Q 1 - “When do I tell the children that their father/mother and I are separating?”
A 1 – There is no good time to tell children that their parents are separating. It is certainly better to have the discussion sooner rather than later – don’t leave it until the night before one parent moves out. If you can, both parents should tell the children together, along the lines of, “Mummy and Daddy aren’t going to live together anymore, but we love you dearly and we will always be here for you.”
Now, that sounds easy, and it is not always possible to have a family conference to discuss these things, but you and your partner should make every effort to reassure the children, tell them they are loved and that you and the other parent will work out when they will be seeing each of you and where they will be living. Children thrive best with routine and predictability. It is vital that the children feel safe, secure and loved by both parents. You and your ex-partner may benefit from seeking expert advice from a Child Psychologist about how to tell your children about the separation, and how to guide and support them through the process.
Q 2 – “Is it harmful to the children if my partner and I argue in front of them, or where they can hear us?”
A 2 – The short answer is, yes. Research conducted by child experts has shown conclusively that short, medium and long-term damage is done to children when they are exposed to arguments between their parents. Your GP or your psychologist will tell you about the harmful effects, which can include – bed wetting, poor performance at school, stomach upsets and, in extreme cases, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Your children should not be exposed to marital conflict, nor should they be treated as messengers between you and your ex-partner.
Q 3 – “My partner won’t wash the children’s clothes before they come back to me. What should I do?”
A 3 - While this may seem trivial, it is a surprisingly frequent area of conflict between parents. Children are often sent to school or sports events in soiled clothes because each parent refuses to wash them. Imagine how the children feel – that neither parent cares enough about them to wash a few clothes. This can lead to low self-esteem and bullying by other children. It is important that the children are not caught up in co-parenting issues and disputes. You and your ex-partner must ensure that you maintain a child focused co-parenting relationship and avoid involving the children in conflict as much as possible.
If you do incur these sorts of issues, it is best to address these with your ex-partner in writing or via mediation. You should not discuss these issues with the children, or in their presence and hearing.
Q 4 - Who is going to do the travelling when the children spend time with the other parent?
A 4 - Share the travelling. Separated parents often find reasons for not cooperating with each other. “My car is too small” or “It’s unreliable” or “You moved out, so you can do all the travelling.” This isn’t about any of these things – it’s about the parents using the children (although they will never admit it) in their ongoing conflict. And the children often see and hear all this, which is harmful to their wellbeing.
Separated parents must learn to move past their emotions and hurt feelings from the breakdown of the relationship and maintain a child-focused approach to dealing with their ex-partner. Changeover of the children is best undertaken in a neutral public location that is mid-way between the parent’s respective homes.
Q 5 - “I want to move to Sydney, to be near my parents/new partner/get a better job. Can I do this without consulting with my ex-partner?”
A 5 – No, you must consult with the other parent and obtain their written consent before you can relocate with the children. You should also come to an agreement about the time the children will spend with the other parent. Relocating unilaterally can have a catastrophic impact on children. If one parent is, say, in Melbourne and the other wants to move to Sydney with the children, the time that the children spend with the parent in Melbourne is negatively impacted.
Every day, the Courts are faced with making decisions which have to balance a parent’s right to freedom of movement with the best interests of the children, and the children’s right to maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents.
If you wish to relocate to another state, or even to another suburb (but where such relocation will result in the children changing schools or will negatively impact on the children’s time with the other parent), then you must obtain the consent of the other parent or seek an Order from the Court. If you fail to do this and relocate unilaterally, the other parent can apply to the Court to bring you and the children back to your previous location. This will impact the children negatively. Every major decision that you make should be done with the children’s best interests and needs in mind.
Q 6 - “I have a new partner – I want the children to call her/him Mum/Dad. Is that OK?”
