Assistance for recently separated parents

Relationship evolution

Your intimate relationship may have finally come to an end, but the existence of a child requires that your relationship with the other party must continue on in some form or another. The relationship must evolve. Whereas before you may have been partners, now you are parents.

You may need some time to get over the issues involved in the breakdown of your intimate relationship. You may harbour significant anger and resentment towards your former partner. It is important not to allow the animosity that you may hold towards your former partner to adversely affect your role as parent. It is also important to let your children know that both parents love them no matter what might happen between the two of you.

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communication is the key


Children benefit when their parents treat one other with respect and are able to communicate effectively with each another. Poor communication creates difficulties and exacerbates points of conflict. The fact that differences and disagreements will arise between parents should come as no surprise. That these problems exist is not problematic in itself; what’s important is how you handle those differences between the two of you. When the time comes to resolve areas of disagreement, negotiate an appropriate time and place to work it through. Avoid raising contentious issues late at night when both parties are tired and may not have the mental and emotional capacity to deal with the problem. Do not attack the other parent or criticise them. Focus on the areas of agreement before moving the discussion to the areas of disagreement. You may be surprised to learn how much agreement between the two of you exists, and how comparatively minor the points of disagreement might be.

Keep contemporaneous notes

It is impossible to predict the future with any certainty. Even where both parents appear to be communicating effectively, this situation can be liable to change, particularly when each parent re-partners. For this reason, it is wise to begin keeping a written record of the issues that you discuss with your former partner regarding your child. Contemporaneous notes recording the content of phone calls and conversations may be of great assistance if litigation becomes necessary at some point in the future. It is equally important to retain any written correspondence received from the other party. It may also be helpful to keep a diary of your parenting activities with the child. Information of relevance may include when you spend time with your child, when you communicate via telephone or otherwise, and details of purchases you make for the benefit of the child.

Take action to protect your rights

It is an all too frequent mistake for newly separated parents involved in high levels of conflict to bury their heads in the sand in the hope that the storm will simply pass with time. Failing to take action in a timely manner may adversely affect your position by allowing a status quo to be established to your detriment. If you are unable to negotiate with the other party to reach a satisfactory agreement on parenting issues then you need to take action to protect your interests. In cases such as these, you should obtain legal advice at the earliest possible opportunity.

Common mistakes parents should strive to avoid

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Separation is a difficult time for the children of the relationship. Parents should make every effort not to involve the children in the adult issues involved in the breakdown of relationship. Parents should not expect their children to take sides in adult arguments and parents should never attempt to turn the child against the other party. Below is a brief list of commonly made mistakes that parents should strive to avoid. Some scenarios may not be relevant in all cases, particularly if there is a history of family violence or where the child's safety might be at risk from the other parent.

Revenge

Perhaps the most damaging trap that newly separated parents can fall into is to seek to use the child as a means to punish the other parent. Regardless of the issues between the two of you during the period of your relationship, you should never 'withhold' the child from the other party as a way to punish them. Your role as parent is different and separate from your previous role as partner. You must rise above any hostility associated with the breakdown of the relationship and make considered parenting decisions. The best interests of the child should be the primary consideration of all your parenting decisions.

Relocation

Often when a relationship breaks down the reason for remaining in a given locality may no longer remain. Any decision to unilaterally relocate with the child should be reconsidered, particularly where the relocation will make it more difficult for the other parent to spend time and communicate with the child. A parent who is adversely affected by a unilateral relocation of the child may be entitled to seek relief through the courts. The Court has a wide discretion in the orders it can make, including granting an injunction to prevent a party from relocating the child.

Spying

Do not ask your child to gather intelligence on your former partner. Examples of such conduct would be where one parent tries to get information about the other parent by asking the child questions such as "is mummy dating anyone?" or "who was at daddy’s house when you were there?". When parties ask such questions they place the child in a difficult position during a very vulnerable period in their lives. The child will not wish to disappoint the parent asking the question and will feel compelled to answer. On the other hand, the child will not wish to breach the trust of the other parent and will worry about angering that parent if the child's betrayal is discovered. A child should never be placed in such an unfair situation.

Using children

Parents should never directly ask a child to support their position during an argument with the other parent. Examples of such conduct would be where one parent says to the other parent (in the presence of the child) "the children don't want to go to their cousin's birthday party; [then turning to the children] do you kids?". Behaviour such as this forces the child to pick a side in the argument in circumstances where the child knows that they will hurt at least one of their parents. Not only is such behaviour unfair on the other parent, it is likely to cause resentment by the child for being put in such an impossible position.

