A child custody case is a difficult time for all parties involved. You, your (soon to be) ex-spouse, and your children experience emotional turmoil that, if not handled properly, can have damaging effects. Dealing with your stress might be the furthest thing from your mind during divorce and custody proceedings, but it's more essential than you think. If left unchecked, your chronic stress could develop into an anxiety disorder.
You won't be able to avoid stressors at a difficult time like this one, so you should develop ways of coping. What are the significant causes of stress during a child custody case, and what can you do to mitigate them?
Divorce Isn't Easy
The emotional upheaval of a divorce and child custody case can take its toll on you, your spouse, and your children. It's not an easy time for anyone. Divorce isn't a single event, either. It's a process and it moves through emotional as well as legal stages. Divorce causes stress because it disrupts our attachments, which shatters our sense of safety and security.
Emotional Strife During Divorce and Child Custody
At first, your role as either initiator or receiver of the divorce might impact your emotional response. Initiators might feel fear, distance, doubt, guilt, impatience, and relief all at once. The receiving party, on the other hand, might feel betrayal, shock, insecurity, anger, and low self-esteem. Whatever side you're on, you'll likely have many emotions to work through.
At each phase of the process, you're likely to feel overwhelmed and might need help working through the stress.
Emotional Stages of Divorce
- Disillusionment of one party: Fear, denial, anxiety, guilt
- Expressing dissatisfaction: Relief, tension, anguish, doubt
- Deciding to divorce: anger, sadness, resentment, impatience, anxiety for the family
- Beginning legal process: fear, shame, guilt, blame, panic
- During the legal process: growing acceptance
- Completing the legal process: new respect, insight, acceptance, integrity
What children are going through during a divorce
For many years, experts thought that divorce had a negative impact on children. It's not divorce itself but the conflict between the two parents that affects a child’s adjustment post-divorce. Children are better off when their parents communicate effectively and remain civil throughout divorce and custody proceedings. Pre-divorce marital conflict (and ongoing conflict throughout the divorce process) is what causes a kid to act out and develop depression or conduct disorders post-divorce.
Psychologically, children react to divorce based on the quality of their relationship with each parent pre-divorce, the intensity of the conflict, and the parents' ability to prioritize their child's needs. Boys and girls both suffer equally during a difficult time, but they tend to express their emotions differently. Boys exhibit more external symptoms like acting out, whereas girls tend to internalize and experience depression, headaches, or changes to sleeping patterns.
Common stressors related to divorce and child custody cases
Stress is a complicated feeling. Short-term stress warns us of dangers and forces us to take action, but chronic stress can have debilitating effects on our health. Many people are already dealing with stressors in their life before they start a divorce and child custody proceeding. These events make stress worse. Marital dissolution has known and unknown chronic stressors—and it's the unknowns that cause more worry than the knowns.
Known factors of divorce and child custody stress
- Starting over
- Deciding to keep the house or move
- Loss of routine or familiar lifestyle
- Having less income
- Your children's reaction and adjustment to a new lifestyle
Unknown factors of divorce and child custody stress
- Will the settlement be fair?
- Who gets what assets and debts?
- Will you be able to find a job after being a stay-at-home parent?
- How will you make ends meet with less income?
- How will your kids deal with it?
Gauging your divorce and child-custody stress
You can measure your stress level with a scale developed by two psychiatrists in 1967, called the Holmes-Rahe Scale. This scale links stress to illness and shows what your risk for becoming ill is relative to your stress.
In 2012, therapist Susan Pease Gadoua L.C.S.W. developed a Divorce Stress Scale based on this model. Her scale includes several factors related to divorce and custody cases that could cause stress, with assigned point values. Something like being independently wealthy is zero points (no stress at all) whereas coming home to find your belongings in the driveway with no warning or notice there was anything wrong is 350 points (highly stressful).
According to Gadoua, the higher the score you have, the greater your stress is. The greater your stress is, the more likely you are to fall ill. The tool is subjective and not diagnostic, but you can use her survey to help yourself understand your stress levels more clearly.
Actionable Steps to Reduce the Stress of a Child Custody Case
Going through a divorce and child custody case is a major cause of stress which can lead to anxiety in some people. While it's never a pleasant situation, there are ways to handle your stress and help you stay positive throughout the process. Stress might drive you to act rashly or make poor decisions—the last thing you need in a child custody case.
Sometimes, these proceedings can last several months or more. Letting your stress or anxiety engulf you for that long will have negative consequences on your mental health. If your mental health is suffering, it could affect your chances of securing custody of your child.
