Although our children are supposed to come first, they can become caught in the middle of toxic child custody battles. They are vulnerable, developing little people who need love, stability and to feel safe. These are things that should come from those who are responsible for them. But when a war of divorce wages around them these very elements they need for the best chance at growing into healthy and whole adults are compromised. When child custody battles become toxic, it’s the children who lose out. It’s time that we get our priorities right again.
Child Custody Battles: Who’s Number One?
Most would agree that we should put children first in divorce, but this is not how it usually plays out. Divorce can be ugly, angry and hostile and even at the best of times, be full of sadness and longing for what might have been. These emotions and the actions that accompany them cannot help but filter into the children who are in close proximity. While divorce is not their fault, they often end up wearing the baggage from this ended relationship and carrying it into the future.
In 2013, 41,747 children under 18 years of age experienced the divorce of their parents. Now, that’s quite particular wording. Children ‘experienced’ the divorce of their parents. They weren’t outside observers who neutrally watched on. They were right there, seeing, hearing and feeling the divorce of their parents. Some of those parents did their divorce as best they could with the least amount of conflict possible. Others? Well. . .
Recently, a Tasmanian toddler was placed on an airport watchlist. Why? To prevent his abduction by his two warring parents. Federal Circuit Court Judge Terry Mcguire ordered the one-year-old, known only as X, be placed on the Australian Federal Police’s watchlist at all international departure points until 2028. Justice McGuire told a Burnie court that such a lengthy period was necessary because of the “toxic and untrusting” relationship between the estranged parents. “Both parties are from [another country]. Their connections to Australia are tenuous. Their extended families on both sides remain [in the parent’s country of origin]. Their personal dislike and suspicions remain at a high level,” he said last week. “To put it mildly, the entrenched caustic conflict between these two parents is so evident … their objectivity and insight into their infant child’s needs was clouded. It is in X’s best interests that he is secured in Australia unless the parents or a court decides otherwise.”
High Conflict Divorce = Trauma for Children
High conflict divorce and child custody battles mean great trauma for children. Following a divorce, children are often more likely to have emotional, social, behavioural and academic problems, but this depends on how the divorce is handled by the parents. High conflict after a divorce has a very negative impact on children following their parents separation. The Family Court of Australia says, “The type of post-separation conflict that has been found to have the worst effect on children is that which occurs when parents use children to express their anger and hostility. Children who are placed in the middle of their parents’ dispute (by either parent) are more likely to be angry, stressed, depressed or anxious, and have poorer relationships with their parents than children who are not used in this way.”
Dani and Zoey are 14 and 12 years of age. Their parents have been fighting for custody for a decade. Zoey says, “I love both of my parents. I want to be with my mom, but I also want to spend time with my dad. But the problem is my mom doesn’t want me to be around my dad. I feel like I’m caught in the middle; it’s an awful lot for a 12-year-old to deal with.” Robin and Daniel are the warring parents.
Robin says that even though she was granted full custody of Dani and Zoey, she claims Daniel has been “brainwashing” Dani and Zoey, “kidnapped” them in the middle of the night and won’t return them to her home. However, Daniel says the girls chose to run away from their mother and that he’s just trying to keep them safe. He says that he is fighting to get his daughters back – including going to court 30 times with Robin – because he claims Robin has a problem with alcohol, dated abusive men and that her house is not safe for his girls.
Time To Put Children First in Child Custody Battles
Jennifer McIntosh, a child clinical psychologist, says that the type of conflict that most damages children in this situation “typically includes significant levels of anger and distrust, verbal conflict, poor communication and cooperation over parenting, an ongoing negative attitude to the ex-partner or -spouse, lack of support for children’s relationships with their other parent, covert and overt hostility, allegations about the ex-partner’s behaviour and parenting practices, litigation and re-litigation. Frequent, intense, threatening or poorly-resolved conflict between parents poses the greatest risks to children.”
One Step at a Time
We don’t magically become good parents. We learn with our children day by day. Putting them first when negotiating parenting arrangements is vital not just to a good parenting agreement, but good parenting overall. We may not do so well in our marriages or defacto relationships, but we have a responsibility to keep doing better for our children when it comes to decision-making about and for them. If you cannot speak civilly to your ex, then use a mediator. Get counselling to help you objectively assess how and why you are making the decisions you are regarding your children. If you are speaking to your ex and the tension is rising it can be helpful to think of them as a business partner you are negotiating with, or ask if you can call them back when you have both calmed down. One step at a time you can work towards sorting our custody in a way that is not toxic to your children.
At Divorce Lawyers Brisbane we believe in child centered parenting agreements, and low-conflict divorce. To speak to one of our experienced family lawyers please contact us today. We offer a free, 10-minute phone consultation.