Messengers

The children should not be used as a method of communication between the parents. This is especially important for messages connected to contentious issues and areas of dispute between the parties. Examples of such conduct would be where one parent says to the child "tell daddy that he hasn't paid his child support payments this fortnight". Apart from placing the child in the difficult position of delivering a message likely to bring about an angry reaction from the other parent, such messages may also demean the other parent in the eyes of the child. In the example above, the subconscious message received by the child might be that daddy is incapable or unwilling to support his children.

Denigration of the other parent

Parents should never make critical remarks about the other parent to the child. Examples of such conduct would be where one parent says to the child "we can't afford that because daddy still hasn't paid the child support", "staying home all weekend sounds boring", or "mummy gave you pizza? That's not a very good dinner". Not only is such behaviour unfair on the child and the other parent, it can often cause communication difficulties between you and child. The child may stop sharing their experiences with you in order to protect the other parent from denigration. Children also tend to see themselves as being half of each of their parents. When you criticise the other parent, the child may feel that the criticism is also applicable to them.

Sabotage

Parents should not attempt to sabotage the other parent's time with the child by making the child resent spending time with the other parent. Examples of such conduct would be where one parent begins a fun activity with the child during the time when the other parent is expected to try and telephone the child. It may also include conduct where a parent reminds the child of exciting activities they will miss out on because they will be with the other parent.

The guilt trip

Parents should not engender a feeling of guilt in the child for spending time with the other parent, and of enjoying themselves during that time. Examples of such conduct would be where one parent says to the child "What will I do without you?", "I get so sad when you go", or "I'm going to be lonely here all by myself".

Removing all traces

As part of moving on from a relationship breakdown, parents will often feel the need to purge the house of reminders of their former partner (such as photographs). Caution should be exercised not to amplify the child's trauma resulting from the separation which could lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Eavesdropping

Parents should deliver letters from the other party unopened. Parents should not eavesdrop on telephone conversations between the child and the other parent. The child should be permitted their privacy and should not be interrogated about what the other parent has written or said.

Extravagant gifts

It is often the case that the parent who has less time with the child will try and compensate for the lack of time through gift giving. This can also extend to participation in frequent extraordinary activities during the time they spend with the child such as going to amusement parks, frequent eating out at the child's favourite fast food restaurant etc. The desire for the parent to maximise the enjoyment of the limited time with the child is understandable, however, consideration must be given to the other parent and how they might be viewed by the child as the less generous party.

Change of rules

Parents should avoid competing to become the 'favourite' parent in the eyes of the child. Established routine and discipline should not give way to populism. Parents should resist the temptation to relax the already established rules of the house. Examples of the erosion of the status quo might include allowing ice cream before dinner where before it was formerly not allowed, permitting the child to stay awake past their established bed-time, or allowing them to watch movies previously deemed unsuitable for their age group.

Economic blockade

Where one parent is obliged to pay child support to the other, it is important to recognise that these payments do not have a direct correlation with the right to spend time with a child in accordance with parenting orders. The child is not property capable of being bought and sold and, accordingly, a parent cannot withhold the child from the other parent on grounds that child support payments are outstanding. Likewise, a parent cannot withhold child support payments on the basis that they have not been able to spend time with the child.

What types of orders can the Court make?

The Court may make parenting orders dealing with any one or more of the following issues:

  • the person or people with whom a child is to live,
  • the time a child is to spend with another person or other persons,
  • the allocation of parental responsibility for a child and, if two or more people are to share parental responsibility for a child, how they are to consult with one another about decisions to be made in the exercise of that responsibility,
  • how the child will communicate with another person or other persons,
  • child maintenance (providing for the financial support of a child who is not subject to the provisions of the Child Support Assessment Act),
  • the steps to be taken before an application is made to a court for a variation of the order (to take account of the changing needs or circumstances of a child or the parties),
  • the process to be used for resolving disputes about the terms or operation of the order, and
  • any aspect of the care, welfare or development of the child or any other aspect of parental responsibility for a child.


  • You may apply for a parenting order only after you have attempted to resolve the matter with the other parent. If you are unable to resolve the matter (or an exception applies to you), you can seek parenting orders from a court. It is wise to seek legal advice before deciding what to do.