Safety Issues

Woman in Black Jacket Sitting on Chair

Safety is a vital consideration throughout the separation process: safeguarding parent-child relationships, safeguarding physical wellbeing, and safeguarding mental and emotional wellbeing. Separation is a challenging time and has the potential to bring out the worst in ourselves and our partners. However, we believe that family renewal depends on understanding these issues and working to mitigate them. By prioritizing the wellbeing of parent-child relationships and co-parenting connections, separating families can work to ensure that the challenges of the present do not undermine lasting family renewal.

Back view of unrecognizable black boy with Afro hair standing in front of crop anonymous dad pointing finger and scolding at home

Alienation and Estrangement

The most heart-breaking obstacles facing a parent in building an enduring, supportive and involved relationship with their child throughout separation are found in cases of estrangement and alienation. While estrangement often occurs as a result of challenges within the parent-child relationship, alienation results from one parent’s attempts to destroy the other’s parent-child relationship.

Accidental or careless estrangement can occur when a parent consistently fails to fulfill their parenting commitments. They may disappear from their child’s life or establish a pattern of problematic parenting behaviors and lack of engagement. While the offending parent may feel criticized by the other parent, the reality is that they may have earned the child’s disappointment and distance. Even so, this estrangement does not need to be permanent.

In situations of estrangement, parenting support is necessary from both parents to repair the parent-child relationship. It is in the interests of both parents to improve the estranged parent-child relationship. These situations are remedied over the long-term by consistent involvement and meeting responsibilities in a joyful way. Earning back the trust of the ‘custodial parent’ and child can be a lengthy process that requires evidence of an enduring commitment.

Alienation occurs when one parent applies pressure on the child to reject the other parent. However, this animosity towards the other parent can become internalized over time. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was first identified in the 1980s by Dr. Richard A. Gardner and arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. PAS manifests as a child’s unjustified assault against the character of a parent. While it begins with one parent’s attempts to turn the child against the other parent, the child comes to contribute to this alienation.

A disturbing form of alienation is child abduction. This may occur illegally through the sudden disappearance of parent and child, or legally through mobility rights that allow a parent with majority parenting time to relocate themselves and the children far from the other parent.

It is important to incorporate parenting strategies to offset the risks of estrangement and alienation. The resources on this site can help families to recognize and mitigate risks throughout the separation process.

Domestic Violence and Abuse

Discussions of violence and abuse are always difficult, but especially so in a family setting. However, understanding risk factors and warning signs is important throughout the separation process. The breakdown of intimate relationship, even in relationships with no history of abusive behavior, can precipitate volatile emotions and situations. Often, there is a higher risk of family violence soon after a separation.

Violence and abuse can happen to anyone. Statistics indicate that women experience intimate partner violence at high rates, and these rates increase further for young women, Indigenous women, trans women, LGB+ women, women living with disabilities, and visible minority women. Trans and non-binary individuals experience high levels of intimate partner violence and face unique barriers to support services. Men are also targeted in domestic violence, though underreporting makes male-targeted domestic violence difficult to quantify and limited services are available to meet these needs.

Children may experience family violence directly through threats or abuse, or indirectly through seeing or hearing a family member scared or injured by violence. Children affected by family violence can suffer short- and long-term physical and psychological harm. Witnessing or experiencing violence and living in a state of stress can impact emotional, cognitive, behavioural and social development and can present challenges throughout their lifetime. Parents must be aware of these factors when evaluating and acting on situations of family violence.

The resources that follow present more information on violence and abuse within the separation process. Sometimes violence and abuse are a central cause for separation. Other times, they can emerge from the tensions and changing roles of the separation process. Never are they acceptable.

Man in Black Suit Sitting on Brown Wooden Chair

High-Conflict Divorce

In high-conflict situations, the divorce process has less to do with negotiating financial and parenting plans and more to do with getting even. Each parent has an imagined value for the pain and suffering they experienced in the marriage and look to the divorce to settle the score. Too often, parents in high-conflict divorces have lost sight of the best interests of the children even while weaponizing this catch phrase against each other.

While some couples enter mediation in good faith, many high conflict couples enter mediation simply to either avoid the high cost of the contested battle or to prove the inability of the other to negotiate. Mediation can be just another ploy in the battle to prove who is worse.

But what of the children in high conflict divorce situations? It is vital to remember that parental behaviour has an enormous impact on the wellbeing of children. Children whose parents are embroiled in battles over child custody and access issues feel the stress of their parents’ tension and may feel discouraged from nurturing meaningful relationships with both parents.

To safeguard the parent-child relationships and wellbeing of everyone involved, parents in high-conflict divorces require the help of experienced mediators who can help to prioritize the children’s needs and facilitate the parenting plans and discussions needed to support their transition from a high-conflict marriage to a sustainable co-parenting arrangement. Some of the resources below may help parents in this challenging process.

Further Resources: