Every divorce is different and has its own unique set of circumstances. Sometimes parties to a divorce simply realize they have grown apart and amicably decide to go their separate ways. Other situations are more contentious. While it is preferable for parties to be able to work out family law issues by reaching amicable agreements without resorting to litigation, such action is not always possible.

Unfortunately, when parents are unable to get along, custody disputes can become particularly heated. When one parent is specifically hurt or angry, they may feel it appropriate to withhold access to the child, or worse, say negative things about the other parent to the child. As horrible as it may sound, parents involved in high conflict divorces occasionally use the children as pawns or weapons.

In high conflict custody cases both legal and mental health practitioners agree that early intervention and assessment by the courts is necessary. One of the issues that a court will address immediately is parental alienation.

Parental Alienation

In situations where a parent is either preventing the child from seeing the other parent, or poisoning the child with negative talk about the other parent, the court can issue a wide variety of sanctions including being held in contempt of court. A finding of parental alienation can even result in the modification of an existing custody order. If a parent’s alienation has affected the child in a way that requires the child to receive counselling or therapy, that party may be asked to pay the entire costs of treatment.

High conflict cases are particularly complex and require the attention of professionals who are trained to assist the parties to determine the best interests of the child. The solution in these cases is often difficult to determine as well. The court will always act in the best interest of the child, and even in cases where a parent is found guilty of parental alienation, the court still may determine that child should either reside with or have access to the offending parent. These cases are difficult and the court has to take great care in making decisions to benefit the best interest of the child.

Suggestions and Advice

If you feel your custody issues will be particularly contentious, there are several things you can do to help your child. First, you should never badmouth your ex in front of or directly to your child. No matter what your former partner has done to enrage or hurt you, you should not involve your child. Poisoning your child against the other parent hurts the child more than anyone.

If you find yourself involved in a high conflict case, another thing that can help you is legal assistance. You should hire a lawyer, or if you are not able to afford a lawyer, you should contact Legal Aid.  A lawyer will recognize the complexity of the case, give you advice, and also ensure that your case is addressed quickly. A lawyer will also recognize if your child needs an independent children’s lawyer and can suggest programs or counselling methods for your child to attend.

Finally, children involved in high custody disputes should have access to some sort of counselling or therapy. Even if you think you have done a good job of shielding your child from the bitterness between yourself and your former partner, chances are that your child has noticed. Children are observant and will often pick up on things regardless of a parent’s effort to conceal it. Because children are particularly vulnerable and emotional we suggest that they have a forum to address their feelings concerning the divorce. Whether that is by way of formal counselling or therapy, or simply discussing the matter with a school counsellor, favourite teacher, or mentor, your child should have someone to talk to (other than you) about their feelings concerning the divorce.