Separating from a partner when children are involved creates a situation of significant emotional complexity. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon situation and the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that nearly half of all divorces involve “splitting up a family”. While you and your partner may no longer hold kind feelings for one another, it is important that both parents have considered the potential distress that children may be subjected to if the situation is not handled appropriately.
The Courts regularly make Orders that parents are not to discuss court proceedings with the children or to discuss matters relating to the dispute. However, this does not stop the children from asking questions. It is the level of detail provided that can be the issue with your children.
The way in which you approach the conversation will depend upon the age of the child. While it is necessary to give age appropriate advice, it is also important that you do not underestimate how perceptive children can be. The main thing to remember regardless of the age of your children is that you and your partner must present yourselves as a united front. Have a discussion with your ex-partner ahead of time, as to what you will tell the children and how you can ensure consistency of information. If parents fail to provide consistency between their explanations, then children will inevitably become distrusting of either or both parents.
Children under 5 years of age are generally oblivious to the complexities surrounding their parent’s relationship. In this case the conversation should be kept to a basic explanation for example, that “mummy and daddy won’t be living together anymore but we both love you and you can talk to us whenever you like”.
Older children between 5 and 10 years of age are often more perceptive and may blame themselves for the separation. For children of this age, parents should aim to ensure that details provided to the children are factual but do not cast either parent in a bad light. An explanation that “sometimes parents can’t stay friends forever but we will both always love you” should suffice to get the ball rolling.
Children aged 10 years and over will be more adept in interpreting what is happening ‘beneath the surface’. Therefore, it is often best to answer a child’s questions honestly rather than simplifying the matter. Due to the availability of resources, children can undertake their own research and may have already ‘googled’ the separation process in advance. The federal government’s Institute of Family Studies recently conducted a survey on children aged between 10 and 17 years of age. Based on the survey responses of 60 children, the IFS found that “keeping children in the dark” can often do more harm than good. Parents should use their discretion as to what is appropriate but in general the best approach is to be honest, do not denigrate the other parent and do not go into the ‘nitty gritty’.
When one party institutes court proceedings, parents often react with immaturity and the process becomes a way that the parties may get ‘revenge’ on one another. While court proceedings give rise to an inherent sense of conflict, parents should approach the resolution of parenting issues in a collaborative manner, having regard to THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD.
This article was written by Senior Associate Franca Parolin and Law Cadet, Bill McLaughlin.