By Karen Fagerstorm, Ph. D., Berkeley
The process of divorce, driven by the choices and desires of the divorcing couple, fundamentally alters the experience and structure of family life for both adults and children in the divorcing family.
The challenges, stresses and dilemmas divorce introduces into the lives of children whose parents are divorcing have been well researched and documented. For most children, divorce is experienced as a profoundly unwelcome and unhappy change in family life. While most divorcing parents worry about how divorce will affect their children, in the midst of the complicated and often chaotic process of divorce, concerns and interests pertaining to the children are often eclipsed by other immediate and pressing demands. During divorce, parents are overloaded with the turmoil of ending a marriage, taxed by the demands of decision making and stressed by the loss of their parenting partnership with the other parent. Even the most sensitive and committed parents may be drawn off track during divorce. They lose sight of their children’s needs and worries for brief moments or for protracted periods of time. Meanwhile, children are left burdened with many questions, worries, hopes and uncertainties about what is going to happen to them and to their family. In order to ensure that children don’t get lost in the shuffle during divorce, a child specialist works with the children to help identify and understand their experiences and perspectives. The child specialist provides information and recommendations to the parent about how they can best help their children through the divorce process and how they, as co-parents, can develop sensitive and sound plans for the future.
Scope of the Child Specialist’s Work
The child specialist works with the children to assess their needs and interests, provides information and feedback to parents regarding these interests during the divorce process, and collaborates with the other professionals working with the divorcing family as decisions pertaining to the children are considered.
Working with the children, the child specialist 1) offers support and comfort during a stressful time, 2) makes available a place and context for them to share their story about what's happening in their family, 3) allows them an opportunity to ask questions and discuss concerns they may be reluctant to bring up with their mother or father, and 4) encourages them to identify specific hopes and fears about their immediate circumstances and the future.
The child specialist is then able to provide valuable, impartial information to the parents, and to those helping the parents, as plans for dealing with the immediate family changes and for the future are discussed and decided upon.
Working with the parents, the child specialist 1) informs them about common reactions children have to divorce, 2) discusses development and practical considerations important in making custody agreements, 3) assists parents in developing realistic and thoughtful custody plans and 4) helps parents look ahead to anticipate the challenges they face as co-parents after divorce.
Working collaboratively with the other professionals engaged in helping the family through divorce, the child specialist provides specific recommendations and advice for protecting children during the divorce process itself as well as for developing the best plans for the future.
The child specialist is knowledgeable about family dynamics, child development, parenting, psychopathology, and children’s responses to change, stress and loss. Maintaining a comforting and supportive relationship with the child, the specialist identifies their role as one of helping children with the changes of divorce. The child specialist provides information and recommendations to the parents in a framework that acknowledges common ground as well as differences. As an advocate for the child, the child specialist conveys an attitude of supportive, confident, expectation that parents will be able to work collaboratively to develop thoughtful and successful plans for the family, holding their child’s interests and needs foremost in mind.
Benefits to Children and Their Parents
The Children benefit by receiving support and careful attention during a time of stress and change, a time when, due to their own distress, parents may be less clearly attuned to their children’s needs and worries and less able to fully function as parents. Children feel heard and are relieved when their thoughts and feelings about their changing family are acknowledged, considered and represented. They are reassured to know that their parents are able to work together to address the many details and difficulties that characterize this time of family transition.
The divorcing couple benefits when the child specialist, operating as an advocate of the child, does not take the side of either parent against the other. Rather, the child specialist provides information, feedback and recommendations in a supportive way, appreciative of the unique contributions and roles of each parent. This helps the divorcing couple use the child specialist as a neutral resource while working together to develop plans that are in the child’s best interest. The child specialist’s firm and unambiguous commitment to represent the best interests of the child is compatible with the hope that the divorcing parents will each give their best and get the most out of their experience of parenting in the post-divorce years.
Benefits to the Other Professionals Working With the Divorcing Family
During divorce, parents can have trouble distinguishing their own needs and wants from their children’s. They often present a very skewed picture or incomplete account of what’s going on with their children. This, of course, makes it difficult for others (attorney’s, divorce coaches, financial specialists) to feel confident they have a good grasp of they key child-related issues and concerns. The direct, clear feedback and recommendations the child specialist formulates are of great benefit to others working with the family, as they represent knowledge and expertise from an impartial source able to separate the point of view of child from point of view of parent.
The child specialist offers recommendations about urgent and/or immediate child-related concerns as well as recommendations for a parenting plan extending into the future. These recommendations are thoughtfully tailored to the unique circumstances of each family. They are usually quite helpful and stabilizing and can have the effect of “steadying the boat”, which of course can be of benefit to other professionals working with the divorcing couple.