Family Conflict and a Child’s Mental Health: The Kidman Centre

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By Antonia Marran, Lawyer

As a Family Lawyer and Parenting Coordinator at Mills Oakley, Antonia Marran spends her days working with families in conflict.   It is an area of the law that Antonia was instinctively drawn to after completing her law degree, and one in which she feels she can make a difference to families needing help.

The impact of a divorce or separation on children can be significant.  Divorce increases the risk of mental health problems in children and adolescents, regardless of their age, gender, and culture, and numerous studies have shown that the children of divorced parents typically experience higher rates of depression and anxiety, addiction, substance abuse and poor educational outcomes.

This link between parental conflict and the mental health of children is something that Antonia feels passionate about.

“Anxiety in children and young people is already at an all-time high around the world.  

A large survey by the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne found that up to 50% of children in general have clinical levels of anxiety – which can manifest through problems such as school refusal, social phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Add to this the stress and emotional trauma of a divorce, and it becomes clear why it is critical to try and alleviate some of the anxiety that can result from a family breakdown on our children.”

The Kidman Centre Approach

As well as her role at Mills Oakley, Antonia is also involved with The Kidman Centre UTS, a not-for-profit organisation focused on the prevention and management of mental health problems in young people aged 5 – 25.

Founded initially by Antonia’s late father, Professor Antony Kidman AM, The Kidman Centre is now managed by Dr Rachael Murrihy who worked alongside Professor Kidman, and delivers its services in a number of ways:

  • Directly through clinics and workshops run by psychologists based at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, Sydney
  • By increasing accessibility to support through free mental health talks for parents and young people.
  • By educating school staff in rural, regional and remote New South Wales on how to manage and work with children experiencing behavioural and emotional issues in the school and classroom context.
  • Through online parenting programs to improve the skills and confidence of parents when managing and interacting with their children who may be struggling with behavioural issues.

In her role as the Patron of The Kidman Centre, and more recently as a Board member, Antonia has seen firsthand the impact of a child’s mental health issues on the entire family.

With a large family herself, and after having spent over 20 years as a journalist and writer covering family issues, she understands how family conflict would exacerbate stress, anxiety and depression in children.

Children and Parental Conflict

Unfortunately, when a couple in conflict separates, the cause and source of the conflict does not magically disappear.  If they are still bound together by having children, they can find themselves embroiled in an adversarial relationship that leads to high levels of tension, hostility and conflict in which children are almost always the victims.

One of the most important ways in which parents can minimise the impact of a separation on their children is to reduce these levels of conflict, tension and hostility.

Whilst that sounds simple, it can be very difficult to break a long term pattern of conflict.  Many couples find it impossible to negotiate reasonably with each other, becoming reliant on the legal system to resolve issues of contention.  In fact, the Family Law system in Australia has been overwhelmed in recent years by couples experiencing this kind of prolonged conflict.

Minimising Parental Conflict

Parenting Coordination, whilst still a relatively new approach in Australia, has been gaining significant traction in the USA as a way of helping to resolve on-going parental conflict.

Using the services of a trained Parenting Coordinator, who is usually from a family law or psychology background, couples learn various strategies and techniques to help them communicate more effectively and implement any Court Orders regarding parenting that may apply to their situation.  Parenting Coordinators can be appointed by the Courts, in an effort to help couples exit the legal system, be recommended by lawyers, or be appointed by a couple independently.

With the support of the Parenting Coordinator, couples negotiate potential issues and resolve conflict without litigation, therefore minimising the emotional stress and trauma experienced by their children.  Unlike a mediation or issue-specific negotiation, Parenting Coordination is typically conducted over a period of up to two years, providing ongoing support and assistance to teach couples the skills and techniques required to overcome their conflict and improve the way in which they communicate.

Need More Information?

The family law team at Mills Oakley would be happy to discuss the application of Parenting Coordination and how to minimise conflict in a family law situation.

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