Divorce and child custody are among the most contentious and highly emotional life events. When parents do not get along, the children suffer the most.
Whether children are precocious preschoolers or smart-mouthed teenagers, confrontational custody exchanges can have lasting harm. However, there are solutions to reduce conflict.
How High Conflict Custody Exchanges Hurt Children
It is common knowledge that divorce and fights over custody can cause children to act out in school and at home. While the difficulty of the situation is often acknowledged, children’s adverse behavior is still regarded as a phase that they will bounce back from in time.
However, the medical community has taken a keen interest in the effects of stress on brain chemistry, illness, and overall health. Recent studies have revealed that toxic stress can alter a child’s brain chemistry and organ systems.
The famous “it’s just a phase” dismissal may be ignoring a cause of life-long mental and physical illness.
What is Toxic Stress?
Toxic stress describes someone who is under constant and prolonged pressure. Often referred to as the “fight or flight” response, the chemicals released in the body during a stressful event are meant to help the body respond to a single event, e.g., running away from a dangerous situation.
In short bursts, stress chemicals are very beneficial. However, when stress chemicals are continuously released, they begin to damage internal organs, particularly the brain.
How Toxic Stress Affects the Body and Brain
Toxic stress seriously affects the body and brain. Ironically, prolonged stress damages the body’s ability to handle stress.
Neurotransmitters in the brain send signals to the body to ease off releasing stress chemicals and switch happier chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin.
When the body constantly goes into a stress-response episode, those neurotransmitters are damaged and stop releasing as many happy chemicals. The human body goes into a little war with itself, where stress chemicals constantly run into battle and happy dopamine and serotonin stop breaking up the fight.
The damage is irreversible. Once the body is unable to regulate its stress response, all other organ systems experience increasing damage through adulthood:
- Mental illness: Low levels of dopamine and serotonin are linked to depression, anxiety, substance-abuse problems, and low self-esteem
- Heart damage: Stress chemicals increase a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, leading to heart attacks, strokes, and hypertension
- Damaged nervous system: Childhood stress damages the nervous system. The nervous system connects the whole body and affects every major system. Chronic stress will cause severe wear and tear on the body, leading to obesity, immune disorders, depression, and many more health conditions.
Are Confrontational Child Custody Exchanges Really That Stressful on Children?
Studies ranging from the 1970s through to present day have repeatedly found connections to high-conflict divorce and long-term adverse effects on children.
Toxic stress affects a child the way hard braking wears down the brake pads on a car. Every time ex-spouses argue during the exchange of custody, the child’s brake pads wear down a little more. Soon, the brakes start to squeal and act up. Ignoring the issue only makes it worse. Eventually, the brake pads wear down past a certain point and trickle down to other systems.
While the brake pads on a car can be replaced, childhood cannot. Confrontational child custody exchanges provide a continuous supply of stress that has been proven to be detrimental to kids into adulthood.
What is the Solution to Reducing Confrontation During Custody Exchanges?
When parents do not get along, there is no magic formula, one-time event, or blog that can change the relationship. Parents have to work to get along every day.
Compromise is necessary. There will be times a parent has to swallow their pride. Times when parents feel they give more than the other. However, childhood does not last forever.
As Dr. Harley Rotbart famously stated, from birth to turning 18-years old, there are “940 Saturdays and you’re done.” By the time a child is five-years-old, 260 Saturdays are gone.
To protect children from a lifetime of mental and physical consequences, compromise for 940 Saturdays. A custody exchange plan can help.
What is a Custody Exchange Plan?
A custody exchange plan is a long-term, set routine to handle child custody exchanges. To create a plan that is agreeable for both parents, consider the following:
First and foremost, every decision needs to be made with long-term implications in mind. What defines “long-term” is often subjective.
Five years is a good measurement when considering children. Toddlers and small school children have similar schedules. However, by 5th-grade, kids may have after school activities that will require an adjustment to the exchange plan. When high school comes along, teenagers have far more responsibilities and increasingly active social lives.
When considering all aspects of the custody exchange plan, make decisions that will work for both parents for the next five years. Save the date to legally modify the exchange plan when time is up.
Instead of exchanging children at one another’s house, choose a destination that is neutral for both parties. The home is a source of comfort and control, but only for one parent. In a highly-contentious relationship, the visiting parent can feel out of place and defensive, setting the stage for antagonistic behavior for both.
Choosing a public place that is equal distance for both parents can ease tensions dramatically. People are less likely to draw negative attention to themselves by being confrontational. Restaurants, playgrounds, or schools are neutral places that may be convenient for both parents.
If the relationship between parents goes beyond not getting along into violent and aggressive behavior, using a school or a daycare can be a great buffer. One parent drops the child off at daycare; the other parent picks the child up. Communication, while still important, is reduced to the bare minimum.
Short and Sweet
Keep the exchange brief. Drawn out goodbyes peppered with multiple hugs and kisses can trigger separation anxiety in children. Instead, parents can give their children their full attention and say a quick, loving goodbye.
Another good tip when dealing with smaller children is giving them a timeframe for when to expect to be reunited. However, smaller children may not understand what three days mean. Instead, use language they can relate to, “I will see you after three nighttime sleeps.”
Handling custody exchanges can be difficult for the family as a whole. Children suffer the most from high-conflict exchanges. Minimizing common sources of stress by creating a long-term plan can keep parents sane and protect their tiny humans from disease-causing toxic stress.