Managing Contact Difficulties: A Child-Centred Approach




Maintaining relationships that benefit children in the post-divorce family is challenging. In some situations, relationship difficulties begin long before the separation. In other families, children are caught in the unfolding drama between their parents. The quantity, rather than the quality, of contact can become the paramount issue for parents. Alienating behaviours are sometimes subtle and a parent might be unaware of the impact on the child. While these behaviours cannot be attributed to a single cause, they are always harmful to children. In more extreme situations, the parenting skills of both parents are compromised. Problems arising with child-parent relationships after divorce are increasingly referred to in the literature as contact difficulties.

The goal of child-parent contact is to provide children with opportunities to develop successful relationships with both parents. Arrangements should reflect the child's individual needs and assist in de-escalating parent conflict. The genesis and dynamics of contact difficulties are complex. Understanding them requires careful consideration of children's behaviours and reactions, the parents and the situation within which the post-divorce family is created. Parenting plan decisions, and in particular the child's residential schedule, often become a source of conflict for parents. In some cases, minimal or non-existent child-parent relationships represent an abandonment of the child by a parent. Contact difficulties can also be a reflection of a child's reluctance to spend time with a parent. In other situations, ongoing parent conflict interferes with the family's ability to support successful child-parent relationships. For some parents, the adversarial nature of the litigation process creates contact difficulties.


This paper examines the utility of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) and other formulations that have been proposed to explain alienation. Drawing on a literature review and consultation with key informants in Canada and abroad, the authors put forward several critical questions concerning contact difficulties. The paper discusses how contact benefits children, factors that influence contact, the child's experience of contact, prevalence of difficulties and variables related to undermining and obstructing child-parent relationships. The implications for managing contact difficulties are also presented, along with possible directions for a child-centred response to contact difficulties.

Findings from the Literature Review and Key Informant Interviews

The term parental alienation syndrome was first introduced by Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe contact difficulties that he argued combined parental programming with the child's own scenarios of denigration of the allegedly hated parent. In 1993, Janet Johnston proposed that the child's contribution to the difficulties required consideration as well. In 2001, Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston reformulated Johnston's earlier model to highlight the perspective of the alienated child in the explanation of contact difficulties and design of possible interventions. There is considerable debate among professionals as to which of these formulations—Gardner, or Kelly and Johnston—and case management responses reflects children's best interests. The media has drawn attention to difficult contact cases by profiling contentious situations with professional opinions that have not been subjected to acceptable methods of scientific research.

Many practitioners argue that Gardner's terminology raises the stakes in the confrontation between parents. The authors found little support for Gardner's contention that alienating behaviours meet the evidentiary criteria to be considered a syndrome for diagnostic purposes. More recently, there has been a growing trend in the literature to identify the behaviours that influence parents' post-divorce relationships. This conceptualization is viewed as useful because it provides a foundation for interventions designed to improve relationships that benefit children.

There is a wide range of child-parent relationships post-divorce. The evidence concerning prevalence of alienating behaviours within the divorcing population is anecdotal, but suggests that there are a growing number of these cases. This increase can be attributed to improved diagnosis, availability of information for parents, greater understanding of the legal system, the increased emphasis on ordering and enforcing child support obligations and recovering arrears, and the role of the media. Preliminary research indicates that mothers and fathers are equally likely to engage in alienating and obstructive behaviour.

The authors did not find research concerning outcome evaluation of specific interventions. Research studies that focus on alienation are exploratory in nature and rely on descriptive statistics and correlations between variables. They have inherent methodological difficulties, ranging from small sample sizes and biased sampling techniques, to non-independent information sources, inadequate sample descriptions, lack of control groups and inconsistency in definition and measurement across studies.

Given the spectrum of parenting relationships after divorce and the diversity of family situations, the literature review and key informant interviews indicated that a one-size fits all solution is unrealistic. A range of strategies for addressing contact difficulties is required. Low conflict parents will benefit from parent education focussing on children's needs and from learning effective communication and conflict resolution strategies. For many high-conflict parents, mental health interventions coupled with the authority of the court may be an effective strategy for building post-divorce relationships. This approach provides an opportunity to address the frustration parents experience when the system does not acknowledge their point of view. Early intervention and case management within the legal system is essential because the more entrenched the parents' positions and the child's responses become, the more difficult it is to resolve contact difficulties. The authority of the court, through the judge or a designate, such as a parenting coordinator, is required to hold parents accountable for their behaviour. Systemic issues such as lengthy waits for court dates and frequent adjournments exacerbate contact difficulties.

Parents often have unattainable expectations of the legal system. Consistently non-adversarial representation would help parents to understand the limitations of the process and the probable outcomes of court hearings. It would also help them to make informed decisions about their dispute resolution options. Court orders need to be clear, detailing what is expected of both parents.

Differences of opinion exist in the literature as to management strategies when an allegation has been made. There is also a lack of consensus about the preferred contact plan when an allegation is substantiated. Unless the child is at risk, the complete severing of contact is rarely in the child's best interest because there may be other aspects of the relationship that are worth preserving. Modified forms of contact such as supervised contacts or letters and telephone calls may need to be considered.

A Child-Centred Approach for Reducing Contact Difficulties

Based on the literature review and consultation with key informants, the authors identified a number of strategies for addressing contact difficulties. National educational initiatives provide access to information that can assist parents in exercising their parenting responsibilities in a way that benefits their children. Educational initiatives also have the potential to influence others who play a significant role in the lives of children, such as extended family, educators and physicians.

There are few up-to-date publications for Canadian children and youth. Technology provides many possibilities for creating websites, videos and posters that can be displayed in schools and community centres. These are examples of convenient, cost-effective and youth-friendly ways to reach young Canadians.

A child-centred approach to contact difficulties would be strengthened if professionals had specialized training to increase their understanding of contact difficulties, the variables that contribute to the escalation of difficulties and ethical dilemmas that can arise. Training to ensure confidentiality in the context of resolving contact difficulties is also required.

An independent unbiased strategy for soliciting the child's point of view is required. Socio-legal interventions provide a way for the child's perspective to be considered. Allowing children and young people to speak out through such means as oral and written communication, gives them both a voice in their own affairs and the chance to learn the importance of constructive participation in society. The Unified Family Court (UFC) concept, implemented in some Canadian jurisdictions, provides an important model for managing difficult contact cases. Predictability is critical for this group of families. Ancillary services typically connected to or utilized by the UFCs provide a venue for conducting the type of assessment required in difficult contact cases. The specialized function of UFCs helps to encourage the collaboration that is essential for successful case management.

Specialized services staffed by trained and experienced providers help to ensure resolution of contact difficulties and to maintain ongoing contact between children and parents. Examples of other important services are supervised transfers, contact centres, parenting coordinators and therapy for children and parents. Transfers of children should not have to occur at the police station.

Research is urgently required to increase our understanding of strategies to support the child-parent relationship. Multi-disciplinary expert meetings could provide a forum for building a research agenda and discussing evidence-based practice. Creating a Centre of Excellence that conducts research, offers training, provides policy advice and acts as a clearinghouse for information would support the government's stated goal of providing a Child-centred Family Justice Strategy.

Despite the challenge presented by contact difficulties, there are numerous policy and practice initiatives that can be implemented to address the concerns of stakeholders and further the impact of Canada's Child-centred Family Justice Strategy.

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