Surprise at the Continuing Misunderstanding Regarding Joint Custody and What Grandparents Should Know About How To Handle Disputes Between the Parents of Our Grandchildren

Grandparents should only take one side in disputes between the parents of our grandchildren–the side of the grandchildren.  Parental disputes mean remaining neutral for grandparents, as there are no grandparent rights–if something happens to the parent of the grandchildren who is your child, if you alienate the other parent, you may never see your grandchildren again.  Yes, there are the small beginnings of inroads with military families and even smaller beginning of inroads when a parent is deceased, but overall, a grandparent should not alienate any gatekeeper, either of parents of the grandchildren, especially when they are having their own disputes.

This blog post is concentrating on terminology and how a grandparent can best support the grandchildren when their parents have disputes and disputes over the grandchildren.  It is important for grandparents to understand the family law in their state–especially as to grandparent rights, if any.  First, each state has different family law.  Family law is left to the states by the United States Constitution.  If a grandparent is researching family law on the internet, go to your individual state’s laws; and ignore so called advice from other grandparents.  If, as a grandparent, you yourself are having difficulties dealing with the circumstances, seek confidential psychological advice for yourself, and keep it to yourself.

Many grandparents are acting as caregivers; maintaining neutrality is most important.  Remember, parents going through their emotional trauma may seem like strangers or acting strangely; they are going through the emotional stages of denial, sadness, anger, poor judgment and adult adolescence, and moving forward.  These stages can take eight months to two years to go through.

We grandparents really should be talking about what is most important, and that is the best interest of the children, not the best interest of the parents.  Many of the parents who fight in court over their children are more concerned with their loss of time with a child, not what is in the child’s best interest.

Reading the Washington Post, I was surprised at an article regarding joint custody laws and how they are still evolving amidst misunderstanding.

In Florida, which was mentioned in the article, shared parental responsibility, joint legal custody (decision-making), has been part of our law since the 1980s. The article mentions that joint physical custody (equal timesharing) was passed by our legislature and vetoed by the governor. It was. Joint physical custody means presumptively that a child under eighteen would live equal time with each parent.  The article does not address the real problem with joint physical custody, that it would have been mandated under the law for any and all children despite their age, needs, and circumstances.

Florida law allows for joint physical custody,  just does not mandate it, and there are many parents who agree to such an arrangement as in a child’s best interest, or judges who order it when it is in a child’s best interest.

In my many decades of dealing with parents and children and families, I understand that everyone who is a parent wants to have their children with them 100% of the time.  Every parent wants to peek into the child’s bedroom to see that they are sleeping peacefully, give them a kiss, or console them if they awake from sleep.   No one really wants to share the time because the adult perception is that they are missing something by not being with their children 100% of the time. But without fully understanding the legal concepts of joint legal custody and joint physical custody, these seem to be interchanged and totally convoluted in discussion.

With paternity (unwed parents) reaching near 50% of family law custody disputes in Florida, it is important to note that paternity disputes are treated differently than in dissolution of marriage (divorce between married parents) IN FLORIDA. Again, family law is different in each state.  In a Florida paternity case, the unwed mother is presumed the sole guardian until there is a court order establishing a parenting plan and time sharing schedule otherwise.   A Florida putative father (father alleging he is the biological father) is not entitled to have decision making or timesharing until such court order, even if he has acknowledged paternity under oath and signed up on the paternity registry, or is even paying child support.  In a Florida dissolution case, both parents begin on equal footing, with a presumption that they are good parents and are minimally competent to share in decision-making and determining how to raise the children. Note the words “minimally competent,” which connotate a very low bar under the law. Forget whether you think a parent is good or better than another.

In Florida, decision-making in shared parental responsibility is considered more important than where the children lay their head down at night and how many nights they lay their head down.  Having the power to make decisions to raise the child is the priority. Waking time is the priority and having the right to decide what the child does when the child is awake is what is considered the most important in molding the character and the life of the child.

We grandparents, from experience, know that the children change quickly and their needs change quickly.  A newborn has different requirements from a parent than a baby, than a toddler, than a preschooler, than a young school aged child, than a school aged child, than a middle schooler, than a high schooler.  There is no one schedule that grows with the child and the child’s needs, unless it is a sequential schedule that changes as the child grows.  Sometimes parents of our grandchildren fight for a specific schedule that might only be appropriate for a few years, not realizing that the cost outweighs the benefit of the fight.

Child development is part of the best interest of the child.  Parents, in wanting to spend equal quantity time, as well as quality time, with a child sometimes forget that the child’s needs change as the child is growing and maturing.

