Understanding parenting disputes after separation

Understanding parenting disputes after separation

Lawrie Moloney, Bruce Smyth, Nick Richardson and Sally Capper

Research Report No. 36 — August 2016
Understanding parenting disputes after separation

This report explores the behaviour of separated parents by exploring the psychology of post-separation parental disputes and then interrogating three independent data sets to see what further insights they provide on the issues.

The data sets are drawn from:

  • the Caring for Children after Parental Separation study (CFCAS; longitudinal Australian data on the dimensions, predictors and outcomes of parent–child contact after parental separation);
  • a series of focus groups conducted by AIFS researchers with professionals working in the wider family law system; and
  • interviews conducted or supervised by AIFS researchers with individuals who had significant ongoing conflicts and who had volunteered to participate in child-focused mediation.

The CFCAS data suggest that parents who focused on the interests and preferences of their children were able to avoid disputes, and that the higher the level of dysfunction or complexity of the parents’ relationship, the longer it takes to reach a resolution regarding parenting arrangements.

The CFCAS data also indicates that the absence of a reported dispute does not necessarily reflect an amicable or cooperative parental relationship: e.g., absence of contact between parents is one way of avoiding disputes.

The focus groups with family law professionals and interviews with parents point to recognisable patterns of behaviour among significantly conflicted separated parents. The sense of injustice, the extent of the humiliation or trauma resulting from the experience of abuse, or the degree to which communication has broken down will impact on the capacity of separated parents to reach a resolution that works for the children, as well as the capacity of the practitioner to assist in that process. The skill of the practitioner in “difficult cases” will always come down to engaging with the particular issues and dynamics and reflecting them back to the client with empathy and without judgement.

Key messages

Even prior to the 2006 reforms, many separated parents were capable of dealing with disputes or potential disputes over children's matters with little evidence of acrimony.

The most common way in which parents said they dealt with potential disputes was by focusing on cooperation and by recognising the importance of compromise, flexibility and good communication.

A less positive way of avoiding disputes between parents was for the parents to have little or no contact with each other, even though they continued to have a relationship with their children.

Assisting a higher proportion of parents to resolve or manage their child-related disputes at an earlier stage after the separation and wherever possible, to move beyond the solution of "parallel parenting" will improve their children's  wellbeing

A parent's sense of injustice, the extent of humiliation or trauma resulting from an experience of abuse, or the degree to which communication has broken down will impact on the capacity to reach a resolution that works for the children and the capacity of the practitioner to assist in this process.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Lawrie Moloney is a psychologist and Adjunct Professor at La Trobe University and was a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies from 2008 until February 2016.

Bruce Smyth is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow, and Associate Professor of Family Studies at the Centre for Social Research and Methods, Australian National University in Canberra. At the commencement of this project he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Nick Richardson is a clinical psychologist specialising in child and youth mental health issues. During the collection and analysis phases of the separated parent survey data (Chapter 3), Nick had a part-time position as a Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Sally Capper is a counselling psychologist working in private practice. The data reported in Chapter 4 were collected as part of Sally’s Master of Counselling Psychology thesis.

Cover photo: © istockphot.com/JackF

Publication details

Research Report
No. 36
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, August 2016.
61 pp.
ISBN: 
978-1-76016-095-1
Suggested citation:

Moloney, L., Smyth, B., Richardson, N., & Sally Capper, S. (2016). Understanding parenting disputes after separation (Research Report No. 36). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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