Parental separation or divorce
Separation and divorce happens a lot in our society, and can be a major source of stress for everyone involved - especially parents and children.
After parents separate, children's needs remain the same - they need secure emotional ties with parents they can trust and be comforted by. This includes:
- helping to solve their problems
- encouraging and supporting them to learn
- routines that help them feel in control
- firm and loving boundaries to be safely independent
- having a parent they can trust when in need
- protection from trauma
After parents separate, they need to find a new way of parenting that works for them and their children. Some divorced/separated couples continue to share parenting, while others choose to continue their roles as parents separately. This decision often depends on levels of conflict involved, and other factors such as distance, work commitments, financial pressures, and the family's history.
Living arrangements for children after parental separation
When parents make the decision to separate or divorce, they need to decide where their children will live, and how much time they will spend with each parent.
Deciding on these living arrangements can be complex and stressful, especially if parents have strong and different views about parenting, and/or unresolved conflict. Sometimes it can be helpful to get objective parties involved in the process, such as:
- lawyers and the court system
- mediation undertaken at Family Relationship Centres. Mediators are mandated to create a parenting plan that meets the "best interest of the child /children" standard
Sharing custody of children
There is a range of living arrangement options for children after their parents' separate. One of these options is shared parenting, or shared care, where each parent spends a considerable amount of time caring for their children.
Shared parenting is sometimes considered the best option for children of separated parents, as it demonstrates to the child that both parents want to care for them and be involved in their everyday life. Parenting is often considered 'shared' when children spend at least 45% of their time with a parent.
What are the benefits of shared custody?
- Children get to have a close and meaningful relationships with both parents
- Children get to spend quality time with both parents
- Both parents have the opportunity to know the children deeply and to be involved in their life as well as fulfilling their roles as parents and their obligations towards their children
When is it not appropriate to consider a shared custody arrangement?
It is important that shared custody arrangements occur in a positive and healthy environment. Ideally, parents are able to work constructively together, and protect their children from being exposed to hostile or negative behaviour. Shared care arrangements are not appropriate in a negative or conflicting atmosphere that may adversely impact children, such as where:
- there is high levels of inter-parental conflict
- there is ongoing and significant psychological bitterness between parents
- one or both parents see the child as being at risk when in the care of the other
- a history of family and domestic violence is apparent
- a history of child abuse or neglect is apparent
- parents have mental health issues
- parents misuse alcohol or other drugs
- parents are involved in criminal activity
These factors can result in a number of negative outcomes for a child including:
- adjustment problems
- impulsive or aggressive behaviour
- peer relationship difficulties
- behavioural problems
- poor academic performance
- poor self-esteem
- emotional difficulties
What factors should be considered in decisions about shared custody arrangements?
A shared parenting decision needs to be made with both the best interest of the children and the parents in mind. It is important to consider children's safety, needs, rights, interests and their expressed wishes and views. However, their safety must be given the highest priority. Other family circumstances that need to be considered include the child's:
- stages of development
- cultural background
- primary attachment needs
- relationship with each parent
- best interest
- views and wishes
As well as:
- the level of parental conflict
- parental competence
- the level of commitment shown by each parent to the care and nurturing of their child
- where each parent lives and how practical it is to share custody
- the quality of communication between parents
- the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent
- whether parents will make time available for parenting
- the child's safety
Considering these factors can help families make informed decisions that are positive for their children, and hopefully allow both parents opportunities for involvement in their child's life.
Tips for parents - sharing custody positively
The most positive shared care experiences involve parents who have a cooperative relationship and are child-focused and flexible. These parents make an effort to maintain good communication with each other and to avoid exposing their children to parental conflict. Below are some tips on how to create a positive shared custody experience for your child.
Tell your child/young person what's going on - separation can be a difficult time for children and young people, and telling them what is happening in an age-appropriate way will help them avoid becoming confused and concerned. Explain to them why you have decided to stop living together and what is going to happen in a way that is respectful towards both your child and your ex-partner.
Show them that you still love and care for them - children and young people may confuse the breakdown of a relationship with them as meaning that the separating parent may no longer love or care for them any more. Regardless of their age or developmental stage, children and young people need to know that their parents will still care for and love them. Emphasise that your love for them has not changed even though everyone is not living in the same house, and it's not their fault or responsibility.
Listen to your child - be mindful of your child's needs and wishes (personal, emotional and developmental) when you and your partner make decisions about parenting after separation. Where appropriate, focus on your child and include them in the process as much as possible, so their wishes and views can be incorporated into any new living arrangements.
Support your child - relationship breakdowns and new living arrangements are never easy for anyone, especially children. Support your child through the transition - be warm, responsive, nurturing and loving and show your support to the best of your ability.
Be stable, consistent and predictable in your care giving - children need certainty and routines so they can feel in control of their world, which makes them feel safe and secure.
Be responsive - be flexible with schedules and about issues that may emerge due to the new living arrangements. Try to support your child to continue their daily lives with as few interruptions and stresses as possible.
Separate parenting issues from relationship issues - divorce and relationship breakdown issues don't have to become entwined with parenting.
Work together with the other parent - working together with your ex-partner, having good communication and respecting each other as parents will enable you to maintain shared care arrangements and will help your child to adjust.
Avoid conflict and resolve issues with your ex-partner - sharing the care of your child while maintaining high levels of conflict with the other parent can cause your child to feel distressed and can negatively effect their adjustment to the separation and their emotional well-being. Avoid 'using' your child to communicate with the other parent or putting them in the middle of disputes. Resolve your issues as parents by yourselves without exposing your child to them.
Create a space for children/young people - if your child/young person is going to be spending time at two homes as part of your shared parenting agreement, make sure they have their own space at each home so they feel like they are at home in both places.
Encourage your child to talk to someone they trust - adjusting to changes in a family's relationship structure and new living arrangements are not easy and takes time. It's not good for your child to bottle up what they are going through. Talking to someone they can trust will help them to cope with the new situation. A friend or relative not involved in the situation, or a school counsellor could be good people to talk to about what's happening.
Seek counselling if required - this may be family counselling or individual counselling for yourself, or your child/young person. Counselling could be either face to face or through services such as Kids Helpline (for children/young people) or a parent counselling service (for you and/or your ex-partner).
Who can I contact for more information?
You may wish to contact your local parenting help service/s for further information.
Resources that may be of use
- Anxiety Centre - Anxiety information and resources
- Help Guide - Anxiety attack and disorder information
- KidsHealth - Helping kids handle worry
- Raising Children Network - an Australian parenting website
- Headspace - visit the website for help, support and information about young people and mental health
- Kids in Mind - phone 3163 1640 (part of the Mater Child and Youth Mental Health Service)
- Reach Out - a website designed to help improve the understanding of issues relating to mental health and wellbeing
- Youth Beyondblue - phone 1300 224 636 (24 hour information and referral about depression and anxiety)
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- Kelly, J. (1993). Current research on chidren's postdivorce adjustment: No simple answers. Family Court Review, 31 (1), 29-49.
- Bagshaw, D. (2008). Shared Parental Responsibility, Family Violence and the 'Best Interests' of Children in Family Law. Family Relationships Services National Conference 2008 held in Cairns QLD, Australia, 5-7 November 2008.
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Published: 8 July 2012