By Brenda Waugh
January marks International Child-Centered Divorce Awareness Month, shedding light on an approach that prioritizes the well being of children during the divorce process. The concept of a child-centered approach to divorce draws inspiration from the educational philosophies of Rousseau, Dewey, Montessori, Isaacs, Piaget, and Erikson. In education, being child-centered means recognizing and addressing a child’s unique needs and interests, prioritizing experiential and discovery-based learning over a rigid curriculum.
A child-centered approach to divorce emphasizes the importance of considering children’s personal, social, physical, and learning needs as central elements in the divorce process. Of course, being child-centered is being family-centered. Ideally, everything from the division of property and debts to creating a parenting plan focuses on the well-being of the family structure that consequently promotes the children’s
Families work hard to create a parenting plan that helps both parents and children to thrive concurrent with maintaining a vigilant watch on the children’s interests and needs.
A few practice steps to create a child-centered divorce
Stay out of court from the outset: By avoiding litigation, parents retain control over the timing of their divorce. Creating a plan before filing with the courts allows for a more personalized and child-focused approach.
Stay out of court even when you disagree: If, for some reason you are already in court and there is a genuine conflict between the parents’ opinions regarding the best outcome for a child, you can still avoid a litigated child custody case. Create opportunities to avoid pitting the parents against one another and employ a mediator to facilitate discussion. Work with a child specialist, such as those available in collaborative divorce, to help understand each child’s developmental and special needs.
Focus on recovery, not revenge: Some parents may have suffered disappointment, harm, and even trauma in the breakup of the marriage. But it is possible to shift your focus from revenge to recovery. Instead of destroying the family structure, try to concentrate on addressing harm that may have occurred in the period leading to divorce in a healthy manner. Work to keep your focus on the long-term impact on
Emphasize Relationships: Prioritize relationships within the family, fostering connections between children, parents, and the extended community of family and friends. Acknowledge the challenges openly, as children may internalize
Choose the Right Process and Professionals: Litigation is the most expensive, time consuming and destructive process to use in divorcing. Hiring a lawyer, filing for divorce, and working towards a trial should be a last resort. Mediation and collaborative divorce processes benefit the children by improving relationships between parents and are also more cost-effective and supportive of parents’ mental well-being than litigation. When parents can’t find a way to agree on a decision about custodial time, education, or other issues, a child specialist can provide efficient and well-
Understanding children’s reactions to divorce: insights from experts
My expertise is in this area is as a mediator and collaborative lawyer. In the course of my work, I’ve learned about the emotional needs of
children when their
parents divorce. Children’s psychological reactions to divorce vary, influenced by their pre-divorce relationship with each parent, the intensity of parental conflict, and the parents’ ability to focus on the children’s needs. Children react differently, some tending to externalize their distress through behavioral issues, and others internalize their emotions. Parents must remain attuned to their children’s reactions. The key is for the parents to maintain open communication about their children and seek help through counselors or consultants when needed. Most of the research I’ve reviewed indicates that children of divorce can thrive, but are adversely impacted when they are part of a “custody battle.”
As we navigate the complexities of divorce, let us strive for a child-centered or family-centered approach that promotes the holistic well-being of all involved. While January has been established as a month to promote awareness of child-centered divorce, I hope we can all consider our shared values, such as respect for one another, treasuring our relationships with our families and extended families, and working in ways to improve our participation and appreciation of the processes when we work through conflict in divorce — as well as legal conflicts.
Brenda Waugh is a lawyer/mediator with Waugh Law & Mediation, serving clients in the Blue Ridge region of Virginia and Eastern Panhandle of