Co-Parenting and Fostering Strong Relationships

Family lawyer Why is it important for a co-parent to foster or encourage a strong parent-child relationship between the other parent and their minor child?

When people split up or divorce, family law courts across the country must decide which parent will have primary custody of the parties’ minor child. This task is not easy. As a result, States have enacted statutes with child custody factors that a reviewing court must consider to determine the best interests of the child and which parent will hold primary physical custody of the minor child. What happens in court? The judge will consider each child custody factor within the best interest of the child statute. The judge will decide which parent is better suited under each child custody factor. The judge’s primary focus is to determine in which household, and parent’s custody, will this child grow, thrive, or mature the most. The court will focus on what living arrangements will be best for the child. The purpose of this article is to discuss one of these child custody factors: “Which parent will foster or encourage a strong parent-child relationship between the other parent and their minor child.” Strongly rooted in family law is the idea that each co-parent should have a meaningful relationship with their child and each parent should put their child’s best interests above their own. This article will discuss factual patterns related to this child custody factor and how to spot a parent that doesn’t encourage a relationship between the child and co-parent.

My co-parent schedules child activities during my parenting time without talking to me beforehand. 

One parent, typically the parent with primary physical custody, will schedule child-related events during the co-parent’s parenting time. The key bit of information is the lack of communication between the parents. Child-related activities could be extracurricular activities through the school, church activities, and sports-related events. The co-parent will say, “It seems like every weekend that I have the child I have to take the child to a softball tournament. I really would like to do something with my child that I want to do.” Some of this overlap between a co-parent’s parenting time and an active child’s schedule is expected and unavoidable. However, when the parent that is making the child-related activity schedule doesn’t even communicate with the co-parent then the parent’s conduct becomes suspicious. Is this parent deliberately trying to limit the one-on-one time with the child and co-parent by keeping the child busy? A family law court may hold that the parent’s conduct isn’t encouraging a meaningful relationship between the child and co-parent.

My co-parent allows my kid to make plans during my parenting time without talking to me about it.

Closely related to the fact pattern above is the situation where an older child makes plans during the co-parent’s visitation. In this situation, the parent with primary custody should say to the child, “Did you check with your Dad/Mom, make sure that’s ok.” Also present is a lack of communication about the child’s plans between the co-parents. This child custody factor creates an obligation to respect the other parent’s time with the minor child; a duty to provide a heads-up to the co-parent.

My child refuses to go with my co-parent for his/her parenting time.

As the parties’ minor child grows into a teenager, often the child begins to assert their opinion and desire to spend less time with a co-parent. The assertive child, otherwise saying no to schedule parenting time, creates problems that end up in court. When I talk to the parent with the teenager that wants to stay with them, I usually hear “The child just will not go over to the co-parent’s house,” or “The child will not get into the co-parent’s car,” or “They don’t want to spend the weekend with them.” My first question, “What have you done to make the child go with the co-parent for parenting time?” The parent’s response varies from a swift “nothing,” to “I just tell them it’s time to go,” to “I can’t make him go over there he/she is old enough now to make their own decisions.” I then explain to the parent that they can’t simply through up their hands and say the child knows best. Family courts and attorneys will probe and determine the advantaged parent’s role in enforcing parenting time with the other co-parent. In court, a judge will ask the parent, “How have you disciplined the child for not spending time with the co-parent?” If the answer is “no” this parent should expect problems. In this fact pattern, the parent makes a half-hearted effort at ensuring a meaningful relationship with the other co-parent. However, this half-hearted effort to remedy the problem may draw unwelcome criticism from a judge. 

My co-parent talks about our court case to my child and even allows the child to read court pleadings.

This conduct has a very high probability of harming the child by needlessly involving the child in the dirty details of family law. “Dad really did this?” asked the child. A parent that talks to the child about the pending court case has an alternate motive, that being to soil the relationship between the child and the co-parent. Exposing the child to the details of the family law case is conduct that can produce lasting resentment by the child towards the co-parent. Make no mistake, this is serious conduct that may be used to change physical custody of the child from one parent to the other. This kind of parent conduct demonstrates a parent’s inability to put the child’s mental health above their desire to win the child’s affection at any cost.

My co-parent insults and berates me in front of our child.

This harmful parental conduct may be the most telling of a parent that cannot put their child’s needs before their vindictiveness and bitterness. Many co-parents have a sour relationship, but these people can keep their hatred toward each other in check and remain civil to each other when their child is present. Similar to the parent that needlessly involves the child in the details of a family law case, the parent that openly berates the co-parent in front of their child is actively trying to influence the child’s opinion of their other parent. If this conduct is severe and ongoing, it could lead to parental alienation, a situation where the child loses all faith in the parent-child relationship. No parent should tolerate a co-parent that disparages them in front of the parties’ minor child. I instruct my clients to start a video when their co-parent turns nasty in front of the child. This ugly conduct demonstrates clearly that the parent lacks the willingness and ability to foster a meaningful relationship between the child and the co-parent. Every family law judge would consider such conduct when determining child custody and every judge would weigh this child custody factor against the parent that “loses their cool” in front of the child.

My co-parent allows their new spouse to talk bad about me to my kid.

In this fact pattern, one parent allows their new significant other or spouse to do their dirty work. The other adult in the house speaks poorly of the co-parent to the child. This child custody factor almost imposes a duty on a parent to speak up and stop the outsider adult from trash-talking the child’s other parent. Another fact pattern where this principle is present is when the stepparent or boyfriend/girlfriend substitutes for the parent at the parties’ child exchange and then make a scene in front of the child.

How important is a parent’s ability to parent to foster or encourage a strong parent-child relationship between the other parent and the minor child?

The short answer is it is very important, explains Matthew Benedict, Esq. The parent that will encourage a meaningful relationship between the minor child and other parent is putting the child’s best interest ahead of their own. The judge’s goal is to determine a custody order that will work best for the child. The parent that demonstrates care and respect for the relationship between the child and the other parent will always be regarded highly by the judge in a child custody dispute.