Managing Contact Difficulties: A Child-Centred Approach



Drawing from a literature review and a consultation process with key informants in Canada and other jurisdictions, this paper discusses the nature of child-parent contact difficulties after divorce. Based on our review, we conclude that identifying parental behaviours that influence post-divorce relationships is more effective than using labels such as parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Identification of problematic behaviours such as undermining and obstructing the child's relationship with the other parent provides a basis for intervening with parents. Understanding parent behaviours also helps to clarify the type of support children may need. Using the terminology of PAS serves to heighten tensions and engenders debate about the accuracy of the label.

Three decades of divorce research have helped us to understand that in most circumstances children benefit from contact with both parents after divorce. Numerous child, parent and systemic variables influence the nature of the post-divorce child-parent relationship. Unresolved conflict between parents is frequently noted as the critical influencing factor for the child-parent relationship. From the child's perspective, when conflict about contact develops, it often transforms the child-parent relationship into what Nicholson (2002a) terms a "timetabled obligation". The benefits of the child-parent relationship are reduced as children struggle with the unfolding drama between their parents.

There are no Canadian statistics concerning the concept of alienation in divorced families. Key informants and the literature suggest that about 20 percent of divorces are considered to be high-conflict. Within the high-conflict group, serious alienating behaviours are estimated to be present in two percent of families. The limited research conducted to date suggests that mothers and fathers equally exhibit alienating behaviours. In more entrenched cases, it is not uncommon for one or both parents to falsely allege physical or sexual abuse of the child. However, the small proportion of divorcing families exhibiting alienating behaviours draws on a disproportionate amount of resources in the legal and mental health system.

Difficult contacts challenge children, parents, practitioners and the courts. What is required is a child-centred strategy that reflects children's best interests. To achieve this goal, the purpose of contact between the child and the parent, and the benefits for the child, must be clearly articulated and understood by all concerned. The nature and type of contact needs to reflect the individual child's developmental needs. A "one size fits all solution" for managing difficult contacts is unrealistic. In Chapter 4 we discussed a number of strategies for managing difficult contact cases, ranging from using skilled neutral assessors and parenting coordinators, to holding parents accountable for their behaviour and implementing accessible, timely and efficient conflict resolution processes.

In the course of our literature review and key informant inquiry, two other issues related to contact difficulties emerged. First, in the past decade, considerable media and professional attention has been directed to debate about the concept of alienation. What is often overlooked is a problem that affects significantly more children—parental abandonment. For a variety of reasons (Wallerstein, 1980; Wallerstein and Blakeslee, 1997), one parent may disappear from a child's life. Participants in the Youth Consultation on the Divorce Act described this abandonment as one of the hardest aspects of divorce (Freeman and Freeman, 2001).

Second, children rarely have a safe and meaningful way to be heard in the divorce process. Smart (2002: 318) notes what is most difficult for children is the lack of control they have over their lives. She states:

...children had to re-establish their relationships with their parents, and a great deal depended on the trust and warmth that had been established prior to separation and then on the quality of the post-separation parenting. A majority of children were clear that they did not want to be forced to make choices, but they did want to have a voice and they did want to understand what was happening.

Wallerstein and Kelly first identified this theme in 1985. Smart also reports that children require time to adjust to arrangements and they want the flexibility to make changes when necessary. The issue, in her opinion, is whether parents are prepared to listen to the child's voice.

Despite the challenge of contact difficulties, there are a number of possible strategies that can be implemented to support the resolution of difficult contacts. Encouraging research and supporting ongoing discussion among stakeholders will advance our understanding about effective intervention strategies.

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