Fortunately, you can take steps to deal with stress in a child custody case, including preventative steps to stop stress before it happens. Below are some strategies for overcoming the stress and anxiety that results from a child custody case.
Make a Separation Agreement
If you and your spouse can come to an agreement on how to take care of your child or children before the divorce is settled, it will save you some worry. A separation agreement spells out guidelines for your children, including how they divide their time between both of you and which parent handles child support. This type of agreement is a temporary arrangement to ensure your child has the support they need while your divorce is ongoing. Stating who takes care of food, housing, clothing, daycare, medical visits, or other expenses for your child as early as possible makes for one less concern. You'll be able to rest a little easier knowing your child's needs are met.
Focus on Co-Parenting
Try to keep yourself from turning your children against your spouse. Avoid talking badly about your spouse in front of them, don't intentionally keep them apart. This process will be a difficult time for your child as well. You don't want to confuse your child or upset them by encouraging them to turn against your spouse. By bonding with both parents, your child will continue to have a healthy relationship with both of you, making the transition period easier. Although it might be hard, you should consider the importance of your spouse's relationship with your children as much as your own. Unless one of the parents poses a danger to the child, courts will generally favor co-parenting.
Stay Away from Social Media
Contrary to what you might think, social media is not private, nor secure. Even if you have your profiles set to “private” the content you post on social media can be used against you in a child custody case. You might have the urge to talk badly about your spouse on Facebook or post photos of your new partner. Posts of this nature will reflect badly on you and could damage your child custody case. If you truly want to keep information private, then don't post it. Before you put anything on social media, ask yourself if you'd want the judge in your custody hearing to see it. If not, then it's not fit to go online. In a situation like this one, social media will only cause you more stress.
It's Not About Revenge
A drawn-out, anger-filled, emotionally charged custody case is guaranteed to spike your stress levels. How do you avoid a tense custody proceeding? You stay civil with your spouse, no matter how much you feel like exacting revenge. Don't focus on making things more difficult for your spouse and they'll be more willing to compromise with you too. If you go after your spouse, they might try to retaliate, dragging the process out further. Not to mention that a judge won't look kindly on you if you're not cooperating and your spouse is. Revenge only accomplishes one thing—more stress. Avoid it by trying your hardest to keep emotion out of it and focusing on the best settlement for the whole family.
Don't Fight with Each Other in Front of Your Kids
During a divorce and custody battle you'll likely feel some negativity toward your spouse. It's normal to have these feelings, but it's unhealthy to take them out on anyone, especially your children. They're going through a tough time too and seeing their parents fight will make them feel isolated. Your kids need to know that they're still your main concern, no matter how hard it might be to get along with your spouse. When children see their parents go through a divorce, they're afraid that their parent will want a separation from them too. You can reassure your child—and reduce your own stress—by keeping things civil with your spouse.
Pay Attention and Take Notes
When you're dealing with heightened stress levels, the last thing you want is to fixate on the situation causing the anxiety. By paying attention to your spouse's behavior and taking notes, however, you might be able to help your case and decrease your stress. If you notice any inappropriate behavior from your spouse, you can note it. Include as many details as possible, such as the date and the time. Having photos to prove your claims helps too. If you want to show that your spouse's behavior is detrimental to your child, you must have a detailed record. You can also note down positive developments, like productive activities you do with your kid during visitation time or instances when you cooperated with your spouse. By methodically keeping track of behavior, you give yourself something constructive to focus on, so you don't let your stress get the better of you.
Talk with Someone
Divorce and child custody cases take their emotional toll on everyone involved, including you. You could benefit from talking through your issues with someone, whether a friend, family member, or qualified therapist. Being able to express how you feel with an objective, non-judgmental party will alleviate some of your stress. When you need someone to talk to, however, don't go to your children. They have a big enough burden on their own and adding your problems might overload them. During this time, you are the one who should support your children, not the other way around. It's acceptable to lean on other adults during difficult times—a support network will help you deal with your emotions and keep your stress levels down. By handling your stress, you'll be better able to support your kids as well.
Hire an Experienced Family Law Attorney
A final way to overcome the stress of a child custody case is by hiring an experienced attorney. Sometimes, stress can impair your judgment and prevent you from making the best decision for your kids. A custody attorney can negotiate with your spouse on your behalf, offer objective guidance, and manage the documentation and court proceedings. An attorney who has handled similar cases in the past will know how to secure an arrangement that best suits you and your family. Having this kind of advocate will reduce your stress.
Many families have turned to attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm for legal support during divorce or custody cases. Call the firm at 888-535-3686 for an initial consultation with an experienced family law attorney.