How do the decisions we make as parents affect our children when a family is divided by the breakdown of a parental relationship?

Following on from my earlier article Navigating the Legal Minefield when your relationship ends, I think it’s fair to say that the emotional aspects of the breakdown of a relationship often have parents losing track of what is actually best for their children.  

Children can be affected by the separation of their parents in many different and unique ways.  In some cases, children will suffer varying degrees of psychological trauma, including feelings of confusion, denial, sadness, fear, anxiety, guilt and abandonment.  However, the way in which we, as parents, choose to behave in the circumstances of separation, can certainly contain and minimize any adverse affects upon our children.

At the outset, it is important to consider the following:-

  • All children have the right to know both of their parents and to have both of their parents having a meaningful involvement in their lives.
  • All children have the right to be protected from harm – including physical and/or psychological harm and from being exposed to family violence.
  • Parenting is a responsibility which should be shared equally, so long as there is no risk to the children in doing so.
  • Equal shared parental responsibility is not to be confused with equal shared care.
  • Parents are expected to make a genuine effort to resolve any parenting disputes and work out what is best for their children, without having to proceed to a Court for the determination of the matter.
  • Most importantly, the best interests of the children are the paramount consideration when determining parenting arrangements.

Equal shared parental responsibility is a presumption under the Family Law Act 1975.  That is, despite a marriage or relationship breaking down, it is presumed that parents will still cooperatively parent their children by consulting with each other and making joint decisions in regards to all major long term issues relating to their children. Some examples of major long term issues include the children’s education, health matters, religious and cultural upbringing and any changes to their living arrangements which may make it difficult for the children to spend time with the other parent. However, this presumption does not apply in circumstances of abuse, family violence or where it is not in the children’s best interests to have both parents exercising equal shared parental responsibility.

Moving forward, children need structure, stability, consistency and predictability in their lives. It is crucial for parents to consider the effect that their care schedule has on the children before implementing it. For example, an equal shared care arrangement may be ideal for children and more likely to be sustained in circumstances where the parents maintain an amicable and cooperative relationship following their separation. Successful co-parenting requires both parents to remain respectful of the other parent, child-focused and flexible.

Conversely, an acrimonious parenting relationship with a rigid shared care schedule, low levels of communications and cooperation and high levels of conflict will almost inevitably impact negatively on both parents, and more importantly, the children.

It is a disturbing reality that many children, at a very young age, are burdened with complex living schedules designed by their parents, which require them to move so frequently between homes that they are essentially living out of their own suitcase. Equally disturbing is that many young children are expected to organize the transfer of their suitcases, school bags, uniforms, homework and other personal belongings between homes, particularly in circumstances where parents are in conflict and either unable or unwilling to communicate with one another in relation to matters concerning their children.

Children do not respond well to conflict between their parents. They generally just want to see their parents happy, or at least know that their parents can talk to each other and get along. They will say things to one parent that they think that parent wants to hear – and things to the other parent that they think that parent wants to hear. More often than not, children just want to please their parents and stop them arguing – especially when the arguments are about them.

It is generally in circumstances where children are exposed to parental conflict, either directly or indirectly, that they experience difficulties with the separation. These difficulties can then culminate into more severe emotional and psychological conditions which may affect their relationships with either or both parents, their siblings, their extended family members, their friendships, their progress at school and even their future relationships.

Some of the issues that we encourage parents to consider before any living and care arrangements are put in place for their children include:

  • The nature and quality of the parental relationship (with an emphasis on the need to reduce actual conflict and indirect tension between parents, as well as ensuring parents do not involve their children in the parental dispute).
  • The nature and quality of the relationship between the children and each parent (having specific regard to the children’s attachments to each parent).
  • Where relevant, the need to protect the children from abuse (including physical or psychological harm and neglect) and family violence (including assault, stalking, derogatory taunts, destruction of property and denial of contact with a family members).
  • The ages of the children (having specific regard to their developmental needs, wants and attachments).
  • The children’s school and extra-curricular commitments.
  • The physical and emotional availability of each parent (having regard to their respective work commitments, including before and after school care options).
  • The proximity of the parents’ homes (to each other, as well as the children’s childcare/school).
  • The appropriateness of a shared care arrangement.
  • If a shared care arrangement is not considered appropriate, the appropriateness of the children spending substantial and significant time with the other parent (including some weekday and weekend time, holidays and special occasions).
  • Any views expressed by the children.
  • Any special needs of the children.
  • Any relevant cultural issues.
  • Any future changes and how they will impact upon the parenting arrangements (such as commencing school, moving residence, re-partnering etc).
  • What parenting arrangements will ultimately be in the best interests of the children?

At one time or another, most parents (myself included) would probably be guilty of making a statement to their children in the heat of the moment along the lines of “…IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT YOU!!!”  But the reality is that in circumstances where separated parents are negotiating appropriate care schedules for their children it should be.