How to mitigate the psychological effects of child custody battles

Parents argue as son covers ears

Most parents realize divorce and child custody battles can be troubling for children. However, many parents underestimate the impact their behavior toward the other parent (good and bad) and willingness to co-parent can have on their kids. If you want to mitigate the psychological effects of child custody battles for your child, be civil to the other parent, get counseling, think long-term and be flexible as things change. Here’s how.

Behavioral issues, depression and child custody battles often go hand-in-hand

Research published in the journal American Sociological Review shows that parental separation and divorce put children and adolescents at an increased risk for adjustment disorder child custody, lower grades, misconduct, substance abuse and depression child custody.

These issues are magnified when parents don’t get along. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “parental conflict often takes a profound emotional toll on children caught in the middle, leading to increased school drop-out rates, behavioral problems and mental health issues.”

As a family law attorney, I find this to be the case time and time again. Children are like sponges and when their parents are constantly arguing and speaking negatively about each other, that negative energy and anxiety trickles directly down to them.

For example, I recently witnessed a parent who was super teed up about the other parent and speaking negatively about that other parent in front of the child. You could see the anxiety on that poor kid’s face.

That child had been getting negative messages about the other parent for some time, so it’s no wonder the child feels anxious and is afraid to go the other parent’s house. And that parent was someone whom the child loved and had a very close relationship with prior to the divorce and child custody battle. Now they feel like it isn’t safe to go to the other parent’s house and something bad is going to happen when they get there—all because of the unnecessary fighting, acrimony and tension between the two parents.

The psychological effects of child custody come to a head when parents fight over custody

When you get into the heat of a nasty custody case, and tensions have been building for some time, children pay the price emotionally by witnessing truly negative, terrible traits of their parents that a child should never be exposed to.

Unfortunately, this results in many children developing a sense of resentment toward their parents, especially the parent they blame for tearing their family apart. Even worse, some parents deliberately plant seeds of negativity about the other parent in their children’s minds, and this parental alienation can be so devastating to a child.

In addition, some children develop a sense of, “I need to build a tough protective shell around me since I can’t let my feelings out because no one will listen, and if they do, they’ll judge me.”

Many children also suffer from adjustment disorder child custody issues. Change is scary for adults going through a divorce but it can be a thousand times harder on kids. And even if their environment was bad with mom and dad—or mom and mom or dad and dad—fighting all the time at home, the child was accustomed to that home life.

An adjustment disorder can be something as simple as, “Oh my gosh, now I have to go stay over at this other house. I don’t feel comfortable in this room. I don’t have my TV here.” Whatever that little “security blanket” was in the child’s life has been taken away.

Unfortunately, many parents force their children into these new environments without learning how to adapt to change themselves or how to coach the child through that change together as co-parents. That’s an important step many people miss in the custody process.

Common signs of emotional distress during a child custody battle

The psychological effects of child custody battles surface in a number of other ways—from acting out to trouble sleeping to child custody depression—and do vary based on the age and maturity of the child. In an article published by the California Cognitive Behavioral Institute, Kathie Mathis, Psy.D described the common signs of emotional stress in children in divorce, separation and custody battles as follows:

  • Infants and toddlers. Regression in sleeping, toilet training, eating or learning new skills; sleep disturbances; clinginess with parents; general crankiness, temper tantrums, crying.
  • Three to 5 years. Regression by returning to security blankets and discarded toys, lapses in toilet training, thumb sucking; making up fantasy stories; blaming themselves, feeling guilty; bedtime anxiety, frequent waking; fear of abandonment, clinginess; irritability, aggression, temper tantrums.
  • Six to 8 years. Pervasive sadness, feeling abandoned and rejected; crying and sobbing; afraid worst fears are coming true; reconciliation fantasies; loyalty conflicts, feeling physically torn apart; impulse control problems; disorganized behavior.
  • Nine to 12 years. See family issues clearly, try to bring order to the situation; fear of loneliness; intense anger toward parent they blame for divorce; physical complaints, headaches, stomach aches; become overactive to avoid thinking about family problems; feel ashamed of the situation and different from other children.
  • Adolescents. Fear being isolated and lonely; see parents as leaving them and being unavailable to them; feel hurried to achieve independence; feel in competition with parents; worry about their own future loves and marriage; preoccupied with survival; uncomfortable with parents dating and sexuality; chronically tired, trouble concentrating; mourn loss of their family, childhood and future as a family unit.

