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Child custody and the impact of divorce

Couples considering marital dissolution are generally concerned about two areas. Asset division is as much a concern for marital partners with modest resources as for wealthy couples with complicated property-division issues. 

The other area significant to parents is the emotional well-being of their children. Few other concerns in a divorce match child custody for generating parental feelings of doubt, concern, guilt or possessiveness. Most parents want to spare their children from trauma associated with divorce.

Washington State law regarding child custody plans 

As in many states, Washington custody laws give children the best chance for active involvement with both parents. States recognize that the emotional toll of divorce eases when children can count on relationships with both their mother and father.

Sadly, there are some cases where one parent is either denied child custody altogether or can only see a child under strict supervision for short visits. These arrangements only occur in dire cases of a parent who may endanger a child due to substance addiction or a history of physical abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Common reactions among children after divorce

No matter how much time and planning parents devote to making the custody transition easier for their children, there is no question that divorce affects children adversely. They can experience the same bewilderment, grief or conflicted feelings their parents go through. Divorce is not a benign process. Parents need not despair if they see their children in distress. This is a normal part of grieving the loss of the family unit. There is a space of time before adults and children adjust to their new normal. Parents can help their children during this adjustment by watching for red flags:

  • Anxiety and stress – The road ahead holds unknown territory for children; as such, the familiar landmarks in their lives will change and, for a time, they may feel disoriented, anxious and exhibit symptoms of stress.
  • Resentment and anger – Older children can act out during this time of transition. Their behavior may range from concerning to alarming. Parents need to listen, rather than judge or give advice; above all, do not punish the child for challenging behaviors. Family rules, however, should be set and enforced within reason. Disrespectful, angry or hate-filled speech or violent behavior is not allowed; a parent can simply walk away from a child for a moment and re-engage when the storm is over.
  • Depression and despair – These symptoms may be more concerning than all the others because they are easy to overlook. Children who are normally reserved can withdraw further into themselves without anyone noticing. Untreated depression can become chronic and serious. Parents should make sure the quiet child's needs do not get lost behind the drama of a child who acts out. 

Wise parents do their homework before the divorce is final. They may begin family counseling during the divorce process. At the very least, they should have an arrangement with a family therapist to spend time after the divorce getting help with emotional needs. One-on-one therapy for a child may become necessary. A professional who practices both family counseling and child therapy may offer maximum benefit.

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