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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

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April 7, 2020 by Indiana Lee

No one enters into a marriage expecting it to end. Anyone who has been through a divorce knows that it is one of the most traumatic events you will ever face.

But as difficult as it may be for you and your soon-to-be former spouse to accept the dissolution of your marriage, consider how much more painful it can be to your children. The fact is that your children may be frightened, confused, depressed, or even angry about their parents’ divorce, but they may not have the ability to express or even to adequately understand their feelings.

This is why the protection of your child’s mental health is of paramount importance as the divorce process proceeds. But it is not only your child’s psychological well-being that must be preserved.

Moms and dads, too, need mental healthcare as the family makes this difficult transition, not only for their own sake but for the sake of the children. An important strategy for supporting the entire family’s mental health during the divorce process is to incorporate a family-wide mental healthcare plan into custody negotiations.

This will ensure that not only is your child receiving the psychological support she needs, but so too are the parents entrusted to care for her.

The Best Interests of the Child

One of the first and most important issues when it comes to custody negotiations and mental health is the recognition that, in the vast majority of cases, shared custody is in the best interests of the child. Studies increasingly show that strained relationships between the child and one or both parents is a leading cause of mental illness in children, and is an especially important risk factor in the development of anxiety and depression.

Unfortunately, when a divorce occurs, the parent/child relationship rarely goes unaffected. Of particular concern is the reality that, fathers are especially likely to report having little or no contact with their child following a divorce. According to current statistics, roughly 30% of divorced fathers see their children fewer than four times a month.

Studies suggest these impacts on the father/child relationship can even linger well into the child’s adult life. Separation from a parent can lead children to experience not only depression but anxiety and panic disorders. They may act out, blame themselves, or even have trouble forming stable relationships later in life due to a fear of abandonment.

Worse, parental alienation, in which one parent actively seeks to turn the child against the other parent, is not uncommon. The results can be devastating for the child’s relationship with both parents. Not only does the child miss out on the chance to build a healthy relationship with the alienated parent, but he may also ultimately come to resent the custodial parent who deprived him of that relationship.

Seeking Support

As a parent, you may be experiencing mental health issues due simply to the trauma of the divorce and custody fight, or you may have a long history of mental illness. In fact, it is estimated that one in five Americans has some form of mental illness.

But that in no way means you have to give up the right to your children in the event of a divorce. No matter what your diagnosis may be, as long as you are able to provide a safe, secure, happy, and nurturing environment for your child while she is under your care, then the courts should not separate you from her .

However, demonstrating your ability to provide a stable and healthy home life for your child may well mean proving that you are under the care of a reputable professional, one who believes in your ability to give your child the care she needs and is willing to attest to that in court if needed. Seeking the support of a licensed social worker or therapist may be all the proof the courts need of your willingness and ability to take care of yourself so that you can take care of your child.

Unfortunately, this process can be easier said than done for many fathers, who may feel reluctant to seek counseling or psychiatric treatment. Men are routinely stigmatized when it comes to mental healthcare. The “feminization” of mental health has not only led to a disproportionate number of female healthcare providers, but it has also led the courts, as well as families, to overlook or disregard the psychological needs of men. Because of this, fathers may even be afraid to seek help for their depression, anxiety, or other issues, fearing that this may reduce their chances to win custody.

The Takeaway

Child custody isn’t just a legal issue. It is also a mental health one. And that means that protecting the psychological well-being of the entire family is of paramount importance when custody issues are being decided. This includes not only the protection of the child’s relationship with both parents, but also ensuring the support of attorneys, social workers, therapists, and psychologists to help the family make this difficult transition as healthily and happily as possible for all, and especially for the children.

Indiana Lee lives in the Northwest and has a passion for the environment and healthy lifestyles. She draws her inspiration from nature and makes sure to explore the outdoors regularly with her two dogs. Indiana enjoys mountain bicycling and hiking on her off time and has experience in owning and operating her own business. Feel free to contact her at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @indianalee3  

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