Six Steps to a Successful Custody Battle

July 18, 2023

No one wants to go through a high-conflict child custody case as it can bring out the worst in the parents and cause severe stress. It’s important to know how to navigate the changing parenting dynamics that are created by a custody fight. Understanding these dynamics is just as important as knowing the procedural and legal aspects of a case. Being a good parent and understanding your role will benefit you once the case is over.

Clients who focus on their family and parenting style are more successful in their case. Back in 2016, KJK issue an article titled “Seven Mistakes to Avoid in a Child Custody Battle,” which touched this matter. I encourage you to read that article if you haven’t done so already.

Step One: Don’t Count the Minutes

One of the main issues in a custody battle is the amount of time each parent will have with their child. However, the Court will routinely tell parties, “I am not going to be counting minutes!” Over my years of practice, I have had clients focus on the fact their ex has a certain amount of days (or hours and minutes) and demand the same for themselves. When their ex wants to switch a day, they will demand the exact amount of hours in return. This is not healthy, and you will be consumed with this habit.

Instead, you should focus on the quality of time you are receiving with your child, rather than the amount of time you are getting in your case. For a parent who works during the day, their quality time is in the evenings, while other parents work third shift and spend more time during the day with their child. Additionally, parents may fight for more overnights, but it is important to determine if this actually constitutes quality time based on your schedule and the child’s needs. In another case, a parent may have daily time with the child every day after school as childcare, which may be more quality time than overnights and work better for both parties’ schedules.

Having more parenting time with your children does not automatically mean you are fostering the best relationship with them. A parent with less time can still make a significant impact on the child’s life. If you are unable to have more time due to a work schedule or travel limitations, that is okay. You can focus on making the most of the time you currently have and enjoy the relationship you are building with your child. By doing this, you will be demonstrating great parenting, which typically leads to more parenting time.

Your child will not remember the exact schedule, hours or days. They remember the activities you did and the conversations you had. They will remember how they feel with you. When you are happier, they will feel this and enjoy being with you more.

Step Two: Love your Children more than your Hate your Ex

Sometimes it’s hard to step back and see the big picture. A party is usually very hurt by their ex and wants the Court to understand why they are not the best parent. Unfortunately, this can take a turn and an ugly battle can occur. In this scenario, the parties dig up all the worst things the other person did during their relationship and use it against them at Court, within the community or even in front of their child. However, it’s crucial to remember that your child is half of their other parent. When you make a negative comment about your ex, you are telling your child they are at least 50% bad. You need to love your child more than you hate your ex. You must remember that you will be co-parenting with your ex for the rest of your child’s life. You don’t need to be friends or colleagues, but at least remain neutral. I tell my clients that when your child graduates from high school or gets married, you want to be able to sit in the same room as your ex. By focusing on loving your child, they won’t have to make a choice between the two of you. In the long run, this will allow you to be present at more events and life moments. It also teaches your child a healthy family dynamic.

It is common for people to be frustrated with the actions of their ex during the divorce. For example, Dad might feed the children junk food, or Mom might be too strict with rules. However, these behaviors most likely existed during the relationship and will continue afterward. As I tell my clients, there is a reason you are getting a divorce! You cannot change these habits, and unless they are detrimental to the safety and well-being of the child, they will not impact your case.

Instead, you need to ensure that you are being the best parent possible for your children. That means taking time for yourself and putting yourself first at times. Many parents work hard to keep their children’s lives the same during a custody battle or divorce because they don’t want them to feel like their lives have changed. However, this means one parent is doing the emotional and physical work of two parents, which is unsustainable in the long term It can negatively affect a parent’s mental and physical well-being, which does not benefit the children. You need to make sure you have time for yourself, whether that means taking a nightly walk or going out to dinner with a friend. The court will not use this against you, and you will be a better version of yourself for your kids. It will also give you the strength to disengage from the conflict with your ex.

When your ex is provoking a reaction, you don’t have to respond. You continue to support and love your child. By deescalating a fight, even when it is hard, you are doing this for the well-being of your child. You do this for your child, and even when your ex may not take this approach, you will. Your child will see what each parent is doing, and they understand what is going on in the case.

