Los Angeles Chapter  California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

Los Angeles Chapter — CAMFT

LA-CAMFT Member Article

12/31/2023 4:00 PM | Mike Johnsen (Administrator)

Steven Unruh,

Post-Divorce Custody Battles:
The Trauma to Kids

CUSTODY DISPUTES "post-divorce" can cause MORE HARM than the divorce itself. This is because the child does not have a sense of time. They are RE-TRAUMATIZED as the fighting continues. Research shows that many negative impacts, severe depression, and anxiety usually do occur in the child when the anger between the parents continues after the divorce. 

WHY . . . do parents have custody disputes post-divorce? 

Factors That Lead to Child Custody Battles 

1. Similar Problems Still Exist Post-Divorce

The problems that occurred during the marriage don’t just magically disappear with divorce. Things like communication issues, hostility, and resentment remain. These issues often come out in custody disputes. 

The most common reason that conflict continues even after the divorce is related to what happened during the marriage itself. While married, one parent believes that the other parent is lacking in basic parental skills. Maybe they see the other parent as irresponsible for not getting help for an addiction issue. Whether the marriage was plagued by infidelity, addiction, or trust issues, these will remain after divorce unless both parents do some serious self-work. 

John and Pam: When John picks up the kids from his ex-wife Pam’s house, he learns that she did not put the kids to bed on time, and they didn’t do their homework. Perhaps they had fast food for dinner. As a result, even after the divorce, John and Pam continue to argue just as they did before. Both continue to berate the other in front of the children, which is confusing and harmful to the emotional stability of the child. 

2. War Over Money 

Things can get ugly when money is involved. Unfortunately, this is especially true when it comes to divorce cases. One parent may believe that the other one cares more about money than their child. They may accuse the other parent of being selfish and not contributing to their children’s needs. 

Perhaps one parent isn’t thinking about what is in the best interest of their teen/ kid. INSTEAD, they only want to spend less money on child support. They may be demanding 50/50 custody solely for the purpose of paying less money, even if this does not fit the scheduling, the school location, nor the development needs of each particular child. 

Fights over child support can cause years of resentment and severe conflict, especially when the custody issues end up BACK in court. This is why MEDIATION post-divorce is so crucial. It keeps you out of court. 

The mediator's goal is to understand each party's concerns and issues around custody. He/she works to create solutions that most appropriately fit the needs of your child. 

3. Mental Health Issues Are Interfering 

Sometimes when dealing with child custody issues, one of the problems may be that one or both parents have a mental health issue that is affecting their ability to parent. This can cause serious custody disputes.  

Things like substance abuse, mood disorders, and personality disorders can make it hard for one or both parents to resolve issues. These issues can cause a lot of chaos and unpredictability, which can lead to problems.  

If one of the parents has a personality disorder like narcissism or borderline personality disorder, they may be unable to see the pain that they are causing their children. They may lack empathy and scream at their kids calling them names, oblivious to the damage they are causing. This is seen in the FATHER/ MOTHER MALICIOUS SYNDROME. 

The problem is that the parent with the MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE may see themselves as competent, when in fact, they are not. They may be totally unrealistic in their view of themselves as it relates to their parenting abilities. 

THIS IS WHY your mediator should be a LICENSED CLINICIAN. They have the training and skill to work with difficult personalities and abusive behavior. 

4. Punishing the Other Parent 

Often, in many divorce cases, one of the spouses does not want the divorce. They’re enraged over the fact that they can’t stop it, that they can’t control the situation. As a result, they become bitter and angry. Often this is demonstrated in how they use the children to punish the other parent. This is sometimes called malicious parent syndrome or malicious mother/ father syndrome. 

The parent who is bitter may not show up to take the child to a special event as they had promised. Or they may pick them up late. Possibly they keep them longer than they’re supposed to in order to intentionally frustrate the other parent. Out of bitterness, they are sabotaging the custody arrangements. They are using their kids as pawns to get back at the other parent or for the purpose of parental alienation—to turn their children against the other. As a result, the kids feel unimportant and unworthy. 

The mediator is a guide, a negotiator and an EDUCATOR. They are compassionate but ‘direct and firm’ about the damage this type of negative and bitter behavior has on one's child. 

What Can You Do? 

As a parent, you play a significant role in your children’s adjustment to the divorce. Here are some strategies to help you avoid custody disputes.  

1. Practice Competent Listening

One of the keys to learning how to co-parent as divorced individuals, as it relates to creating an appropriate parenting plan, is developing your listening skills. I call this competent listening. 

This means that you put your agenda aside when you have conversations about the kids. 

Stop trying to convince the other of how bad their parenting is. Instead, state your concerns, and allow them to express themselves. 

Stop arguing. 

If they argue with you, ask questions to get a clear understanding of what they believe. This should slow things down. Then, state your reasons again and let them know that this is how you will respond in the future. 

Arguing will only remove the chance of them ‘’thinking.’’ Demonstrating that you really want to understand them will dilute the hostility. But at the same time, reaffirm your boundaries, letting them know how you intend to act in future conflicts. 

Take note of when you yourself are becoming hostile. You can practice mindfulness to learn how to notice and to stop it when you are becoming hostile or overreacting. Try to stay in the conversation. It may take professional help in learning this skill. 

2. Seek Professional Help 

One of the goals of getting counseling is to help both of you understand how children are affected by your arguing. It’s educating both of you in terms of the trauma that is caused by further custody battles. 

Also, it’s important that you take note of when you are becoming hostile. You can practice mindfulness to learn how to notice and to stop it when you are becoming hostile or overreacting. Try to stay in the conversation. It may take professional help in learning this skill. 

This information will hopefully subdue some of the arguments and bring more realistic solutions to the custody issues. A professional mediator will show you appropriate ways of answering and communicating without forcing your agenda. 

Professional help will educate you about the developmental and emotional needs of your children. This is key for helping them as they move on in life and strive to develop healthy and meaningful relationships. 

3. Minimize Interactions With The Other Parent 

If need be, because of a mental health issue or in cases where the other parent is abusive, it’s best to just minimize contact with the other parent as much as possible. You may need to get the courts involved to do this, and that is okay. Never feel guilty about acting in the best interests of your child or children. 

Final Thoughts 

For the sake of your children, it’s important to try to co-parent in a respectful, compassionate, and cooperative manner. The ex will always be your child's other parent. Don’t use your children as pawns in a battle with your ex. They are the ones who suffer the most.

Steven Unruh, MA, MDiv, is a Divorce Mediator and LMFT. He and his team at Unruh Mediation complete the entire divorce process, including all assets, pensions, properties, alimony and child supportalong with all required documentation. Unruh Mediation files in 13 different courthouses throughout Southern California. Website: stevenunruh.com.

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