Nurturing Children through Separation and Divorce

There are many aspects of separation and divorce. While it’s natural that parents need to resolve disputes to their satisfaction, it’s important that the children don’t become lost in that process. 

Parents who are in dispute present to mediators, or their lawyers, with issues that revolve around their needs and what they want to walk away with after their divorce. For children, this means parents are focused on themselves and what they see as ‘fair’ but this does not necessarily mean being ‘child-focused’.

When there is a high level of conflict between parents, the children are aware, even if those arguments are not in front of them. They are very in tune with you and they get a sense of when you’re stressed or are feeling unhappy. Your conflict then becomes their conflict and it’s common to see children have significant changes in behaviour during this time. They may regress on previous milestones (such as bedwetting); have changes in attitude; poor emotional regulation; poor decision making; and a variety of other negative behavioural shifts. 

Parents sometimes get confused about the meaning of child-focused and what’s in the children’s ‘best interests’. The focus becomes muddied on what they (the parents) think about time and division, and not what children are missing, which is having both of you, all the time. 

Here are some tips on taking a more nurturing approach on some of the key issues presented by parents. 

Memories are not defined in time

While some parents argue about time, children do not want to feel as if they are another ‘thing’ to be shared in your divorce. What’s important to them is that they have a meaningful relationship with each of you and that their time with you brings value to their lives. They want to feel loved, supported, heard and cared for, no matter what amount of time that is for. They also want to know that you are happy and okay when they are not with you. 

Moving between homes 

This can be a big hurdle for children to adjust to moving between homes, particularly when conflict is present. Support your children during this transition time by greeting each other politely. Allow the other parent to hug or kiss them goodbye and/or embrace the receiving parent with love and affection. Sometimes they forget their special items, even when you’ve reminded them, so if they need something in order to feel settled, it would be best if you can communicate that freely between the parents and accommodate the child’s needs. 

Inclusive co-parenting

The children don’t like to be apart from either of you. Positively including the other parent into your conversations during the week helps them to know that they are a part of each of you. There are many ways you can ‘include’ them, without needing to spend time together. For example “Would you like to share a pic of this with Mum / Dad?”  Or “Don’t forget Dad / Mum would like to see your certificate”  Or, “Would you like to make a batch of biscuits to take to Mum’s / Dad’s?” 

Speak positively 

Children of all ages love to hear stories of when they were younger. Share incidental stories of times you remember and positively include the other parent, For example, “I remember when you were two and Dad / Mum and I took you to Queensland for a holiday” – then, of course, tell them about the experiences as a positive memory of that time. I am sure if you think about it, there are many ways you can incorporate these stories.

It is not practical to suggest that all separating parents can be friends. However, you can nurture your children in a way that tells them that their needs matter. What children want most is to know they are not caught in the middle of your disputes. Nurture them as you learn to parent together while living apart.


You can find more information and helpful guidance in the Parenting After Separation Course. Or contact Parenting Coordinator, Jasmin Newman via the contact tab.

Considering Child Safety During COVID19

Despite a shaky and uncertain start for many parents on how shared parenting would take place during COVID19, there is now a clear and concise message from the Government and the Family Court. Co-parenting in the vast majority of cases continues as it has always done. This applies to both court orders and those families who have not attended court but whose children routinely move between homes. 

Court orders are considered ‘essential’ thus facilitating travel for parents. This is particularly important for parents traveling between States where they may be required to show parenting orders to police on the border. Isolation requirements will need to be met by each parent, just as they were doing anyway. 

Child safety is considered to be the primary consideration under Australian family law. As we have never before had to navigate safety regarding a global pandemic, this is new and unchartered territory. However it also gives an opportunity to discuss the broader context of child safety. 

Issues of immediate safety are: 

  1. ensuring a child is not subject to family violence from either parent; and 
  2. long term safety in which a child’s mental health and overall wellbeing is demonstrated to be improved by continuing, ongoing relationships with both their parents. 

During COVID19 given that immediate safety has already been addressed, it is the long term impacts that parents must consider. 

The primary concern many parents have had regarding a child traveling between homes has been a distrust in the other parent to comply with social isolation requirements, including those who may be quarantined after crossing State borders. 

Given the now high priority police and military are placing on monitoring social isolation, noncompliance by any person is becoming a risk in and of itself. The vast majority of people are doing the right thing and abiding by requirements. Those who are not are being issued warnings or infringement notices. This makes the likelihood of noncompliance almost zero, thus removing any level of real risk. 

The Chief Justice of the Family Court, Will Alstergren, issued a media statement clarifying issues around orders.  In an article published by The Australian, Alstergren further implored parents to act sensibly and reasonably.   “Each parent should always consider the safety and best interests of the child, but also appreciate the concerns of the other parent … This includes understanding that family members are important to children and the risk of infection to vulnerable members of the child’s family and household should also be considered.” he said. 

These most certainly are difficult and conflicting times for all Australians and it’s normal that we have elevated fears and concerns during this time. For all of us, being restrained from normal travel and daily interactions with our family and friends is emotionally debilitating. 

For parents who can take a wider perspective in this time,  they will see that children of separated families have an opportunity to move between homes, thus giving them that vital contact they are craving, and which sustains them at a deeper level. These children will have some variety that the rest of us do not. A change of home, minor change in routine, different meals being cooked for them and, most importantly, the company of their other parents and perhaps step families. 

