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Acting in the best interests of adolescents

In determining child custody, parental visitation and related matters, the Family Court uses the ‘best interests of the child’ standard. What this means is that, in determining child related issues, all orders will be made based on the Court’s determination of what is in a child’s best interests.

In relation to parenting time, the determination of a younger child’s interests is often an easy proposition. A young baby for instance may need more time with their mother and may not benefit from extended periods away from her. A kindergarten-age child may be able to share time between parents but the new-found rigours of school must be factored in. Teens older than 16 often have lives busier than either of their parents and ‘scheduling’ their parental time is an exercise in futility.

Adolescents’ best interests are often more difficult to gauge. The age range for an adolescent is broad, spanning from 10 to 19 years of age. Adolescence is defined as “the transitional stage of physical and psychological human development that generally occurs during the period from puberty to legal adulthood”.

A 2011 governmental report undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies on the impact of parental separation on adolescents has yielded interesting results. The focus of the study was a determination of what constituted the ‘best interests of the child’ with regard to adolescents (aged 9+) in separated families.

The study was careful to point out that there was no perfect arrangement regarding adolescents post-separation. Some did better living primarily with their mother and some did better living primarily with their father. The study revealed that most adolescents desired time with each of their parents.

What was universal for adolescents experiencing parental separation was that children who enjoyed a strong relationship with their parents were found to adjust and adapt well to their changing familial situation. This was true even where the children had a strong relationship with one parent and not both. Strong parental relationships were found to be directly related to greater school achievement, self confidence and general happiness of life. Conversely, less secure parental relationships were related to poorer academic and psychological wellbeing in children.

Adolescents interviewed for the governmental report were able to express factors that made post-separation parenting situations easier for them. These factors included:

1. An ability to state a preference as to which parent they would reside with.

2. Flexibility in parenting arrangements.

3. A desire to not be involved in the conflict of parents separating from each other.

The lessons to be learned from this study for parents going through separation are to prioritise the development of relationships with their children because the benefits are numerous. Parents should strive to place the considerations of their adolescent children first and to recognise that their maturing children are now able to understand the dynamics of conflict which often occur between parents in separation matters. It is important that parents be flexible regarding parenting time and not draw their children into conflict with their former partner.

For more information regarding parenting matters, or Family Law in general, contact our Family Law Team.