Legal professionals, judges and therapists have all contemplated on how to ascertain the views and preferences of children in custody and access disputes. There are several ways that children’s views and preferences are engaged in the family law process. Children have testified in family court during a trial, have been interviewed by judges, have been represented by a Children’s Lawyer, have had a Child Therapist testify or write a report on their behalf, or have been interviewed by a child specialist in mediation or collaborative law. All of these processes have highlighted the importance of children being part of the separation and providing their perspective of what they are experiencing. It is important to understand that children are living and breathing this conflict and have the right to be heard. However, the more pertinent question is how influential are their views and preferences in shaping a decision.
I believe we have tread cautiously in how much weight we give to these children. The level of conflict between the parents is often a good indicator to evaluate before developing a parenting plan or making a decision which is consistent with the children’s views and preferences.
As a Child and Family Therapist and Custody and Access Assessor in private practice, I have noticed that when children are given too much weight in the custody and access process they can develop an artificial sense of power over one parent or even both. This can be harmful. For example, children are more often being given a choice of whether or not they should attend an access visit with a parent. Children with this type of choice may deny or restrict a visit with a parent as a result of a minor disagreement. They may also only agree to a visit with an access parent based on some sort of personal gain, like the parent agreeing to buy the child toys or saying yes to junk food and video games. In some of these situations, an access parent can be easily stripped of their parenting authority if they say no to their child. Typical parenting requests such as “clean your room” or “do your homework” are met with refusal and sometimes threats from these children with this artificial sense of power.
In high conflict situations the primary parent may intervene and interrogate the child to report back to them about the visit. Discipline and parenting may be inflated into mistreatment of the child and based on this misconception access gets limited and in some cases terminated. This is a common theme happening in high conflict custody and access disputes. As the power imbalance continues, children start rejecting the relationship with their access parent if they are given too much of a voice/power. This can be quite detrimental and damaging to the relationship between the parent and the child.
If you want your children to adjust better in separation and divorce, allow your children’s views and preferences to be influential and shape decisions when they are being communicated out of love and respect for their parents. Most children’s wishes are to maintain a close, loving relationship with both their parents and we need to keep in mind they can sometimes be reared away from that position in high conflict situations.
Getting children out of the cross fire is sometimes not allowing children to be engaged in the family law processes and having them step back and allow the adults to decide what is best.
Joanna Seidel has been counselling individuals, families and children and has helped couples re-connect for over a decade. She is a Child and Family Therapist and specializes in separation and divorce. She has worked with families and children, helping them manage the often difficult, stressful and emotional process of separation and divorce. Joanna provides counselling to address a wide range of needs: Separation and Divorce, Marriage Counselling, Parenting Conflict Resolution, Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Anger Management, Grief and Loss, Work-related Stressors, Domestic Violence, Alcohol, and Substance Abuse.