Have you heard of the term “parental gatekeeping”? It’s a term that’s used in family law which is related to, but not the same, as the concept of parental alienation. Let’s take a look at what parental gatekeeping means—and how it can take both positive and negative forms.
The term gatekeeping is used to refer to parental behaviours that control the other parent’s involvement in a child’s life. It can help to think of gatekeeping as a power dynamic where one parent assumes power over deciding how much and what kind of contact the child will be permitted to have with the other parent.
Understanding the terminology
Gatekeeping behaviours are best thought of as being on a continuum from the very positive to the very negative. At the positive end is “facilitative gatekeeping”, in which a parent demonstrates behaviours that support involvement and a meaningful relationship with their co-parent. Such behaviours are also often termed “gate-opening behaviours”. At the negative end is “restrictive gatekeeping”, where a parent interferes with and does not support their co-parent’s involvement. In this case, behaviours are described as “gate-closing”. And somewhere in the middle is “justified restrictive gatekeeping”, also known as “protective gatekeeping”, where a parent does restrict involvement, but is seen as having a valid reason for doing so. At the most extreme negative end is complete parental alienation.
One key difference is that with parental alienation, the child is not necessarily withheld from the other parent. Parental gatekeeping typically includes limits on access to the child, but with parental alienation, the contact often continues yet the child reacts in a negative way to the targeted parent, in accordance with the alienating parent’s wishes. However, when the child’s relationship with a targeted parent has been undermined due to intentional alienating behaviours of a parent, the child may well begin to resist or refuse contact with the targeted parent. As such, compared to restrictive gatekeeping, parental alienation often involves the child actively contributing to the rejection of the targeted parent.
Examples of negative, “restrictive” gatekeeping behaviours
Restrictive gatekeeping behaviours may include:
- Inhibiting communication between child and parent
- Making telephone or Skype contact difficult
- Derogating the parent to or in front of a child
- Limiting time sharing with the other parent
- Withholding information regarding the child
- Refusing to communicate with the other parent about the child
- Being intrusive or interrupting time sharing with other parent
- Making decisions without the other parent’s input
- Arguing or negative communication in front of children with the other parent
- Being inflexible for necessary time changes or adjustments to the shared parenting schedule
- Negative nonverbal communication directed at the other parent in front of the child
- Attempting to micromanage the child’s life during the other parent’s time
Justified protective gatekeeping
This type of gatekeeping occurs when there is good reason to limit the other parent’s involvement with the child. For example, if there are legitimate concerns of family violence, abuse or neglect. Parents may respond with protective gatekeeping behaviours. Or, if the other parent is believed to demonstrate negative role modelling then the protective parent may try to limit the time the child spends with that parent to reduce the negative influence on the child.
Other times, protective gatekeeping might mean supervised visitation with a parent who has been largely absent, so that the child can develop trust over time while feeling secure.
Similarly, a parent who is very inexperienced at parenting might begin with shorter visits with the child, gradually increasing time as they acquire parenting skills and work with the child until ultimately the gatekeeping is no longer required.
Gatekeeping in relocation disputes
Gatekeeping behaviours are relevant in relocation disputes. The courts want to know how well a moving-away parent would support and sustain the child’s relationship with the left-behind parent, meaning gatekeeping is often a central issue in a relocation dispute. For a relocating child to adjust to the transition and maintain their relationship with a left-behind parent, gatekeeping is regarded as a key factor. The moving parent has the power to undermine or to promote the relationship with the left-behind parent, meaning they are in a strategic position to manage the risk of relocation harm to the child.
Courts accept that adults have the right to want to move to improve the quality of their life and will balance this right to freedom of movement with the child’s right to a relationship with both parents. In a relocation matter, the courts will examine the motive of the moving parent, in case the attempted move is a sign of restrictive gatekeeping and the moving parent is motivated to marginalise the left-behind parent.
How do courts treat gatekeeping issues?
Expert reports used in family court proceedings can address gatekeeping issues and assess whether restrictive gatekeeping is protective and justified or unjustified, punitive, and potentially a sign of parental alienation.
With a gatekeeping analysis, the experts will try to differentiate between attitudes and behaviours of the parents in a dispute. This is because it’s normal for parents in the middle of a parenting dispute to be critical of each other and appear unsupportive of each other. But the vast majority of parents in dispute will manage to move on and control their hostilities within a few years, even if the divorce was very high-conflict. For most parents, time heals and attitudes change as everyone moves on. The court experts and the court will therefore examine whether instances of negative gatekeeping are largely divorce-related and a relatively short term issue. Or, whether this is likely to be an ongoing, chronic issue for the child. Another problem with ongoing restrictive gatekeeping is that it can see the parents remain in endless conflict and often returning to courts again and again to attempt to modify parenting arrangements.
Rather than label a parent as a “restrictive gatekeeper”, it is much better for an analysis to describe for the court the level of restrictiveness, using specific behavioural descriptors. This exposes the nuances in the types of behaviours seen and enables the court to make recommendations for interventions that are tailored to the particular behaviours being observed.An analysis of gatekeeping issues can help the court create appropriate parenting orders and determine if it’s necessary to order parents to participate in parenting programmes. Often, a gatekeeping parent needs help to learn to compartmentalise their negative, critical views of their co-parent so that the child is not negatively impacted. In extreme cases of parental alienation, the courts have shown willingness to reverse a child’s living arrangements away from an alienating parent.
If you need assistance with a family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.