Step Three: Focus on Your Good Instead of Pointing out their Bad

Clients will come to me with a list of all the things their ex did that was wrong. Journaling can be a powerful tool for expressing concerns, but when it comes to the case, a parent feels they have to prove the other parent is the “bad parent” and push that narrative. However, the court may not view the “bad things” as significant, and it can backfire on the accusing parent. The Courts want to see each parent encourage a relationship between the children and the parents. If the Court thinks a parent is pointing out all the bad of the other, they will start to question the credibility and integrity of you. A parent should make sure the Court knows why they are the good parent and not constantly highlight why the other parent is the bad one.

Furthermore, it is exhausting to continuously find the bad in the other person. You should focus and highlight the good in your own parenting. You should continue to love your child, support your child and talk with your child. You do not need to question your child about the bad things the other parent is doing. Enjoy your child and the time you have. That will resonate with the Court, your child, and your own heart.

Step Four: Stop the Negativity

According to Brené Brown, the most effective way to cultivate joy in our lives is to practice gratitude. Yes, you must have gratitude during a high conflict case. When your family is in a time of great change, it can be difficult to find joy. The family dynamic you thought would last forever is no longer the same. You need to show your children that you can co-exist with your ex and that they have a safe space in your presence. To avoid the negativity, you must refrain from making negative comments about your ex in front of the kids and refocus your comments on the positive aspect of your new family dynamic.

As a parent, you need to set an example for your children that in times of change, you find the positive aspects. To get to that point, you need to have gratitude. You are in a high conflict battle because you are a parent and that itself is beautiful thought. It is important to focus on the positive and stop the negativity. When you are with your children, fully focus on them. Plan activities at home, go on adventures, or simply enjoy the daily routine.

As a child of divorce myself, I adjusted to my parents having new significant others and spouses. My parents supported each other’s new partners, which made the adjustment easier for me. They engaged in non-judgmental conversations about them and never sought negative information. It made me feel comfortable to speak about them, and I felt I was truly “allowed” to be happy in their presence. When navigating the new dynamic, I came to realize that these new people were just more individuals to love and support me (which also meant more gifts during holidays).

Step Five: Stop Reading into Things That May Not be There

During a high conflict custody case, parents will still need to communicate with each other. People tend to read into the actions of the other parent, which only creates more anxiety in an already contentious situation. For example, if a parent is late to drop off the child because their work ran late, the receiving parent may jump to the conclusion that it was done intentionally to limit their time with the child. This can lead to anger and potentially lashing out. It is important to remember that sometimes people are late without any intention of affecting the other parent, and more importantly, it does not negatively impact the child. The child will still be excited to see you.

At the end of the day, your focus should be on your child and their happiness. Children are perceptive and can pick up on their parents’ emotions. If they sense there is conflict, they may feel responsible and experience anxiety of their own. Many of the annoyances related to the other parent likely existed during the marriage and were typically managed by the spouse. However, now that you are no longer together, they become focal points. They become the characteristics that a parent hates and presents to the court. However, this person is still the parent of your child(ren).

You must accept your current circumstances and look to move forward from your past relationship. Don’t go looking for reasons to label your ex as a bad parent or ways they are trying to get back at you. You can only control yourself and your household, not theirs. When the child is with you, you should not focus on the other parent.

Step Six: This is your Case, not anyone else’s

Unfortunately, divorce and high conflict custody battles are becoming more common. You probably know more than one person who has gone through one. However, your case is not the same as their case. In my hundreds of cases, despite some similarities, no two cases are exactly alike. The parties have different needs, finances, residences, family support, etc. You will have friends and family tell you about their divorce and what you should do differently. But please remember that is what happened in their case.

Just because your friend who lives in the same community got sole custody doesn’t mean you will. No matter what your friend tells you, they are probably not sharing all the facts of their case. Their facts are not your facts.

During a custody battle, you need to rely on your family, friends and community for support. I encourage you to find that group that will listen to you vent and allow you to voice your frustrations. They may offer helpful advice, but you must filter out unnecessary advice. You know your children, your ex, and your case best. It is important that the external advice you receive doesn’t cause you additional anxiety. Listen to your attorney regarding the process and how things are progressing. If you let the outside noise in, you will become confused and forget the plan you made with your attorney.

I hope this article has provided you with useful information on how to navigate the difficult task of parenting during a divorce. There is no one-size-fits-all path through a custody battle. All you can do is consistently show up for yourself and your children. Just remember to stay positive.

For questions regarding your child custody battle, please contact KJK Family Law Partner Carly Boyd (CBoyd@kjk.com; 213.736.7254).