With a baby, the parents’ involvement in physical care is great. I do not know parents of a baby who are not sleep deprived and exhausted. The new psychological literature favors significant physical time to both parents after a divorce (remember, considered different depending on the facts and circumstances in a paternity case), which is different than it has been in the past. But in addition to the physical time that is significant, child development concerns that must be addressed. The baby has a need to bond, feel secure, and anxiety and change of environment may not be in the baby’s best interest. Temperament is visible at birth; some babies are easy, and can sleep anywhere.  Some babies cannot deal with change.  We do not want a baby to have unnecessary stressors.  And babies are susceptible to being harmed by parents who scream and yell around them, chaos in the household.  Therefore the parents, and decision making authority, need to be on the same page so that the baby’s environment and care is as close to the same in both households as possible.

Grandparents can help by watching the baby and removing the baby from the chaos, if possible.  Warring parents may be more than happy to have the help as they go through their own emotional trauma, so long as no judgments are made, no sides are taken, and no discussions are had with the parents.  This is hard, but grandparents have a vested interest in the health and welfare of the baby grandchild. See post: Grandma Argues With the “New” Experts About Arguing in Front of Children 

I have found the parents of toddlers begin to diverge as to whether or not the toddler or preschooler should attend any formal preschool or be home with the parent, and this issue is a common source of conflict. It seems that the parent who feels that he or she is at the short end of the physical time stick wants to have the baby, toddler, or preschooler at home more of the time. Again, new psychological literature seems to say that toddlers and preschoolers do better for their future development if they are in a formalized school setting. It seems that consistency, predictability, stability, or themes that follow through on the best interest of the child. It is hard to be a parent and focus on the child win the parent feels that quantity time is most important rather than focusing on the child’s developmental needs.

Significant battles between parents of toddlers and preschoolers that this grandma has seen in her professional capacity as a family court judge significantly revolved around the decision making and time sharings aspect of where the toddler or preschooler spent his or her time.  Warring parents get into a cycle of warring until the child is eighteen.  Stopping the war is imperative for a healthy grandchild.

Let parents learn more about the law and alternative dispute mechanisms (avoiding court battles), such as mediation,  from their legal assistance; stay out of giving assistance other than recommending they seek legal and psychological assistance to get through this difficult life passage period.  See post on the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale: Why Life Happens With Tears and Life Happens With Laughter and With Knowledge Comes Power to Understand and Cope With Life’s Challenges 

Parental war harms the grandchildren.  Peace is important for a healthy grandchild.

As soon as the parents, warring divorced parents, finish this battle over the preschooler, the battle of formal kindergarten and formal schooling would start. At this point, I would be able to start identifying those children who were caught in the middle of warring parents who showed resilience or fragility. Instead of building resilience in their children, warring parents cause the children to be insecure and have greater difficulty in functioning in all aspects of their lives. Not to say that children cannot be resilient and survive their parents’ wars. There were times that I saw children who got straight “As” and or were fabulous athletes in after school programs with warring parents. School and after school activities were there safe places where there was no war, no fighting, and they wanted to spend more time in their extracurricular activities and on their schoolwork because that shielded them from their warring parents. So parents who spoke of the success of their children and how the other litigating parent would interfere with the success were not realizing about the resilient children were succeeding despite their parents.  Grandparents can be a safe place for the grandchildren.

Of all the ages of children in which I saw success, school age children could succeed in equal physical timesharing as they were more adaptive to going back-and-forth. However, when children began late school-age, preteen and teen, things change again based on the development in the best interest of the children and they do not want equal timesharing.  From my experience, preteens and teens do not want to take sides except their own side, and their own selfish need to be available to their peers and to have their peers know which home to be found by their friends.

The veto of the equal time joint physical custody statute by our governor showed his knowledge, experience, and understanding that it is the needs of the child that must take precedence over the needs of the parent.  As a matter of fact, I wrote the governor about all the concerns I had about joint physical custody, much of which is in this post. Parents can agree on joint physical custody, but even if they agree for one stage of the child’s life, nothing in a child’s life should be etched in stone, and the physical arrangement as well as the decision-making should be fluid and change as the child’s developmental stages change.

But parents who are positioned to believe what they believe and put themselves first and the children second end up as the losers.  That is where the grandparents come in.

*Do not take sides in disputes between the parents of your grandchildren.

*Make no judgments, just be there to listen and not say anything negative about anyone or anything TO ANYONE, especially the grandchildren.

*Be there to give respite to the parents.

*Be there to take care of the grandchildren whenever allowed.

*Give unconditional love and support to the grandchildren.

*Build resiliency in the grandchildren. How? See previous posts:

Why Should We Care about Our Grandchildren’s Resiliency?

Why Should We Care about Our Grandchildren’s Resiliency?

Why Boomer Grandparents Should Pay Attention to How Grandchildren Adapt to Change

Why Boomer Grandparents Should Pay Attention to How Grandchildren Adapt to Change

With our long years of experience, we know that life happens.  How we grandparents deal with disputes between the parents of our grandchildren is important to preserve our ability to have a relationship with our grandchildren and to the lives of the grandchildren themselves.





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