When You Don’t Have Custody
April 2002

“When You Don’t Have Custody,” Ensign, Apr. 2002, 58–63

When You Don’t Have Custody

Living gospel principles helps you be an effective parent even when divorce has separated you from your children.

Despite their efforts to work things out according to Latter-day Saint values, Jason and Tammy* were getting divorced after 11 years of marriage. Finances, housing, in-law relationships, and friendship patterns would all require adjustments. More important than any of these, however, were adaptations regarding their children. Both Jason and Tammy were devoted parents, but a court decree awarded custody of the children to Tammy. Practically overnight, Jason became a noncustodial parent whose contact with his children would come during visits rather than from daily interaction of traditional family life.

A scripture whose admonition Jason had always taken for granted now became more difficult to implement: “I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth” (D&C 93:40). That responsibility would entail some changes in the manner in which he would do his part.

These and other challenges that the non-custodial parent faces can be daunting, but the chances for meeting them successfully increase when there is a commitment to living gospel principles and to establishing healthy patterns of interaction with children and with ex-spouses.

With some exceptions, custody of children is generally granted to the mother following divorce, so the majority of noncustodial parents are fathers. Therefore, most of what follows has reference to noncustodial fathers, although many of the principles discussed can be applied to noncustodial mothers.

Living the Gospel

Divorce is a life-changing event—especially when children are involved—and Latter-day Saint noncustodial parents who remain active in the Church and true to gospel principles can find needed strength and stability. The principles upon which good relationships are built and character is developed have been revealed in the scriptures and in the words of latter-day prophets, and there should be renewed efforts to live those principles following divorce.

It may seem that the scriptures don’t say anything about how to be a good noncustodial parent. But upon close reading one discovers that the scriptures have much to say about it. The stories, teachings, and commandments found in the scriptures set forth principles and practices that apply equally to all. As a modern revelation succinctly puts it, “The holy scriptures are given of me for your instruction” (D&C 33:16). Let us review some of that counsel.

Noncustodial parents have an opportunity to demonstrate to their children that they can be counted on. They can show faith in the Lord, repentance, kindness, predictability, forgiveness, and love unfeigned (see D&C 121:41), and they can commit anew to become the model that children deserve to see in a parent. The father who is active in the Church shows how important the gospel is as he continues to live by righteous standards and encourages his children to do the same.

For noncustodial parents adjusting to separation and divorce, the admonition to remain faithful and true—to be “steadfast and immovable” (Mosiah 5:15; see also D&C 49:23)—will never be more critical. Divorce and noncustodial parenting are always a challenge, but learning and growth can be part of the process, and recommitment to eternal priorities can be a result. Adversity does not have to shatter us but can strengthen us and our testimonies if we will, as Alma counseled his son, “turn to the Lord with all [our] mind, might, and strength” (Alma 39:13).

Establishing Healthy New Patterns

Following a divorce, children do best when they have ongoing contact with both parents (unless, of course, there are destructive behaviors present, such as abuse). In establishing a pattern of interaction for divorced parents and their children, it is helpful for parents to agree to let go of the past and to resist the temptation to say negative things to or about one another. This is a gospel requirement (see D&C 64:9–10) that can be reinforced by the parents’ genuine desire to remain connected to their children and to minimize the negative effect of divorce on them. Working out this new pattern of interaction can also be seen as a chance to “start over again” in spite of poor choices that may have been made in the past.

When a spirit of cooperation is established through commitment to the best interests of the children, it will be easier to negotiate visitation schedules and the handling of such matters as holidays, back-to-school nights, wedding receptions, missionary farewells, piano and dance recitals, Primary programs, and funerals. Generally speaking, patterns of family-member involvement have been established before divorce, so it is difficult to give up one’s part in those patterns. Compromise and developing new patterns are the keys to success, and this is particularly true after one or both of the partners remarries.

When Philip remarried, he and his new wife established a pattern of having Philip’s children from his previous marriage visit on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas morning as had been done previously. This successful negotiation with his former wife kept his children from feeling pulled in two directions.

While each noncustodial parent must establish his own pattern of relating to his children, there are general practices that many have found helpful. These include the following:

  • Do not miss your planned visits without calling in advance to explain.

  • During visits, allow your children to maintain normal everyday life patterns in such things as chores, homework, eating routines, and bedtime hours.

  • Avoid extravagant spending on visits.

  • Use good judgment in recreational activities. Avoid going overboard in entertaining your child as a way of showing love or winning his or her approval.

  • Introduce your children to others in your neighborhood who may become friends.

  • Talk openly with your children about the visit so that they have a clear expectation for the experience. Depending on their age, they will usually understand that you may have personal things you need to do during the visit time.

  • Do not use visits as opportunities to fish for information or to say negative things about your former spouse.

  • Avoid the temptation to use your children to manipulate your former spouse, such as by bringing them home late from a visit to prove that you are “in control.”

  • Be a positive spiritual influence. Have family prayer and home evening, attend Church meetings together, and talk about gospel topics during visits.

  • Allow your children to maintain desired relationships with extended family, including grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. Both parents should do the best they can to foster this. Generally speaking, the adjustment of children will be optimized by their maintaining as much of the old routine and the former relationships as possible.

One of the most common complaints of divorced parents is that the other parent exposes the children to inappropriate behaviors or people. When parents put their children first, such problems can usually be avoided. Latter-day Saint children deserve to have their values respected, and their gospel activity ought to be permitted and encouraged by both parents.

The Distance Challenge

When Bob and Carol divorced, they felt they had a fairly clear picture of what difficulties they would face. They did a good job of working through the first few months of sensitive negotiations. What neither one of them anticipated was the transfer Bob’s company would ask him to make to the other side of the country. Although Bob was diligent at maintaining telephone contact with his children, he was not prepared for the degree of loss he felt at moving away.