In normal times we take these small things for granted. During the pandemic we are now living, these are big issues that will go a long way towards helping children cope. Their likelihood of suffering long term mental health issues will be reduced and their recovery time improved by having at least some variety. 

In weighing up safety we must consider the long term impacts on a child’s wellbeing. This is demonstrably improved by a meaningful relationship with both their parents. I implore all parents to see this as an opportunity to help their children during this difficult time. Shared care is best for children, even more during this COVID crisis.

Countering Arguments Against Shared Parenting in Family Law

Have we reached a tipping point in the child custody debate?

Despite strong public support and mounting empirical evidence in its favor as an ideal living arrangement for the majority of children of divorce, shared parenting as presumption in family law has historically been met with skepticism among some legal and mental health professionals. In a recent article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, I describe how the past 40 years have produced three distinct “waves” of arguments against shared parenting, and how these have stalled meaningful legislative reform toward the establishment of shared parenting as a legal presumption, placing the burden of proof on shared parenting proponents to defend their position and demonstrate its efficacy, in a way that supporters of more traditional sole custody arrangements have not had to face.

The first wave of arguments was advanced in a manner that considered the idea of shared parenting of children by parents in conflict after divorce as an outlandish proposition. Three distinct arguments were made to discredit the concept:

First, it was asserted that children have one primary attachment figure to whom they become bonded, almost always the mother, and that any period of separation from the primary attachment figure will damage children’s development and compromise their well-being. At the same time this argument was advanced, however, reformulations of attachment theory emphasized the fact that children typically formed primary attachments to both parents, that these attachments were equally important for children, and that children tenaciously continue these attachments in changing circumstances, including after divorce.

A second line of argument was then put forward, stating that child development would be compromised when children move back and forth between two homes, “bounced around like a yo-yo,” with constant movement, two sets of home rules and different parenting styles. The research on children living in two homes found, however, that children themselves generally did not report such problems, and that sustaining attachments with both of their parents protected them from the adverse child development outcomes often accompanying divorce. In fact, lengthy separations from either primary attachment figure were found to be detrimental to child development.

Finally, a third argument was made that it is harmful to child development to disrupt the caregivingstatus quo, and that mothers should thus retain their role as the primary day-to-day caregivers of children. Research suggested otherwise, however: shared care of children was becoming the norm in two-parent families and disrupting shared parenting would in fact be more likely to lead to instability in children’s lives.

The second wave of arguments against shared parenting were presented as more concentrated and in-depth rebuttals of the concept, especially in situations where parents disagreed or were in conflict over child care arrangements after divorce. First, it was argued that shared parenting after divorce exacerbates parental conflict, and that children would be drawn into the conflict if shared care arrangements were imposed on families. Shared parenting, therefore, is only suitable for parents with little or no conflict and who get along well as co-parents. Again, research findings challenged this viewpoint: in actuality, an adversarial “winner-take-all” approach to child custody exacerbates parental conflict, leading to adverse consequences for children, whereas conflict is reduced in shared parenting arrangements where neither parent feels marginalized from his or her children’s lives. Further, research demonstrated that children do better in shared care arrangements even if there is conflict between the parents, and that sustaining both relationships is a protective factor for children in high parental conflict situations. Not all conflict is bad for children. Ongoing and unresolved conflict, however, is harmful to children; in such situations, rather than depriving children of a relationship with one parent, interventions to reduce conflict and support child development, such as assisting parallel parenting, therapeutic family mediation, and parenting education programs, were found to be most protective of child well-being. In response, a second critique of shared parenting was then advanced within the “second wave”: in high-conflict families, shared parenting exposes victimized parents and children to family violence and child abuse, and a legal presumption of shared parenting will allow abusive parents to continue their reign of terror in families. This argument, however, misrepresented the position of shared parenting proponents, who made clear that a legal presumption of shared parenting should always be rebuttable in cases of violence and abuse, as in such cases the safety of children and victimized parents is the primary consideration.

The third wave of arguments against shared parenting acknowledged that shared parenting may be beneficial for most children and families of divorce, including those in high conflict, but cautioned against the use of presumptions in family law, arguing that the best interests of children are different in each individual case, and that judges should retain their decision-making authority when it comes to post-divorce living arrangements for children. In response to this viewpoint, it has been pointed out that research on post-divorce outcomes for children and families has now established which living arrangements are most likely to support healthy child development. Without a legal presumption, judges make decisions based on idiosyncratic biases, leading to inconsistency and unpredictability in their judgments. And with two adequate parents, the court really has no basis in either law or psychology for distinguishing one parent as “primary” over the other.

It may be asked, then, after 40 years of debate, whether we have now reached a tipping point, when researchers can conclude with confidence that the best interests of children are commensurate with a legal presumption of shared parenting responsibility after divorce. Summarizing the state of current research in two recent special issues on shared parenting in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage and the Journal of Child Custody, leading divorce scholar Sanford Braver asserts, “To my mind, we’re over the hump. We’ve reached the watershed. On the basis of this evidence, social scientists can now cautiously recommend presumptive shared parenting to policymakers…shared parenting has enough evidence [that] the burden of proof should now fall to those who oppose it rather than those who promote it.”

References

Kruk, E. (2018). “Arguments Against Presumptive Shared Parenting as the Foundation of Family Law: A Critical Review,”  Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 59 (5), 388-400.

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