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Custody Should Be Considered a "Stink" Word

For divorcing families, "custody" is what Isolina Ricci, Ph.D., in her book "Mom's House, Dad's House, Making Two Homes for Your Child," Simon & Schuster, 2nd Edition, 1997, calls a "stink" word. Custody implies possession. The state has custody of prisoners - not caring about what they want or what is in their best interest. Relatives and friends must visit prisoners and have no effect over their daily lives.

People also have custody of property. But, should mothers and fathers have the right to fight for or even agree upon who has "custody" of their children? Should one parent have "primary custody" and one parent have "visitation rights"? Or, should one parent have "partial custody" of a child? How does that make your child feel?

People experiencing divorce are flooded with overwhelming feelings that seem as if they will never dissipate. But, what are their children feeling? Children, those helpless little beings who depend on mom and dad for love and support, are losing part of themselves when parents separate. The mates joined each other as adults with no previous family relationship. But, these children began their lives with two people who were related as family and whose genes make up their being. Never underestimate a child's need to know both parents. Both single mothers and their children conceived through anonymous in vitro fertilization from a sperm bank, have, unfortunately, experienced the pain that comes at the age when a child needs to know the identity of his or her father.

Children not only need to know who their parents are, but need to feel that both parents love them dearly and are willing to sacrifice for their best interests. As painful as not knowing the identity of one's parent is having the knowledge that a parent has voluntarily exited one's life. A child doesn't care whether a parent has left because he or she can't manage the hostility between him or herself and the other parent or because it is too painful to feel as if he or she only has right to "visit" the child. A child only knows that a parent is gone.

For this reason, mental health professionals seem to be of the consensus that both parents must stay involved in a child's life after divorce. But language is important and a small but growing group of professionals who work with divorcing families discourage the use of the words custody and visitation. Mom's House, Dad's House discusses "stink" words and "rose" words and suggests that our language and use of particular words affects our point of view and our children's point of view - which in turn affects their self-esteem.

Constance Ahrons, Ph.D., in her book "The Good Divorce", also discusses how the use of language has a significant influence on our attitudes and our view of our redesigned family - our "binuclear" family as she calls it. If a child of a divorced family hears that he comes from a "broken" home, he feels ashamed, uncomfortable or less worthy compared to a child from an intact family - even if the intact family is loveless or contains two adults who treat each other disrespectfully or with open hostility.

Self-esteem is instilled and developed during one's childhood. Two children coming from similar backgrounds can have entirely different levels of self-esteem based upon what they heard and what they have been taught about who they are.

Children must be taught that divorce is not a disease. It doesn't mean that their family failed at something. And, they must be reassured that their parents love them and will not exit their lives for any reason, including remarriage and new children. For parents to be able to teach their children they need their own support system to educate them and to help them deal with the emotional roller coaster that they ride during the first couple of years after separation.

The most popular and well-known method of proceeding toward a divorce is for the individuals to hire their own lawyers. Some of theses family lawyers have new legal therapists who are mental health professionals whose purpose is to help the divorcing individual understand the emotional stages of divorce. This system still sets both people up in an adversarial mode and limits communication and understanding between the parties.

I personally believe that the couple needs to see someone together as a couple in order to be able to share the feelings and pain that they are experiencing with each other. The couple can meet with a mental health professional to work on, what is now called, "divorce counseling". Many "marriage counselors" are just as qualified to help people deal with issues surrounding divorce and the parenting of their children.

The couple can also meet with a family mediator who can either be a lawyer or a mental health professional so as to develop a plan for dissolving their intimate relationship while maintaining a relationship conducive to nurturing emotionally healthy children.

A family mediator will discuss parenting responsibilities and parenting schedules that keep both parents involved in a way that will ensure that their children experience the least amount of pain and discomfort surrounding the reorganization of their family. Statistics show that parents that owe a duty to support are more inclined to continue to faithfully pay support when they are actively involved in the lives of their children. Statistics also show that children can survive the divorce process and become emotionally satisfied adults if their divorcing parents limit their conflicts and maintain a respectful co-parenting relationship.

Don't discuss custody of your children. Discuss your respective responsibilities and schedules with them and remember they need you to behave and talk in a way that will enable them to develop into healthy, happy, secure adults who can go on to become responsible, caring parents themselves someday.