A 6 – The short answer is, no. Australian Family Law and the Courts are concerned with the children’s best interests, not the interests of you and your new partner. Your new partner cannot replace the children’s other parent. Encouraging, enabling, or pressuring your child to call your new partner, ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ creates confusion for them. You can understand the effect on a parent of learning that the other parent is encouraging their children to call the new partner Mum or Dad. Doing this will break down trust between separated parents, and make co-parenting extremely difficult.
Q 7 - I’m a Dad and I have a 3-month-old baby with my ex-partner. The Mum is breastfeeding. I want to spend equal time with the child – week on, week off. Why can’t I do that?”
A 7 – Babies and very young children naturally form a very close bond and attachment to their primary carer, which is most cases, is the mother. Very young children spending long periods away from their primary parent can develop separation anxiety, leading to distress in the child.
Experts in Family Law, including Psychologists and Family Therapists, advise that babies and very young children will thrive when living mainly with their primary carer. The experts recommend that babies and very young children should spend short but frequent bursts of time with the other parent (such as, 2-3 hours for each visit, 3 days a week).
The mother is entitled to breastfeed the child as long as she reasonably wants to, or as long as she can do so.
Generally, the Courts do not make Orders for the other parent to have the child overnight and away from the primary parent, until they are at least 2 years old, unless the parents agree otherwise, and the arrangement is working well for the child. If the parents cannot come to an agreement for a baby or young child and there are no issues regarding Family Violence and/or risk, then the Court will generally make an Order for the child to spend short, frequent periods of time with the child each week. Such time will gradually increase and include overnight time, as the child grows older and is able to spend longer periods of time away from their primary carer.
Q 8 - “I send birthday and Christmas presents but the other parent won’t give them to the children.”
A 8 - This is another example of separated parents continuing their fight over the breakdown of their relationship, and directly involving the children. The children are the ones who get hurt, not the parents.
The children should be provided with letters, cards and gifts given by the other parent, and they should be encouraged to have regular communication with the other parent by telephone/Facetime/Skype when they are not otherwise spending time with them face to face. This is beneficial to the children’s overall wellbeing and development. Obviously, if there are issues relating to Family Violence and/or risk, our advice may change in this respect.
Q 9 - “My ex has re-partnered. I do not like them and I’m not going to let the kids stay with my ex while that other person is there. Is this allowed?”
A 9 - Often in relationship breakdowns, the parents come to realise that it’s over at different stages. While one parent may have moved on and re-partnered, the other parent may still be grieving the relationship breakdown or is enjoying being single.
The Courts will not allow one parent to dictate whether or not the children are brought into contact with a new partner just because the other parent does not like them. There needs to be a real problem with the new partner – such as drug or alcohol abuse, family violence, evidence of child abuse, or risk to the child in some way, before a Court will intervene.
Having said that, a child-focused approach would involve the separated parents discussing this issue and coming to an agreement about how and when the new partner will be introduced to the children. Ideally, the new partner should meet the other parent before meeting the children.
Q 10 - “This is all very well, but it’s so hard trying to do all the right things by the children, especially if the other parent is being unreasonable. What should I do?”
A 10 - Of course it is hard - it can be terribly difficult. Relationship breakdown is one of the most stressful events that you will ever experience, and co-parenting can be very difficult when the other parent is being unreasonable.
Do not try to get through it on your own. Confide in a friend or relation you can trust. There are lots of counselling and mediation services available to help you through this. Don’t be afraid to use them – that’s what they do, and they can be a great help.
When co-parenting with your ex-partner, it is important to remain child focused and remember that each decision you make jointly is for the benefit of your children. It is not to score points against one another. Rather than remaining fixed in your position, try and look for compromises and creative solutions wherever possible. Professionals such as mediators, counsellors, therapists and psychologists can also assist you to develop strategies to deal with an unreasonable ex-partner. We regularly recommend that our clients seek professional advice and assistance from a wide range of sources following separation.
Our team of friendly and compassionate Family Law experts can assist you to understand the law regarding parenting issues after separation. Contact us on (03) 9435 9044 to make an appointment.