When is Letting Go an Option in Child Access Disputes?
I am seeing more and more contested parenting disputes regarding children 12 years of age and older.
These disputes have long histories of court involvement, allegations of untoward parental behavior and issues of troubled access.
Whether the access did continue until then or not, come about age 12, it is as if the dispute between the parents is taken over by the child directly. The child seeming having found a voice is now aligned with one parent against the other. Despite what may have actually been a good prior relationship, despite what was said, the child is now indicating disdain for the other parent. The child is resisting contact, the child is trying to determine rules, rights and expectations placed upon them in the home of the other parent. The child is now becoming a handful and disruptive to family life in the home of the other parent.
Very often the other parent is in a new relationship and there may be new half-siblings or step-siblings. Those relationships that were once enjoyed are also increasingly being depicted in negative terms.
There is a resurgence of lawyer involvement leading to court involvement. The parent on the receiving end of this up-tick of new behavior is at his or her wit’s end. Child protective services may be evoked to involvement by either the targeted parent calling for CPS to conduct an investigation into their child being coached and/or manipulated, or alternately by the primary residential parent who otherwise appears to sit dormant, but now may suggest the other parent is somehow abusing the child.
As one client described, it, “It is a shit show without end.”
To add, one parent may seek for the child to attend counseling, while the other may resist. The concern with counseling is that it may be used sinisterly to provide another vehicle of complaint by the child of the targeted parent to bolster a position for no access in the parenting dispute.
Parent in these situations both look to lawyers, judges, social workers, child protective services, therapists, teachers, doctors and others to intervene on their behalf, validate their respective views and uphold their version of the preferred outcome.
Spoiler alert. Not all the king’s horses or all the king’s men could put Humpty together again.
These are the worst situations of disputes by separated parents.
These disputes more often than not, prove intractable.
These disputes lead to mental health and behavioral disturbances, academic failure, early onset sexual behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation/behavior in children. Mental health issues take the form of depression, anxiety and personality disorders. Behavior issues can include self-harm, withdrawal in some children and aggression in others. School related problems can be affected given those issues and in some cases, we see children who become perfectionists, anxiety fueled with the secret belief that by at least controlling this aspect of their lives, they can survive the other aspect of their lives.
Some of the best clinical and legal minds have sought to develop programs to address these very situations. The programs are expensive and the outcomes are mixed. Attendance is virtually always the result of a court order. However, as the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water….”
Woe betides the clinician who advises the parents of the above, that their dispute is creating the conditions for their child’s demise. In those circumstances the clinician, followed by the lawyers, judges and child protection services become the next target of blame. Many clinicians have opted to not provide service in these circumstances seeking to avoid complaints to licensing bodies.
What is a parent to do?
Given the average cost of two days of litigation is about $19,000 in Ontario (Family Legal Services Review, Justice Annemarie E. Bonkalo, December 31, 2016), more parents are opting to represent themselves if going to court. However, the same report shows statistics to suggest that the unrepresented litigant wins about 18% of the time at hearings and about 35% of the time at trial. Beyond winning a case though, the issue then becomes follow-through. One needs to ask, even in winning, given the animosity, what is the likelihood of the loser following through as ordered. Even if the loser doesn’t follow through, it will be the child who will argue he or she is exercising their choice and what court is going to put a child in jail for not following an access order? You can win at court and still lose in the end. Court really doesn’t resolve these problems.
Beyond court, I now see some parents opting out of the residential agreement. In other words, they are no longer being held hostage to the increasing demands of the child for special treatment and privileges in order to attend and they are no longer willing to react to the missives of the other parent. They are letting go.
This is not necessarily a bad idea in the circumstance. The issue is how to let go and the message you send, recognizing that the message sent can still be bastardized, misconstrued and turned against you.
The better message is one that doesn’t contain blame or shame, sets a boundary and establishes rules and expectations for re-engagement thus leaving the door open. The challenge in delivering the message is managing one’s own anger or animosity.
Better messages I have seen created go like this:
I am so sorry seeing me/us creates so much tension and turmoil. Hopefully though there may come a time when you can come and stay over, when we can all abide by the rules and expectations in our home and we can live peacefully with due regard to our responsibilities to ourselves and each other. I/we would only love to see you here, but clearly the time is just not right for now. This makes me/us so sad but I want you to know that regardless of what you may think, I/we still love you. I/we look forward to the time when we can discuss matters; how this came about; and then continue in a respectful relationship. If in the meantime, you would like to connect by phone, email or text, or if you would like to get together at anytime, it would only be my/our pleasure to do so. If at any time you need me/us, I/we would be there for you. It is just that under the current conditions, I/we recognize this just isn’t working and is hurtful to everyone. So you cannot come over at present. I am so sorry you are in this position. You don’t deserve it and when you would like to do something different yourself with it, I/we are here. I/we do love you. I/We are not abandoning you, I/we just recognize we can’t go on with the situation as it is.”
If there is a benefit to this it may be that the child is freed from the ongoing hostilities. It also provides the child time with the primary residential parent to sort out that parent’s contribution to distress in the absence of you as the foil. The hope is that with the passage of time and maturity, the child may come to reconnect, particularly when feeling free from the influence of a parent on whom the child has been dependent.
I have had a parent explain to me that doing this, without any particular advice to do so, was considered by that parent an act of faith and courage and felt to be in the better interest of the child than the impact of the ongoing and unrelentless dispute.
It may come to be that re-connection occurs in later life, the result of crisis or the result of a counselor suggesting the relationship be revisited.
I am not suggesting this is the right thing to do, only that I am seeing more parents take this option.
I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker. Check out all my services and then call me if you need help with a personal issue, mental health concern, child behavior or relationship, divorce or separation issue. I am available in person and by Skype.
Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.
If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.
Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships.