Australia: How to co-parent after a family separation

Family Lawyers often hear clients detail the reasons why their children should spend more time with them, and less time with the other parent. As part of our role, we listen to clients tell us of the other party's failings as a parent, spouse, partner - and more generally, as a human being.

Of course, it is normal to feel hurt, frustrated, angry and resentful - alongside a vast array of other complex emotions that come about as the result of a separation. Expressing criticisms of a former partner is a normal response to a separation, where emotions are running high and parties are trying to make sense of recent events and feelings. Often, criticism is absolutely warranted.

With all of this in mind, the reality for most of Coleman Greig's clients who are dealing with a parenting matter is that they will end up being required to co-parent with their former spouse. As such, it is important for parties to parenting disputes to understand that if such criticisms and deep-seeded emotions continue to sit at the forefront, co-parenting can become an extremely difficult process - not just for the parents, but for the children who get swept up in proceedings.

Allowing criticisms and emotions to get the best of them may also harm a party's prospects of success with respect to their parenting matter.

The impact of conflict on children

It is not uncommon to hear of couples staying together 'for the sake of the children', with the decision based on the belief that it will be for their children's wellbeing to be raised by both parents, in a nuclear family.

Research has shown that where parents are in sustained conflict, staying together is the worst thing that they can do for their children. Realistically, parents looking to act based on what is most likely to bring about the best outcome for their children would make every genuine attempt to separate harmoniously.

Children can get swept up in parental conflict in a variety of ways - the most common being witnessing either violence, arguments or hostility between their parents. Children may also become involved in the conflict through one parent talking to the child about the conflict, or similarly, speaking negatively of the other parent.

Coleman Greig urges parties to parenting disputes to consider the fact that their children may experience a prolonged period of high tension, either as a result of conflict, or due to a lack of emotional availability from one, or both parents.

The impact of prolonged parental conflict cannot be overstated, and it is a widely acknowledged fact that children can express trauma responses to prolonged parental conflict - with these including high anxiety, hypervigilance and high emotional reactivity. Prolonged conflict is likely to damage a child's ability to regulate their emotions, self-esteem, and their understanding of relationships. Over time, the ongoing conflict can similarly threaten a child's secure attachment to each of their parents, which can subsequently cause an array of interpersonal and behavioural issues over the course of their life.

Children are best served by parents committing to a low-conflict, highly cooperative co-parenting relationship, as this ensures a loving, predictable, consistent and safe environment that supports the children's growth, learning and overall development.

Post-separation parenting styles

Coleman Greig encourages parents to actively analyse the quality of their co-parenting relationship, if not for themselves - for the sake of their children. In practice, we see three main styles of co-parenting in parents who have separated: 'Cooperative', 'Conflictual' and 'Parallel'.

Cooperative co-parenting

Cooperative co-parenting involves the parents treating each other with respect, even if they don't particularly like each other. Generally speaking, in a cooperative co-parenting arrangement:

  • Conflict levels are low, with the children unlikely to hear one parent speaking negatively about the other. Similarly, the children would not be aware of any disharmony;
  • The quality of communication is high and frequent - usually taking place orally, in person or via telephone;
  • Flexibility is high, with the parents being able to coordinate their lives around each other and the children; and
  • Parental values and child-rearing practices are consistent, and if not, each parent respects the differing view of the other parent.

This co-parenting style is most certainly in the children's best interests.

Conflictual co-parenting

Conflictual co-parenting involves high levels of antagonism between the parents, often either in view or earshot of the children. Generally speaking in conflictual co-parenting arrangements:

  • Parents involve the children in the conflict and denigrate the other parent to the children;
  • Parents are unable to communicate effectively, if at all, and often resort to written communication, or communicating through lawyers;
  • Parents are positional about 'their time' with the children and consequently lack flexibility; and
  • Parents show little respect for the parenting style of the other parent.

This style of co-parenting causes the most damage to children, with the effects of which having the potential to be felt throughout their lives.

Parallel co-parenting

Parallel co-parenting occurs when parents are unable to communicate and cooperate effectively, and therefore avoid doing so wherever possible in order to avoid conflict. This model essentially allows each parent to operate as a separate entity without the involvement of the other parent.

The children have two households, which may be run in completely different ways - although as the children are not exposed to overt parental conflict, they often adapt well, as long as each household has a satisfactory level of parenting. The shared-care arrangements for these parents are usually very detailed and rigid.

Clients may find themselves squarely placed within one of the above parenting styles. They may find themselves oscillating between two or three, or find themselves in a lineal progression from conflictual to parallel, and then on to cooperative co-parenting. Regardless, it is important for parents to occasionally take a step back and assess the style of parental relationship that they are currently in, what style they want to be in, and of course what is best for the kids.

The court's approach to co-parenting

In making orders pertaining to parenting, a Judge must order that which they consider to be within the best interests of the children. Whilst there are numerous considerations for a Judge to take into account in making a decision, the psychological health of the children is undoubtably a major factor to be reflected upon. As outlined above, exposing a child to high levels of parental conflict can result in serious psychological harm to a child.

A Judge is very unlikely to order an equal time arrangement or a 'close to equal time' arrangement in circumstances where there is a high level of conflict. Equal time arrangements only work when the co-parenting relationship is robust, flexible, incorporates high levels of communication, and where each parent trusts and respects the other.

Where the parent with primary care is the antagonist, the damage caused to the child as a result of their behaviour may be significant enough for a Judge to order that the child live primarily with the other parent, especially if the antagonistic parent is unable to facilitate the child's relationship with their other parent, or is actively seeking to alienate a child.

Where the parent with non-primary care is the antagonist, a Judge may seek to limit the time that a child spends with that parent in order to limit their exposure to, and involvement in the conflict.

As such, Coleman Greig advises our clients that it is not just in the children's best interests to limit parental conflict, but it is also beneficial for them as parties to their family law matter to do so.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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