In this day and age, shared parenting has become more common than ever, and sorting out parenting arrangements for your children in combination with parental conflict can take a huge toll on both parents and children alike. During these times, it’s understandable for parents to become preoccupied with the emotional stresses of the split, that they may forget to focus on the needs of their children.
This can lead to mistakes which can have a detrimental impact on the outcome of your case or work against you when it comes to parenting arrangements and Court Orders.
Because of this, it’s important to be prepared with the likely obstacles you will face – not only legally, but emotionally and financially as well.
Below is a list of the frequent mistakes parents can make when involved in parenting separation matters, so you know what to avoid for the good of everyone.
Criticising the other parent to the child
This is, unfortunately, the most common mistake parents make and can be displayed by both mothers and fathers alike in many cases.
For most parents, the reality is that their child is very aware of the conflict that goes on between both sides of the separation, as well as the interactions between both parents. This leads to the child acting as a ‘neutral listening post’.
What many parents fail to realise is that, amid their heightened emotions, the child can suffer in many different ways. A child’s emotional wellbeing can be impacted by the negative views of one parent towards the other, making them feel pressured to take sides.
It is important to remember that children are often curious and will likely overhear your conversations with friends and family. Bearing this in mind, be cautious of how you speak about your spouse when your child is around, as it can undermine the relationship that your child has with the other parent.
As children grow older, even into adulthood, they tend to look at their parent’s behaviour and may judge you if they perceive you have undermined their relationship with the other parent.
Apart from the impact on your children, denigrating the other parent may also cause the Family Court to look unfavourably upon you as Judges are very aware of the impact this has on children. Such behaviour can see parenting arrangements and Court Orders change drastically, simply due to how one parent refers to the other.
The most effective way to combat this mistake is to ensure that you have proper channels of stress relief.
Speaking to a Psychologist, a Psychiatrist or a GP is a good way to ensure you have the emotional support necessary to cope with your concerns over your separation by providing you with assistance.
Trying to make your child feel sorry for you, even if unintentional
This issue is referred to by the Family Law Courts as “attempting to align a child’s views to those of a parent”, or parental alienation.
This is a particularly harmful act, as it has the same consequences upon your child as discussed in item 1 above. It can also demonstrate to the Court you are not child-focused and suggests an issue of your inability to co-parent and act in the child’s best interests.
It’s also not helpful for your own relationship with the child as it effectively reverses the parent/child role, with your child taking on the role of the protective parent. Children require your guidance, and not the other way around.
Such behaviour can be seen as malicious, with a deliberate intention to hurt the other parent – such as telling the child that the other parent doesn’t pay for anything and to ask them for money, or telling the child that the other parent is a bad person for whatever reason.
However, subtler, unintentional forms of drawing sympathy can also cause harm, such as crying in front of the child, telling the child that the other parent is taking you to Court and expressing distress over the family breakdown such as providing details about not being given any money or being ‘kicked out’ of the family home.
The potential impact your sub-conscious behaviour can have on your child can be significant and, in most cases, cannot be undone. So, you must always be mindful of your actions and behaviour around your child during a separation or divorce.
Not trying to communicate with the other parent
This is a major issue for two reasons, the most important of which is that your children need to see their parents communicating for the good of their well-being. Failure to communicate with the other parent can be extremely detrimental to many aspects of your child’s life, including medical care, education and social development.
Children miss out on things when their parents can’t communicate. They also learn to play one parent off against the other, trying to get what they want.
The second reason is that the Family Court may take a negative view against you if you fail to try to communicate with the other parent.
In parenting matters, the Court’s primary concern is the best interests of the child – which is what its decisions will be based on. Failure to communicate will appear to that Court as if you’re not willing to promote the relationship between the child and the other parent, which is an essential part of parental bonding and social development.
You don’t need to be best friends. But you chose to have a child together, so the Court expects that you behave in a child-focused manner and exchange important information for the sake of your child. If you find it difficult to talk with the other parent, you may want to agree on one medium of communication that will minimise conflict. Many separated parents prefer to email, text, or use a communication platform, as they find that written communication elicits less emotion and keeps conversations more child-focused and appropriate.
If the Court considers that you are genuinely not willing to promote a relationship between the child and the other parent without good reason, there is a risk that the Family Court will say a shared care relationship can’t work and the other parent may become the primary carer. In some cases, they may even be given sole responsibility for major long-term decisions.
Preventing Access to a Child
While many parents believe they may be doing the right thing by withholding the child from contacting the other parent, it’s often one of the worst things a parent could do.
There are some cases where there is a need to protect a child from being physically or emotionally harmed. However, if there is no risk to the child, then the Court expects to see both parents are open and keen to demonstrate that they are willing to co-parent and promote a relationship between the child and the other parent. If you withhold a child from the other parent without a good and justifiable reason, you could find yourself losing primary care of your children for your failure to show a willingness to encourage the children’s relationship with the other parent.
Having said that, there are some circumstances where it is essential for a parent to withhold the child from access by the other parent. These are when serious situations arise where the child is at risk of harm, be it emotional or physical, and in need of protection from the other parent.
Some instances where this is deemed necessary can include:
- The other parent is violent towards the child
- The other parent is taking drugs in the presence of the child
- The other parent is the victim of domestic violence and the child may be exposed to this behaviour
- There is a risk of the child being exposed or subjected to sexual abuse
- The other parent may potentially expose the child to harm
- The other parent has done or said something to make you believe that they will not return the child at the end of their access visit.
If your concern for the child’s well-being is so serious that it causes you to prevent access to the other parent, we strongly recommend attempting to maintain some form of contact with the child and the other parent (perhaps by phone or video link such as Facebook Messenger or Facetime) or arranging supervised visits (if appropriate) until Court Orders are made by the local Family Court. This will show the Court that you are serious about attempting to maintain a relationship between the child and the other parent, while maintaining the safety and well-being of the child.
