Fighting for their Rights—What your kids need during your divorce

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Divorce is a messy business. Sadness, complication, conflict, disruption, and worry are present even in the most amicable splits—and that’s for the adults.

When a divorcing couple has children, things become even more complex and painful.

You love your kid unconditionally, and this isn’t about them. Your child did nothing to cause your marital turmoil, and there’s nothing they can do to end or mend it. And yet, your very adult divorce can have a severe negative impact on your kids.

Children of all ages can suffer feelings of sorrow, loss, fear, confusion, anger, and (unwarranted) guilt or shame related to divorce. Depending on age and individual factors, they may act out by becoming more uncooperative and aggressive, or they may regress, withdraw, or lose interest in things they usually enjoy; they may be irritable and experience mood swings or separation anxiety, exhibit a change in sleep or eating habits.

Studies have documented an association between divorce and increased risk for adjustment problems in children and adolescents, including academic difficulty, disruptive or unhealthy behaviors (substance abuse, risky sexual behavior), and mental health problems.

It’s also true that for children who were living amongst high parental conflict, the separation can have an element of relief. Research has shown that parental conflict—before, during, and after a split—is most harmful to children.

The good news is that the majority of children from divorced families are highly resilient: typically, within about two years, as their parents begin to establish some equilibrium and a cordial co-parenting dynamic, the kids adapt too and demonstrate no long-term severe psychological damage.

It’s crucial to realize that, as parents, there are ways to limit the impact of your divorce on your child. Managing your emotions and conduct during this challenging time makes a difference.

It’s understandable but unfortunate that custody, visitation, and co-parenting arrangements can be among the most challenging, combative, and emotionally charged issues a couple faces during their dissolution.

It’s important to know, first and foremost, that in California, whether a couple can collaborate on an agreement through negotiation or mediation, or their heated custody dispute lands before a judge, the same standard will apply—the child’s best interests.

Many factors will enter into that equation, but researchers, clinicians, and the court agree that except in cases of severe conflict or abuse, it is in the child’s best interests to maintain a meaningful and consistent relationship with both parents.

No matter how you feel about that fact—or your ex—approaching divorce and co-parenting with your child’s wellbeing at the forefront can make an enormous contribution to their ability to adjust and thrive.

Several organizations and states have introduced a “Children’s Bill of Rights,” which, while not law, are guidelines intended to inform how we view a child’s best interests.

The Children’s Rights Council (CRC) has a Joint Custody Bill of Rights. In New Jersey, the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts created The Bill of Rights for Children of Divorce (adapted from a similar list of principles developed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court).

Doctor Robert Emery, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of the Center for Children, Families, and the Law at the University of Virginia, is a divorce counselor and researcher focusing on family relationships and children’s mental health. A divorced father himself, he is also the author of The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive. More than a decade ago, Dr. Emery introduced his now well-known set of standards, The Children’s Bill of Rights in Divorce.

All these lists of recommendations have in common that they speak to the child’s point of view—giving voice to feelings, needs, and desires a young person may not be able to articulate on their own. They emphasize five main areas of importance:


  • Your child should never feel like a piece of property, pawn, intermediary, or messenger.
  • They should feel free to express their feelings and needs honestly and feel heard.


  • Kids have the right to a positive and continuous relationship with both parents.
  • Children should be able to love and be loved by both parents and all the critical adults in their lives without guilt, fear, pressure, disapproval, rejection, or need to hide.
  • Children should never feel forced to choose between parents (including with whom to live)

Stability & Security

  • Your child should be able to live as similar as possible to the one they would have lived if the divorce hadn’t happened.
  • They should be able to expect reasonable economic support from both parents.
  • Kids have a right to know about significant decisions that affect them.
  • They should have love, care, protection, boundaries/discipline from both parents.


  • Children should be shielded from parental conflict.
  • They should not be pawns in games or manipulation or feel stuck in the middle of battles.


  • Your kid is a kid and has the right to be a child.
  • They’re not your therapist, friend, confidante, comforter, sounding board, or support system; they’re not responsible for fulfilling your emotional needs.
  • They should be free from adult decisions, duties, and responsibilities.

When you’re feeling emotionally and logistically overwhelmed, it’s easy to let your troubles cloud your judgment and focus. Empower your child—and yourself—by becoming familiar with the principles in the various Kids’ bills of rights.

The veteran family attorneys at SFLG can help smooth your divorce and custody process so you can focus on the well-being of your children and your family’s health in its new form.

By Debra Schoenberg


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