There is not a simple solution to the painful feeling of moving away from children. Spiritual resources can provide strength and perspective, for, as Alma testified to his son Helaman, “I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions” (Alma 36:3). In addition, there are practical and creative things noncustodial parents can do to maintain relationships with their children who are separated from them by long distance.

A significant way to keep in touch is for the children to have an extended visit with the noncustodial parent. Or the parent could arrange to go to the area where his or her children live.

While children are young, noncustodial parents might also read stories to them over the phone. One father sent his children a book of which he also had a copy, and they read the story together and asked each other to find things in the pictures.

Communicating by e-mail is a fast and easy way to stay in touch, but children still enjoy getting a handwritten letter or a postcard with interesting pictures.

It is also important for the out-of-town parent to keep track of the dates of important events, such as back-to-school nights, recitals, and basketball games. Calling after such events to show interest and awareness goes a long way toward letting children know that the love and concern of a parent are genuine.

As noncustodial parents make these efforts to reach out, they need to be patient and realize that the availability of children will vary considerably as the children get older, get jobs, develop new habits and friendships, and begin to date.

What About Dating and Remarriage?

In spite of the disappointment and loss experienced when a marriage ends in divorce, healing for most people eventually takes place. In time the noncustodial parent may become interested in dating again and may have the opportunity to remarry. As these situations unfold, it is critical that the feelings of children be considered and that they be protected from further painful experiences. Children can feel rejected all over again if their single parent and a familiar dating partner suddenly break up. However, if done sensitively, helping children get acquainted with your date can be enjoyable.

Noncustodial parents should make it a point to introduce their children to dating partners they are considering marrying. This should be done long enough in advance that there is plenty of time to adjust to the style, interests, children, and extended family of one another. Some of the most frustrated remarried couples are those who married because of an intense infatuation and just assumed their children would get along well because the adults did.

While divorced parents who remarry may excitedly view a new relationship as the beginning of a new life, children may view it as the beginning of the end. They may have hoped their parents would get back together or remain single so they could have unlimited time together. Nevertheless, most children will adjust well to the remarriage of a parent if (1) they have had the opportunity to express their own feelings; (2) they have had time to adjust to the relationship; (3) the other parent is not negative about the former spouse’s new marriage; (4) the new step-parent is kind and doesn’t overstep his or her role; and (5) the children’s needs for space and time are responded to sensitively.

Remarriage always brings challenges, but the odds that the new marriage will succeed are greatly magnified when the realities of visiting children are given a high priority.

That Your Children May Be Blessed

Sadly, statistics show that many noncustodial parents tend to become less and less involved in their children’s lives. In fact, one report indicated that 50 percent of noncustodial parents, usually men who had remarried, had lost all contact with their children five years following divorce (see Patricia L. Papernow, Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families [1993], 106).

But this need not be the case among Church members. Though faced with difficult adjustments and challenges, Latter-day Saint noncustodial parents still have the opportunity to help reinforce gospel values and practices in the lives of their children. Whether in the home of the custodial or the noncustodial parent, children will be strengthened as their parents respond to the Savior’s plea, “Pray in your families unto the Father … that … your children may be blessed” (3 Ne. 18:21).

A divorce may have left children wounded, but with the Lord’s help, custodial and noncustodial parents can bring about healing so that children can thrive—and no effort is too great in achieving such a goal.

Ways That Others Can Be Supportive of the Noncustodial Parent

  • Understand that the parent may be adjusting to his or her newly divorced status. For some this is devastating and requires their developing a new identity. Be warm and accepting.

  • Visit the home. Invite the person to be part of social occasions. An invitation to attend a family home evening or a backyard barbecue will likely receive a warm response.

  • Ask about children and provide information about other children who live nearby.

  • Avoid the temptation to assume that the noncustodial parent has problems and that his or her children will have problems. Expect the best, and offer healthy interaction.

A Father’s Efforts Send Messages to His Children

Elder Neal A. Maxwell

“A father who truly loves his children, and who is truly striving, for instance, to become a better man, sends off to his children all kinds of messages, in a variety of ways, that let them know he loves them and that he is a serious disciple of Jesus Christ. Then his children can more easily forgive him the tactical errors, because his basic message is intact: he believes in God and he cares for his family. On the other hand, for the father who is not truly serious in his discipleship, no number of compensatory techniques or humanistic sentiments can ever compensate for the failure of that father to teach the truth by precept and by example.”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, ed. Cory H. Maxwell (1997), 122.

More on this topic: Deborah Eldredge-Milne, “When Parents Divorce,”New Era, Aug. 2000, 40–44; Barbara Vance, “I Have a Question,”Ensign, Oct. 1992, 54–55; Sandra Bouley, “Reaching Out to Divorced Members,”Ensign, June 1983, 58–61; Geraldine P. Anderson, “Explaining Divorce to Children,”Ensign, Nov. 1972, 56–58.
Visit www.lds.org or see Church magazines on CD.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussion or for personal reflection. The following questions are for that purpose.

  1. What am I doing to stay close to my children who do not live with me?

  2. Are there ways I have not thought of—ways to use letters, phone calls, or e-mail—to help strengthen my children’s testimonies?

  3. Do I focus on strengthening my children when I am with them?

  4. If I have custody of the children, am I fulfilling my moral, and not just legal, obligations to their other parent? Do I allow them to have a relationship with their other parent without feeling threatened?

  • Names have been changed.

  • S. Brent Scharman is a member of the Holladay 26th Ward, Salt Lake Holladay Stake.

Photography by Steve Bunderson; posed by models