Of course, children can also suffer ill psychological effects when they’re trying to navigate an environment where family violence is present, as well as the negative effects of shared custody arrangements that don’t serve the child’s best interest. Whether you’re a parent battling for custody or a concerned bystander, say you’re dating a woman in a custody battle, if you see any signs of emotional stress in a child, take notice.

How can you prevent your child from experiencing the psychological effects of child custody?

Try hard (really hard) to get along with the other parent and put your child first

It’s REALLY important to understand that children typically see themselves as 50% of each parent. If you criticize the other parent, you criticize the child and make them feel like something is wrong with them, too. And if you’re being a terrible, horrible parent, your child is also identifying with you and your behavior, making them feel even worse. Now the child feels like 100% of them is bad and will often place the blame squarely on themselves for the family’s troubles.

Remember that quote from the APA I shared earlier? “Parental conflict often takes a profound emotional toll on children caught in the middle …” If you and the other parent can’t get along and have trouble communicating:

  • Do NOT fight in front of your children
  • Do NOT say negative things about the other parent in front of your children
  • Tell friends and family members to NOT say negative things about the other parent in front of the children.
  • No matter how deeply you despise the other parent, take the high road, kill them with kindness. Being flexible, cooperative and humble speaks volumes in family court.

The only thing in the world the child really wants and needs when their parents are arguing is for those parents to stop fighting and saying terrible things about each other. Unfortunately, too many parents focus on how the divorce and child custody battle is affecting them when they should be focusing on how to help their child through it.

Don’t be like those parents!
Be proactive and think long-term about your child’s future

Don’t be the parent who complains to their child how bad the situation is for the parent but forgets about the child and how he or she is coping. Many parents just don’t see that but YOU have to think about that and take proactive steps to ensure your child feels safe, secure and loved if you want to increase the odds of your child living an emotionally healthy and happy life today and through adulthood.

You can’t be shortsighted when thinking about and planning for your child’s wellbeing. That includes today, during their school years and college, as they launch their careers, and when they fall in love, get married and have kids of their own.

If you don’t take steps to provide a safe, secure and happy environment for your child, that child will try to “fix things” on their own—which can be disastrous.

Left to their own devices, children in these situations are going to self-diagnose and try to figure out why they’re flawed, even when they aren’t. They will go seek out their own solutions, and if they do, you better hope what they find is positive fuel for them. But most often it’s not.

It could be little pot-smoking, beer-guzzling Timmy from down the street, who comes over and says, “Hey, come on, let’s go over to Bobby’s house and have a couple of beers.” Alternatively, they could go online and research endlessly about depression and anxiety, then before you know it, they start talking to some random stranger online.

Those negative outside forces will become their support mechanism. Do you want to take control of the situation or be in a position where someone else takes control? Wouldn’t it be better to be in a position where you can at least assist your child and guide your child to the right path regardless of your distaste of the other parent? You better step up, especially if you are wondering, how to win full custody as a father or mother, of your child.

Why family counseling and a support system is so important during child custody battles

Going through a divorce and custody battle is one of the hardest things you’ll ever deal with in your life, not to mention your child’s. Don’t assume you know how to sail through the situation with flying colors because you 100% do not.

The emotional effects of divorce can have a toll on all parties involved. It’s incredibly important to surround yourself and your child with people who can help set you on the right path and be there for you both today and whenever life throws you a curveball down the road.

I encourage all of my clients to seek the guidance of a family therapist or other mental health professional when going through divorce and child custody battles. As a divorce attorney, I can guide my clients on Texas child support laws and child custody options but I’m not a therapist.

A mental health professional who specializes in family counseling can provide the insight and tools you need to help your child avoid falling victim to the psychological effects of child custody battles and divorce. Don’t skip this important step—it’s critical for your child’s long-term wellbeing.

And don’t stop there. Expand your and your child’s support system with programs and guidance through your place of worship, schools, teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, support groups, family members and other people who can provide positive, ongoing influences for you both.

Being a great parent is hard work. We can set you up for success.

Families are complex whether they are intact or not intact. There’s no short answer or overnight solution that will make you a Super Dad or Super Mom. You’ve got to be ready to roll with the punches and constantly evolve as your family dynamics do. Working hard to co-parent amicably, thinking proactively about your child’s long-term future and having a clear plan regarding your approach to child custody  divorce and child custody will set you and your child up for a bright future. The Sisemore Law Firm in Fort Worth can help!

If you are a Texas parent seeking guidance on child custody, Texas child support laws or divorce, contact us. You can schedule a confidential case review with our founder attorney Justin Sisemore by calling our Fort Worth law office at (817) 336-4444 or by connecting with us online.

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