Co-parenting After Divorce or Separation… An Australian Resource
In this article I’d like to touch on some of the work that I do in the forensic psychology field. When I was doing my PhD I chose to research a topic related to forensic psychology which was “Aggression in young women”. I did one of my postgraduate student placements out at Risdon Prison and after that, when I first became a registered psychologist, my very first job as a psychologist was at Risdon Prison also. A few years later I did some work at Woodford Correctional Centre in Queensland. I was later involved in the supervision of the forensic psychology research conducted by postgraduate psychology students at the University of Tasmania.
But more recently, my forensic work has become aligned to my clinical work in the field of perinatal and infant mental health. Thus, I tend to do more work related to the family court these days than the criminal court. Actually, I no longer do any work in the criminal realm.
So, for example, I’ve been asked to act as a Single Expert for the Family Court. This involves conducting family assessments, usually at the request of the lawyer acting as the children’s representative. That means that the Court has allocated a lawyer to represent the children in a Family Court matter. The children’s lawyer has asked the Court to appoint a psychologist to assess the psychological functioning of the family and what might be in the best interests of the children moving forward. In the role of Single Expert, I’m not acting as the psychologist for either the mother or the father. I’m acting as an unbiased expert to assist the appointed by the Court to help in their decision-making.
So, when I’m in that role, my task, as I see it, is to help the Court understand what is in the best interests of the children. It’s very important to me that I’m seen by both parties, by the mum and the dad, as someone who’s not biased. I operate on the assumption that all children have a right to a relationship with both parents. I think that coming from that premise allows any psychologist in my role to make sure that they’ve got the children in mind as their first and foremost priority and that they’re not looking to push one parent’s side or the other. They’re actually looking at what needs to be done to ensure that the children have the best outcome in terms of their relationship with each of their parents.
Now, obviously, there are cases where that’s not possible. I have certainly acted as a Court-appointed psychologist in cases where a No Contact ruling has been made by the Magistrate. But that’s very rare. Typically, my role is to help the court determine things like: What is the parenting capacity of each of the parents? What is the communication like between the parents? What are the children’s wishes? Are they old enough to express their wishes and how much weight should be placed on those wishes based on a number of variables? Are there any psychological conditions that would prevent either parent from being able to parent effectively? What’s the likelihood of a successful co-parenting arrangement.
So, when we talk about co-parenting the underlying principle in my mind is communication. How can the parents co-parent effectively if they can’t communicate effectively?
In fact, a lot of research has been done in this area by a Melbourne-based researcher Jennifer McIntosh. She’s done some great work researching this issue. She also comes from the premise that children deserve a relationship with both parents. And she’s actually devised a set of guidelines based on her research around what factors would need to be considered before they spend significant overnight time with the non-custodial parent.
Jennifer McIntosh’s work is really helpful when we’re determining, in particular, toddlers and young children. How much time should they spend overnight with the parent that they’re not actually living with? Typically we’re talking about dads here. That’s obviously not always the case and we don’t assume that’s going to be the case. But we look at some guidelines around what needs to be in place to support the significant time overnight being spent with dad.
The underpinning principle of all of those guidelines is communication. Can the parents communicate effectively with one another? Is there a minimum or, preferably, no conflict between the parents? Does the child feel equally supported in the care of both parents based on the fact that the parents are singing from the same song sheet? And that’s understandably really hard to achieve.
So, sometimes the court will decide that the overnight time is not appropriate for a toddler or a baby based on a number of variables. One of those is that the baby may still be breastfed overnight. But another factor is how much positive communication can be expected between the parties because that underpins the child’s sense of safety transitioning from one home to the other. That is a big issue for little people to accept: “Tonight we’re living with Mummy’s rules and tomorrow night we’re living with Daddy’s rules”, as there will be different ways of doing things across the two homes.
Recently I talked to a young woman about her experience of being co-parented and it was very interesting to hear her perspective on what that was like in a 50/50 co-parenting arrangement. She had lots of positive things to say.
Recently I also talked with another psychology colleague, Bronwyn Leigh, who’s a perinatal psychologist, similar to me, about whether she was aware of any really helpful books for parents around co-parenting or not. She put me onto a website and I’ve had a very quick look at it. I’m quite excited by it because it’s based on the work of Jennifer Macintosh. And the website is called childrenbeyonddispute.com. There are resources there for parents, as well as for health practitioners. If you are in a family dispute and there are kids involved and you’d like to know how best to proceed with a co-parenting arrangement there are some really good resources on that website.
Besides, you might also seek some support from a psychologist, especially, psychologists who have some familiarity with the Family Court process for some communication skills.
Now, it would be lovely if you and your former partner could come together for some communication skills work. Obviously, that can be really hard depending on the circumstances. There are a number of psychologists not just in Tasmania but around the country who work in Family Court-related areas and there are a number of psychologists who work with children, of course. So, any of those would be a good choice for you if you and your former partner would like to work on your communication skills so that you could present a team-based approach to your co-parenting.
I’ve encouraged a lot of clients to seek out couples therapy so that they can work together to separate in a way that’s effective and safe for each of them. Thus, if you are separating, by all means have some serious thinking around seeking out some relationships counseling, because that will help you and your partner separate in a safe way emotionally, as much as you can. It also demonstrates great willingness to do the best for your children by learning how to communicate effectively as you separate, and learning how to plan what your arrangements are going to be. I find that having an unbiased third party help coach you through that process can take a lot of the heat out of those conversations too.
I’ve certainly worked on Family Court cases where parents are not able to communicate at all. My recommendation in those cases is always that there should be some form of communication skills work. That’s not always possible to achieve because you can only lead a horse to water. But for those of you who are interested in doing your best to achieve a successful co-parenting outcome, I really recommend to consider first and foremost, some couples therapy, as you’re planning to separate; and secondly, some advice around what’s going to be in the best interests of your children, as you move forward.
It will depend on lots of factors: how old are your children, what stage of schooling are they at. Jennifer McIntosh defines “frequent overnight stays” for babies as being once a week. So, if you’re expecting a 50/50 overnight arrangement for your baby or toddler, whether or not that is in the best interests of your child will depend greatly on the level of communication and the degree of conflict between you and your partner. So, as Jennifer McIntosh says, if all the communication is working beautifully, then a frequent, once a week, overnight stay is achievable. And gradually increasing that over time is certainly supported. A 50/50 depends on the age of the children and a range of other factors that the Court will consider.
I’m always mindful too to look at what level of schooling the children are at. For example, people often look to the time when children have commenced full-time schooling as a starting point for a 50/50 co-parenting arrangement. I am mindful, to encourage parents to remember that the start of full-time schooling is a major transition year for children. So, whatever arrangement is at the start of the child’s first year of full-time schooling, I would not increase overnight stays until they’re there well and truly settled into that full-time schooling routine.
Remember to keep looking at things look through the eyes/needs of your child, instead of focussing on “who gets more time”. So, if you’ve got your child in mind and you can see the situation through their eyes, and you’ve got some excellent communication strategies between you and your former partner, and you’re seeking some support around all of this, you’re well on the way to a fantastic co-parenting situation.
A little caveat – All comments in this article about ages and stages, and amount of time spent overnight with each parent – all of these are simply examples, none of which should be used as a cookie cutter approach to apply to each family. I’m mindful that every family is different and every co-parenting arrangement is different, just as every child is different as are their needs too.
Take a deep breath, communicate respectfully, and if you can’t do that, get some support to help you achieve better communication. For the sake of your children and what they’ll be learning from both of you.