to de-escalate a potential high-conflict custody exchange is to bring a third party with you. The other parent may simply behave better if another person is present. However, be judicious as to who you select to bring with you. A new lover typically is never a good idea, as is someone who is known to escalate conflict. Bring someone who tends to de-escalate conflict and perhaps a person the other parent has gotten along with well in the past.
No. 8: Involve law enforcement if there is a threat of family violence. Most high conflict custody exchanges involve verbal exchanges not physical assault. Law enforcement agencies prefer that couples settle domestic disagreements in court, especially since many have limited resources. However, if the other parent threatens you or your children, it’s essential to take action.
You can seek a protective order that prohibits that person from coming in contact with you, but you will need to provide evidence to the court that a threat exists or family violence has occurred. If you have been assaulted, file a police report right away. When possible, record any incidents as they occur (audio recordings may be easier to conceal), take photos of any injuries and keep copies of any threatening voicemails, texts or emails. Your family law attorney can guide you on the best steps to take when dealing with a violent ex.
Need help getting custody and visitation orders right the first time?
Our Fort Worth family law attorneys are here to help. We can explain what to expect as you go through the process and provide additional insight on avoiding high-conflict custody exchanges. To speak with a Sisemore Law Firm attorney about child custody and visitation in Tarrant County, contact us to schedule a confidential consultation.