By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT

Children are great imitators. So give them something great to imitate.

Do children have a voice in decisions during and after a divorce, including custody? How will divorce affect the participation of children in parental decision making?

The answers are complex. It is helpful to answer these questions by being clear about the role of parents in a family. There is support for the idea that parents are responsible for the physical and emotional well-being and development of children as well as their social development (preparing children to cope in the adult world). There are many parenting styles adapted to this end. Recognizing the difficulty for parents in the divorce process who are trying to adapt to their own situation while tending to the children, it is still important for parents to remember their roles.

Among the identified parenting styles are the autocratic (limits the voice of children in decision-making), the democratic (provides significant opportunity for children to provide input), and the permissive (allowing children to have significant power in decision making). Each has its place depending on the needs of the children.

When parents separate or divorce, dynamics can change greatly because of the emotional forces that are unleashed upon the entire family. Parents may worry about custody outcomes, the support of the children, loss of control, the influence of outside authorities (the Court), or power struggles with the other parent. These fears can alter a previously effective parenting style.

So, how much of a voice should children have in these situations? Consider the best interests of each child, taking into account their age, social maturity, level of resiliency and noticeable changes in behaviors. It’s important for children to voice their concerns, but it’s not in their best interest to be “polled” or asked for input in areas they have not raised themselves. The idea is for the parents to remain the ones responsible for big decisions (such as custody) so children do not have to take the role of the adults. But, certainly, decisions that change where they live, go to school or friendships they must leave, are important factors to know and consider.

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