Q. I am recently separated from my husband and have been in the family law court five times trying to sort out access arrangements for our six-year-old son. The court granted an interim protection order against his father due to excessive alcohol consumption mixed with antidepressants, and his behaviour was very distressing to both our son and myself. Following a psychologist’s report, he was granted day access with supervised handover and return.
He used only two of these visits, then stopped, saying I was the problem and that he would wait until his son could decide for himself about contact. He has not seen his son since late last year and now he wants to make contact again. When I ask my son if he wants to see his father, he says no. Our son found access previously distressing – he had nightmares, slept badly, and was very anxious until visits stopped. Now he has put on weight, is sleeping through the night and his self-esteem and confidence are soaring.
When I ask him if he wants to see his father, he says, “No thanks, can’t you see I’m happy now?” I’ve also always offered him the possibility of phoning his father, but he never has. Family law states it is beneficial for a child to see both parents. Have any studies been carried out to show that one-parent families can work and that when a parent’s behaviour is so negative that the child is better off without that parent until he/she sorts themselves out? Our son is saying, “Dad said it is up to me if I see him again and I say no. Will Dad keep his promise this time?”
A. Family law is right to hold the ideal that it is beneficial for a child to have contact with both parents and for both parents to make a contribution to a child’s life – in general the research studies back this position up.
The exception is when this contact leads to serious conflict and stress for the child or when one parent is behaving very negatively (for example, via alcohol and drugs), which can mean they are unable to care for the child.
However, even though you and your son have had negative experiences in the past, it is important to still hold open the possibility that his father may have moved on and that he may be able to have a constructive involvement in his life (either now or at some point in the future).
It is important to remember that parenting is a long-term project. A caring father involved in his son’s life is important not just now, but when your son hits his teens and even beyond when he becomes a young adult.
It is also important to note that while on average children do better with two caring involved parents, many single parents can happily bring up children. Though it can be much harder parenting alone, many parents compensate for this by gaining extra support through extended family and friends.
Each child and each family situation is different, so you must decide what you think is best for your son. I do think that your son is too young to make this decision himself. He is likely to mainly remember negative experiences about his father, which are colouring his perception.
The thought of contact may conjure up a fear of returning to previous conflicts and upsetting experiences and he may not as yet be able to imagine a positive way of his father being involved while you are separated.
Further, at six years of age, children from separated families frequently experience a divided sense of loyalty and feel they have to make a choice of one parent over the other – but this choice is a terrible burden to them as they grow up.
While, of course, you will listen to him, it is important that he understands that it is your decision (along with his father and the court) about what the contact arrangement is. This should be a relief to him and take the burden of having to decide away.
If his father is is currently asking for contact, my advice to you is that it is worth exploring ways of this happening in a positive way. This might, of course, require very careful planning and arrangement. If possible, you should first talk this through with his father and, if need be, seek a third party to help you negotiate an arrangement such as professional mediator or family counsellor.
The key to making this work is for the two of you to move towards a more civil relationship with each other and to reach an agreement about contact centred on your child’s interests – this is a tall order, but it might be possible over time.
Because of your son’s distress about access in the past, this new contact may need to start gradually. This might begin with his father writing a letter to your son, explaining his feelings for him and his wish to be in contact, etc. The more he can be positive and make a fresh start the better. The contact can build up gradually, leading to his father phoning regularly and making short visits.
To make this work it is crucial for you to be supportive, to talk positively about contact and do all you can to facilitate this. It is also essential for his father to make the initiatives rather than waiting for his son, to keep any promises he makes about contact and to be prepared to go at his son’s pace and accept his feelings. You and his father may need some assistance, either together or separately, from a professional such as a family counsellor to make these steps.
Whatever level of contact, it will help your son to have a balanced understanding of his father as he grows up. Even if your former husband has a problem with alcohol or drugs, it is important to help your son know another side to his father and for him to have a sensitive awareness of previous difficulties according to his age and level of understanding.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, June 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.