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Keep children out of the middle of a divorce

One of the toughest challenges facing parents as their relationships crumble is to keep their children out of the crossfire, says Toronto family lawyer Erin Chaiton-Murray.

The Senior Associate with Fogelman Law says it's important for separating couples to focus on the long-term well-being of their children and to find a way to support their relationship with the estranged spouse.

"It is challenging for parents to answer questions from their children about the separation in a sensitive and appropriate way when they're old enough to understand what's going on and that their parents will be living in separate homes," she tells AdvocateDaily.com

Chaiton-Murray says parents need to realize and respect the fact that their children should, to the extent possible "not be put in the middle of any conflict and that it's OK for them to know that mom and dad aren’t getting along right now but are working it out together.

"It’s important to reiterate that it's not the child's fault, it's not a decision that they have to make, and parents need to keep all of the responsibility of what's happening between them off the children," she says.

Chaiton-Murray, who has a joint law and social work degree, says people sometimes have trouble maintaining boundaries and "not crossing the line by speaking to their child more like a friend as opposed to a child who needs to remain in a neutral position."

It can be more challenging for estranged parents to deal with the questions and concerns from older children, she adds.

"I think it is harder as children become older," she says. "It is easier in some ways when children are younger and are less aware of what is going on between their parents. I think there are different challenges with younger children but it becomes a more complicated and challenging thing when you have pre-teens and early teenagers who are more sensitive to the conflict and aware of what is happening."

She says it is important that parents explain in a simple but understanding way to younger children that they may be living in one home with one parent, and then in another with another parent but that it won’t change the close relationship they have with each parent.

"It’s helpful to keep the content with younger children on a level that they can understand," she explains.

"It can be so damaging to hear negative talk about one parent by the other," Chaiton-Murray says. "People who recognize and understand the danger of that are the ones who are able to say, no matter how much conflict exists, 'This is between me and your mom,' or 'This is between me and your dad and we both love you, and this isn't about you.'"

Research on child development and conflict indicates that it's OK to have children exposed to some conflict, she says.

"Obviously you don't want them exposed to excessive conflict, but what's important is for them to understand they have parents who love them and to know and understand that there will be a resolution at some point.

"What you worry about with children at any age is when there is no end to the conflict," Chaiton-Murray says. It is important for children to know that there will be a plan for a stable and structured life, even if it looks different from what they were previously accustomed to.

She says it's likely that children whose parents are separating are going to experience some difficulties with the transition, so parents should be prepared to deal with questions and likely some behaviour or emotions not seen before.

"Doing whatever is necessary to not make it any worse or more complicated for them is probably the best approach," Chaiton-Murray says.

She suggests in cases of extreme conflict between parties, parents should vent with friends, family members, a therapist, their lawyer or divorce coach and refrain from talking to the children about their frustration or feelings towards the other parent so that children don't hear anything that is critical of the other parent.

Parents should always support their child's relationship with the other parent, no matter how much they dislike that person, she says.

"It is crucially important for the children to believe that their parents have some respect for each other in some fundamental ways," Chaiton-Murray says.

She says she's seen in extreme cases parents who embroil their children in the conflict, or alienate them from the other parent while demanding loyalty, sharing too many details of the proceedings and speaking negatively about the other parent and their family.

"In any file where there are children, at some point, even with the best of parents, this possibility exists," Chaiton-Murray says. "Focusing on the goal of allowing children to have a full and meaningful relationship with both of their parents in a way that is relatively free from exposure to parental conflict is a good thing."

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