By Kara Best

“It’s not about the content; it’s about the process”. This rather poignant remark was made by an expert psychologist, Mr. P in a recently reported decision of Justice Cronin in Delahunty & French [2013] FamCA 873.

Ultimately the sentiment was the foundation of his Honour’s decision in a highly conflicted parenting matter concerning a child aged 11 years.

The remark highlights that whilst the number of days enjoyed by a parent with a child may be in issue, in some cases what is more important to the wellbeing of the child is what they’re forced to endure and observe during those days.

His Honour commenced his judgment in the following terms:

  1. Parallel parenting occurs for a child like 11 year old T (“the child”) when she lives in a divided world where her parents are involved in high conflict. In social science terms, the child contends with a split world and consequently, her psychological functioning is compromised. The expert psychologist, Mr P, says that, subject to a finding by the Court as to what is happening to and around the child, she lives in two worlds.
  2. Absent some remedial relief, if the child gets to the point where she is unable to live in that split world, she is likely to reject one parent.
  3. According to Mr P, some possible scenarios for the child are over-identification with a peer group which could be dramatically problematic depending with whom she mixes and the nature of the mentor relationship she seeks or in the alternative, she might just suffer the ongoing conflict. The latter generally leads to anxiety, depression, substance abuse. This is not the first time this dispute has been before the courts and although the apportioning of responsibility for the dilemma is superficially attractive, the reality is that not much has changed either for the child or the parents.
  4. ….
  5. When questioned about the issue which seemed foremost in the parties’ minds and also that of the Independent Children’s Lawyer as to how many days should each parent care for the child, Mr P uttered the mantra which underpins my orders. That is: It’s not about the content ; it’s about the process. That is, the number of days may, but should not necessarily be, the issue but if the process of what happens to the child in those days is not addressed, the conflict will go on as will the split world.

Obviously, it is not uncommon for two parents following separation to resent, distrust or dislike each other. It is truly concerning however when that conflict spills over to significantly and negatively affect their children, whom they both care for and love.

The Court in Delahunty & French was told of many events where T was subjected to the intense conflict between both parents. The conflict constantly seemed to escalate, with each prior disagreement acting as a catalyst for the next. Conflict arose due to an overseas trip made without authorisation, arguments were had in front of the school principal, at birthdays, school concerts and more. The court also heard through the evidence of Mr. P of a school project written by T, that detailed the tragic story of a child trapped in a vicious conflict between parents.

His Honour found that no change to the orders in question were required, however a significant change needed to occur in the parents’ relationship with each other.

The orders of the court ultimately separated the parents from having contact with each other where possible. They also gave each parent full responsibility for both major long term and daily issues whilst in their respective care. The orders also made it clear that there shall be no contact between the child and the parent with whom the child is not living with at the time, unless the child organises it. Finally unless an emergency occurs, neither parent will communicate with each other until they agree in writing that they can be civil around the child.

Whilst the entirety of the orders are not detailed here, the general thrust of the orders is to separate the parents as much as possible, in an attempt to prevent conflict and repair the divided world of T.

It can be vitally important to the wellbeing of a child to consider not only the number of days that they will spend with a parent, but also how parents communicate with, and about, each other. Parents should also carefully consider the method in which care for a child is transferred, so as to minimise the potential of conflict and disruption to both parents and to the child.

Our team are routinely involved in matters such as that above where uncontained hostility will lead to a Court determining that the only means of protecting a child is to place that child with one parent, and limit any potential for conflict by limiting the other parent’s involvement in a child’s life.  The gravity of such a decision often takes the parent facing such a loss by surprise.  A parent can be responsible, appropriate and insightful, but if the Court is of the view that the parent cannot protect a child from the damaging impact of conflict, then a child will be protected often at the expense of one parent.

Obviously, very few parents would ever deliberately do anything which could lead to their child developing lifelong mental health difficulties and addictions.  A situation like that faced by the child above is a very real example of where an inability to contain negative emotion about a former partner can, and in all likelihood will, lead to that very damage to often the most precious person to both parents.

So where is the help?  If the conflict is uncontained consider seriously examining the following:

  1. What role do I take in the conflict, and what can I do personally to address my role and responses to my former partner?
  2. Can we commit to doing something therapeutically to address the communication problems? (There are a number of powerful post-separation counselling programs and couple focused counsellors.  Let us know if you’d like some details)
  3. What can we do in the interim to protect any chance of our child observing or being aware of that hostility?  Can we shift changeover to a mode that does not involve us meeting or talking in front of our child ?
  4. What outlet can we give our child whilst we’re trying to make things better?  Again, consider agreeing to jointly approach your child’s school, or a suitable counsellor or organisation to seek some therapeutic outlet.

It is not easy, and any separated couple will attest to how hard they’ve worked to build a positive relationship.  The same couples will also genuinely tell you how proud they are of that achievement and what they’ve done for their kids. Further details about the above programs is available from our Office.