Separated parents: How not to be that (unhelpful) parent!

It’s clear.  Children who “lose” a parent can suffer from a range of social disadvantages including poverty. Children who lose contact with one parent can have fewer resources (financial or otherwise) available to them and this is one of many reasons why the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child speaks to the right of a child to have meaningful access to both parents and why it is important that the best interest of the child are considered when a family separates.

Thankfully, most parents who separate in Australia have their children’s best interests at heart. They are able to maintain a “civil enough” relationship so that both parents can maintain an ongoing relationship with the child and be sure that the children, or other family members, are not put at risk. This is no mean feat if you are struggling with issues about hurt and trust arsing from the end of an intimate relationship, but most parents can achieve this emotional work by themselves or perhaps with the help of supportive family, friends and advisors.

For those parents who can’t sort out a way that the children can maintain meaningful relationships with both parents and have their needs met, a few parents will make use of mediation to assist.

For those who cannot get it sorted with mediation, (a smaller number of people again) a legal process is needed to make decisions about parenting. It is the families that need legal processes to sort out the separation that have the most  potential to be the most upsetting, or even he most dangerous, for the children.

The aim of healthy post-separation parenting is to ensure that the child can have their right to a meaningful relationship with both parents, unless there is some risk. For various personal reasons, some separated parents will spend an inordinate amount of time, money and emotion trying to establish that their ex-partner is risky. Sadly, it is in this process that the psychological risks to the child can become heightened. Seeing children having to deal with the interpersonal angst arising from their parents’ separating is one of the most frustrating and helpless things that I’ve had to deal with as a psychologist.

It does make you wonder where some families get the stamina to fight for years in Court – a stamina that perhaps only arises if a parent hates their ex-partner more than they love their child.

The other things that need to be taken into account when a child has parents who have separated are factors associated with the child. For a range of reasons, some children just do not cope with the demands that a shared care arrangements might place on them. The tricky job for psychologists and other professionals who are called upon to assist the Court is often about assessing what a child can cope with and this will vary with a child’s age, personal characteristics and the demands on the child’s life (e.g. how many out of school activities, anxiety levels, sibling support). Children who are very young cannot be expected to settle after long periods away from a solid attachment figure. I find the “gateway assumptions” of Jenn McIntosh and her colleagues useful. The gateway assumptions are:

  • The priority is that the child is safe and can be comforted by both parents.
  • The child is protected from harmful levels of stress.

Jenn uses these assumptions to assist with making decisions about a young child being ready for overnight stays, but I also think they make sense for children of any ages.

Many of the things that are difficult for separated families are the same difficulties that “intact” families have – differences of opinion about schooling, screen time, makeup, or parties.  Courts can sort out the time arrangements and sometimes the money arrangements, and they can take into account the needs and capacities of the individual child, but they cannot always effectively stop the day-to-day emotional war that a child experiences from parents who are genuinely likeable and loving (except when it comes to their ex partner) speaking and acting badly to or about each other – Nor can the Courts effectively intervene at the level where, for instance, the child who has left a school item at one house during their time there that they now urgently need at their other home needs to swim through shark-infested emotional waters to get a day-to-day need met.

So, despite the best efforts of many individuals, and even Court, to the child’s best interest at heart, much of a child’s experience of parental separation comes down to how their parents behave.

Some parental behaviours are just plain toxic. Some of the most common unhelpful post-separation parenting types that I have seen over time include:

  1. “Diss” the other parent parenting – Speaking badly about a child’s parent where the child can hear you is emotionally equivalent to reaching in to the child’s chest and pulling out the heart and stomping on it. It is abusive. It is also abusive to a child when a child’s parent is defamed by grandparents, uncles, aunties, new partners……
  2. Time is money parenting – There is no strong link between time allocated to each household or parent (as in hours/minutes/days/weeks) and a child’s wellbeing.

    What matters, is the quality of care and knowing that, whatever difficulties exist, both parents remain united in their wish to do the best they can as a parent.

