“My ex has brainwashed the kids against me”
When parents separate, sometimes the relationship between one parent and the children deteriorates, and the parents blame each other for that deterioration.
Children may resist or refuse to spend time with one of their parents.
How should you approach co-parenting in these circumstances?
The Family Court of Western Australia and the relevant law requires parents to recognise that, unless the child’s relationship with a parent places a child at risk of harm, it is in the best interests of the child to maintain a meaningful relationship with both of their parents, and each parent should encourage and promote the relationship between the child and the other parent.
There are any number of ways that a separated parent can encourage and reinforce, or discourage and undermine, the relationship of the child to their other parent.
Some of these behaviours are very subtle but their effect is insidious and cumulative and can be extremely damaging to the child’s relationship with their other parent over time.
For example, consider the effect of these behaviours on the child:
- Not looking at or speaking to the other parent when handing over the child
- Speaking badly about the other parent in front of the child
- Being hostile or speaking badly to the other parent in front of the child
- Changing the subject or cutting off the conversation when the other parent or their extended family members are mentioned
- Interrogating the child after they spend time with the other parent
- Making the child spy or report on the other parent
- Making the child feel guilty about having fun with the other parent
- Monitoring or limiting the child’s communication with the other parent
- Confiding in the child about your relationship with the other parent
- Having the child keep secrets from the other parent
- Throwing out gifts from the other parent or their extended family or not allowing the child to bring those gifts into your home
Other behaviours are much more overt but can also be very difficult to establish on the evidence and be even more difficult to counteract, such as:
- Telling the child the other parent does not love or want the child
- Telling the child that someone else is their mother/father
- Forcing the child to choose sides and express loyalty to you rather than to the other parent
- Withdrawing love or getting angry with the child after they spend time or communicate with the other parent
- Cultivating the dependency of the child on you
At the most extreme end of the scale, separated parents may place unreasonable limitations on the time the child spends with the other parent and even manufacture allegations of risk or abuse against the other parent to that end. The result is inevitably a breakdown in the co-parenting relationship and the relationship between the child and the other parent.
By contrast, consider the positive effect of these behaviours on a child’s wellbeing in making the transition between their parents’ households and on their relationship with their other parent:
- Acknowledging and maintaining civility (ideally being friendly) with the other parent when handing over the child
- Mentioning the other parent and referring to them positively from time to time in conversation with a child (Example: “Your Mum is great at swimming too”.)
- Engaging with the child in a positive way about what they did or plan to do with the other parent (Example: “Dad said he would take you to the museum on Saturday. Let’s look at the website.”)
- Prompting the child to communicate with the other parent (Example: “Your Dad would be really interested in seeing that. Why don’t you send him a photo?”)
Separated parents who engage in these behaviours are seen to be focused on the best interests of the child and able to distinguish and maintain an appropriate boundary between the issues they may have with the other parent from the child’s relationship to the other parent.
If you regard that your co-parent may be undermining your relationship with your child, you should consider participating in family mediation or family therapy with them to try to resolve the issues. It may also be appropriate in some circumstances to include the child in the mediation or therapy or for you to engage in counselling directly with the child.
There may also be legal options available to you but, given litigation itself can be damaging to the co-parenting and the parent-child relationship, Family Court proceedings in most instances should be a last resort and confined to circumstances where you have exhausted the alternatives, including negotiation and mediation.
If you require family law advice about this or any other parenting or financial issue, please contact Lynn & Brown Lawyers and arrange a meeting with one of our experienced family lawyers.
About the authors:
Katherine Bromfield is a Perth Lawyer and a Senior Associate at Lynn & Brown Lawyers. Katherine is an experienced lawyer in the areas of Family Law and Criminal Law. Jacqui is a Perth lawyer and director, and has over 20 years’ experience in legal practice and practices in family law, mediation and estate planning. Jacqui is also a Nationally Accredited Mediator and a Notary Public.