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Advice to a Parent on Reducing Harm to a Child During Divorce
The Do's and Don'ts of a Divorce

Dear Frank:

I have written you this letter to explain ways in which you can help reduce the harm your son Keith suffers during your divorce from Martha and, at the same time, increase your chances for obtaining a favorable result regarding your case.

If you are sometimes tempted to criticize Martha in Keith's presence, your feelings are natural. You may, in fact, have good reasons for doing so but it is important not to for this reason:

  • Keith will try as hard as he can to believe that his mother is a good person.
  • Keith needs to love Martha and needs to know that Martha loves him.
  • If Keith thinks ill of his mother, it will damage his self image. He is, after all, Martha's son. If his mother is a bad person (Keith may reason), how could he be good?
  • If Keith doesn't trust his mother, it will reduce his confidence in the security of his future. If his mother isn't trustworthy ( Keith may reason), his own future is seriously at risk. One thing children of divorce desperately need their confidence that they will be well cared for.
  • Keith's relationship with his mother creates the foundation of his future relationships with women, and it is important that the foundation be strong.
  • The more hostile Keith sees your attitude toward Martha as being, the more Keith will be placed in the middle of the conflict between Martha and you, and the more guilty he'll feel for having "caused" your marital separation. As you know, children often blame themselves for their parents' disputes.
  • If Martha criticizes you to Keith but you fail to return the attack, Keith's respect for you will grow. Children are remarkably intuitive about fair treatment.
  • Judges greatly disfavor parents who criticize their former partners in the presence of their children. This factor is highly relevant to the judge's determination of custody and visitation issues.

So, as you can see, the major Don't is "Don't criticize Martha in Keith's presence."

Here are some of the other Don'ts:

  • Don't allow others to criticize Martha in Keith's presence.
  • Don't argue with Martha in Keith's presence. Be careful not to argue during visiting exchanges.
  • Don't discuss adult issues (e.g., finances or the details of your separation) with Keith or in Keith's presence.
  • Don't ask Keith to deliver messages, money, or anything else to Martha.
  • Don't use Keith to spy on Martha for you, or ask him to report Martha's actions to you (e.g., don't ask Keith who Martha is dating).
  • Don't use visitation with Keith as a reward for Martha's good behavior, or withhold visitation as a punishment for Martha's bad behavior.
  • Don't tell Keith that he will be able to choose where he wants to live. If Keith is a teenager, discuss this issue with me.

Here are some of the Do's:

  • Do assure Keith that both you and Martha still love him and that he has your full permission to continue to love Martha.
  • Do assure Keith that he will be well taken care of by both you and Martha.
  • Do assure Keith that your separation from Martha is not his fault.
  • Do be punctual regarding all visitations.

The custody and visitation issues in your case may be easily resolved or may necessitate substantial litigation. I will vigorously defend your rights. In fact, the advice contained in this letter is the first step to our obtaining a successful result in your case. Judges are very impressed by efforts parents make to shield their children from emotional harm. If you follow the suggestions in this letter, you will be the good guy in any mediation, psychological evaluation, custody investigation or custody/visitation court hearing in your case. Expressing your anger about Martha to or in front of Keith will be detrimental to your case, as well as to Keith.

Please maintain a confidential journal describing in detail any instances of Martha's failure to practice proper parenting. Examples of her failures include her doing any of the Don'ts described in this letter.

Peter M. Walzer

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