Unfortunately, for some parents, time in terms of days, weeks etc, equates to money. Given that we know that children from separated parents can be affected by poverty and lack of resources, ensuring the child has appropriate allocated resources is important.  The last thing many parents want to do is part with their hard-earned cash, but especially to be giving it to a person they no longer live with or love or like or respect. Some see it as a payment to the ex partner and not a payment to the child. Some will go to extreme lengths to avoid having to pay the ex partner. This can mean that they start to defame the ex partner (see unhelpful parenting type 1 above).

  1. Super-fun-bags parenting – The super-fun-bags parent is the person who may be genuinely be delighted to spend time with their child, but so much so that every moment spent with them is like a birthday or holiday adventure. This is not always in the best interests of the child.

Parents need to think about “being with” their child in their allocated time and not “doing things or buying things”.

Of course, occasional fun times and celebrations are wonderful but regularly handing a child over to the other parent exhausted and having had no boundaries will not help the child settle back into their usual weekly routine of school at all.

  1. “Oh a shiny thing” parenting – Some parents struggle to settle after a separation (or maybe even before their separation) and they regularly want to move the child to new places with new people. The Courts are kept very busy with the onset of online dating because this has meant that separated parents often meet new partners from faraway places and at some stage want to commit to the new partner. The ramifications of multiple or distance moves and FIFO (fly in fly out) work need to be considered in relation to what is in the child’s best interest.
  2. “Let’s ignore the rules” parenting – It is in a child’s best interests to have rules that are reasonably consistent across their households.  All children need love as well as discipline and limits.  Small variations will be normal and children will learn what presses each parent’s buttons and adapt.  However, some parents will purposely ignore the rules or undermine the limits set by the other parent because they want to anger the other parent or because they want to be the super-fun-bags parent.  If the rules are extremely inconsistent, a child will struggle and fractures may appear in their abilities to cope,
  3. Overly anxious parenting – Some parents, despite knowing that the gateway assumptions have been checked off, find it really hard to believe that their child will not cope without them for any length of time. The anxious parent’s anxiety is palpable and ripples through into the child and is similar in many ways to defaming the other parent in that it sends the child a message that is very damaging.
  4. Mixed unhelpful parenting– Sometimes the types of unhelpful post-separation parenting can be mixed. Take the example of a parent is a shared care arrangement who gets an exciting new job opportunity interstate -Again, a challenge that can also happen in an intact family. When this parent requests that their portion of care time is allocate to his relatives instead of back to the mother they are clearly not thinking about what it means to have a relationship with their child and may be more concerned with time and money.

I’m pretty sure that some parents who have separated and have just read the above list have thought about their ex-partner and used it as a checklist to justify or check to ensure that they are the better parent in comparison to their ex partner. This is not a list to use to critique an ex-partner. It is a list perhaps best used to consider a person’s “own” parenting post-separation as, let’s face it, it is much easier to focus on own behaviour rather than trying to change someone else.

So, if we want to do what is best for a child, what kind of parenting post-separation is more helpful?

Here are some tips…and all of these are much easier to do if you focus on the love that you have for your child rather than the hate that you might have for your ex-partner.

  • As for all children, if a child is unsafe, protect them and call the authorities if needed.
  • Contain your negative feelings near your children and near the other parent – encourage your relatives and friends to do the same.
  • There will always be disagreements and misunderstanding. These happen in intact families, too. Try to resolve them as they arise without dredging up too much of the past or worrying too much about the future. Deal with one problem at a time.
  • Be open to your child having a meaningful relationship with both parents. It is their right. In time, if not already, they will learn that each parent has strengths and weaknesses and attributes that they find attractive or annoying. Let the child arrive at those conclusions by themselves.
  • Accept that the other parent has a right to a new life with a new partner and help your children to be open-minded about this, too.


If you are going through a separation or your child knows other families that are separating and has lots of questions about it all, perhaps some quiet time spent sharing “Love is Like a Tree” could help

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