A Taiwanese judge has made headlines for making the unusual move of adding a letter to the child involved in a family law court ruling in his judgment. The letter explains to the nine-year-old boy the reasons behind his parents’ marriage breakdown and reassures him of both his mother and father’s love. The judge’s letter follows the publication of a UK judge’s decision in 2017 which was delivered in the form of a letter to the child. Again, at the time the rare judgment was also praised for being child-friendly. And here in Australia, back in 2013, a judge included in his judgment a letter addressed to the subject child, to be opened once the child turns 14. Evidently, judges have some leeway to be creative with their judgments in this manner. But it has not become the norm. So how are family law outcomes usually explained to children? And what should parents consider when thinking about how to communicate about family law issues with their kids?
Children are central to a family court parenting decision. And yet, they aren’t present in court, nor is a family court judgment directed towards explaining the outcome to the subject child. However, as the Taiwanese judge wrote to the child in his letter:
“I feel I have the responsibility to talk to you because you are the person who is most affected by the case. You’re absolutely not just a name mentioned in the verdict.”
While it is unlikely that your family court matter will result in your child receiving a personalised letter from the judge, what can you do to help your child understand the court process and your family law proceedings generally? How much should you explain, as a parent? Unless an Independent Children’s Lawyer has been appointed in your matter, or the judge has specifically directed a child expert to explain the judicial outcome, then it will be up to you to present the result in the most positive way possible to your child.
How much should you share?
Judges expect parents not to discuss their parenting proceedings with their children. It is seen as needlessly entangling children in adult matters. We frequently see cases where parents are criticised for this and in extreme cases, it can be seen as parental alienation. The best advice, therefore, is to tell your kids as little as you possibly can. You do not need to give them any information that isn’t needed (such as money problems, your worries about having to move house, etc). Especially restrain yourself from having angry outbursts fuelled by emotions (such as venting your bitterness over your ex’s latest court move). There are huge negatives to overexplaining and overinvolving your kids in your legal matters.
You can support your kids by giving them the information they need and no more. This means explaining how new time-sharing arrangements will look, and how any changes to their life will be managed. It means asking yourself, what information will make this journey easier for them? Does it really help your child to know certain things? It will help if you are on the same page with your co-parent. That way you can work out beforehand what you are going to share with the children and ensure you are providing the same clear information.
If a judge has issued orders about time arrangements, inform your child of the logistics (without adding your own emotions). You can help them remember new arrangements with visual calendars for younger kids or apps for teens. Your child may resist the idea of the new arrangements. Ensure they understand this is what the judge has decided and you must all follow what is required.
How best to update your kids on court proceedings or mediation starting? Keep it simple and age-appropriate. For instance, with younger kids you might simply say: “Mum and Dad have some things we can’t agree on and need help finding a solution. A judge [or mediator] will help work out the best solution for everyone.”
With older kids, you might go into more detail about the processes of court or mediation. Teens often want to probe why you are going to court, and your instinct might be to blame the other parent (who may well have initiated proceedings). Resist this urge and give your teen a factual and bland explanation!
Children may sense that one parent feels like the “winner” and the other the “loser”. Never try to get your child to feel sad or bad about the outcome, even if you didn’t get what you wanted, and stress the positives to your children.
If you need any assistance with how to handle these often difficult conversations with your children, please reach out to Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 3400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.