Remember, withholding access to a child without any justification can have serious ramifications for you in Court proceedings. So, you may wish to seek legal advice as to possible alternate measures and if your actions are reasonable before denying access.
Lying About Drug Use or Alcohol
Drug and alcohol abuse is not uncommon in family law situations or parental separations. What is also common is the frequency of parents who try to hide or deny the use of drugs or alcohol.
Many parents with a history of drug and alcohol consumption understandably believe that their use of such substances will impede upon their chances of gaining parental responsibilities in parenting arrangements.
This can be the case, however, it is important to recognise that the Family Law Courts are not as concerned about drug or alcohol use as much as they are concerned about how use may impact your children and your ability to be a good parent.
Taking steps to minimise substance abuse, such as counselling or rehabilitation, and making an effort to stay away from drugs and alcohol during visits with the child can show the Court that you can maintain self-control and will improve your chances of having further contact with your children.
Remember the Court is more concerned with your future ability to care for your children appropriately, rather than your past.
Splitting up the children
It is becoming more and more common to see blended families today. The Court will take into account the relationships between all types of siblings, including half-siblings and step-siblings – not just biological siblings.
In the instance that parents with blended families separate, it is important to consider the impact on the children if they are split up. People tend to focus on only the biological children of the parents and fail to accommodate for the other children involved.
Seeking to separate the children may suggest to the Court that the parent is not child-focused. The Family Court does not usually like to separate children unless they have no other option.
It may be wise not to ask the Court that children be separated and consider alternative measures instead. However, on occasion, the Court may decide that the best option to accommodate all of the children’s best interests and their well-being is for them to be separated.
We recommend you seek legal advice in this regard, as it applies to your individual circumstances.
Not Being Properly Prepared for Court Specialists and Court Experts
Family report writers are called on to be impartial and provide recommendations based on the best interests of the child. The Court places a high level of trust in family report writers’ observations of the parents and interactions with the children.
Although it is a common part of many family law matters, people tend to underestimate the importance of family reports and the interviews conducted with all parties during the separation process.
Many Judges rely heavily on the recommendations of the family report writer or psychologist, giving great weight to the analysis of these experts having interviewed all relevant parties and the children, before giving their independent opinion.
While decisions aren’t always made solely based on family reports by court experts, they weigh heavily on the decisions made by the Court (such as Court Orders).
You must let your children speak for themselves as children will normally be quite honest, or are bad liars when questioned during family report interviews. It will be obvious to the report writer when a parent has tried to coach the child for the interview. Children do not like to be made to choose one parent over the other and any manipulation by one parent will display unfavourably in the written report.
To prepare for a family report interview, you should practice refraining from saying anything negative about the other parent. This will help you to be more balanced and child-focused during the interview process.
Remember, from the moment you speak to the family report writer or their secretary on the phone to arrange interviews, through to arriving in the reception area, interacting with your children and speaking to the other parent, right up until when you leave the interviews, everything you say and do is being observed.
Allowing Children to Play Parents off Against Each Other
When parents fail to communicate or are competing for the affection of their children, children tend to play one parent off against the other – which then causes parents to lose their ability to co-parent effectively.
Rules and structure are vital to the growth of a child. So, when this is lacking, it tends to encourage children to test the boundaries of both parents, often seeing an opportunity by making one – or both – parents feel guilty.
While children may test the boundaries from time to time, they need their parents to make decisions for them. If you cave in to your child’s demands, it can lead to bad parenting decisions and increasing parental conflict.
A good way to avoid this happening is to ensure communication between parents relating to the separation is not in the presence of the child.
Involving Children in Adult Conflict and Legal Proceedings
As far as Judges are concerned, family law proceedings are for the involvement of the parents only and children should not be involved in any aspect of the case. A courtroom is no place for a child and anyone under 18 years is not permitted in the family law courtrooms without the Judge’s permission.
There are many reasons why your child should not be involved in the court proceedings and this includes showing your child court documents. It is considered extremely inappropriate because you are involving your child in adult issues that children should not be privy to. Your child may not be aware of various matters, such as drug use, an affair or instances of poor parenting.
Children often see their parents as heroes, and information that may be exchanged through family law proceedings is not something your child needs to know. You may hinder a child’s view of the other parent, or even their view of you in some cases and undermine the relationship between the child and parent.
If deemed necessary, the appropriate way to include a child’s wishes is by arranging a family report.
Not putting the children’s best interests ahead of your own decision making
Understandably, people can often become completely consumed by their separation. But when parents are completely entrenched in parenting separation matters, it can often lead to them focusing on their own interests and the negative things about the other parent, over and above what is best for their children.
A common example is living arrangements. For example, wanting to live somewhere that is close to work, wanting your children to live with you to minimise child support, or not agreeing to the other parent’s parenting plan because you don’t want them to dictate when you see the children.
It’s common for parents to put forward their own agendas to be portrayed as if it is about the interests of the children. The Family Court sees this time and time again and can easily identify when parents aren’t being child-focused.
Before you make a decision that concerns your child, it is best to ask yourself if what you are about to do is truly in the best interests of your child. If the answer is no, then it should be avoided as the Court will likely see it as you putting your needs ahead of your child.
The ultimate decision of the Court will always reflect the best interests of the children.
While Judges will investigate the many factors involved in determining their decision, they are human, so they will still be influenced by their own opinions. This means it is incredibly important to act in a way that will not leave them questioning your judgement.
If you aren’t sure you’re doing the right thing, it’s important to seek legal advice.