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Protecting Your Child’s Mental Health in Dating & Cohabitation

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Recently, the Gainesville child custody attorneys of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A. discussed the topic of parenting considerations in child custody matters where one parent is involved in a relationship or residing with another person. Expanding on our discussions in ‘Cohabitation & Dating—Safety Risks and Legal Considerations in Child Custody,’ andCohabitation & Dating—Part II: Preventative & Protective Measures,’ we now address this subject matter in terms of a child’s mental health.  Parents should keep in mind that the issues discussed herein are intended to provide just another facet of what should be the guiding star and ultimate focus of a parent who has split up from their child’s other parent—ensuring that all steps are taken to protect the best interest of their child.

In addition to safety and legal issues, parents should always take into consideration the impact that dating or cohabitation can have on the mental, emotional, and psychological well-being of their child(ren). This is particularly important where the child has already been affected due to a divorce, the absence of a parent, prior parental conflict, or ongoing dispute during the co-parenting process. Keeping in mind that the mental capacity of every child is unique, we discuss some helpful tips to assist parents in protecting the mental health of their child whenever starting to date, entering a new relationship, or deciding to cohabitate.

Introducing a child to new partners can be a tough decision for parents to make.  According to Thomas N. Dikel, Ph.D. a well-known professional in Gainesville, first and foremost, they should assess whether their own personal life and mental health is where it should be.  Essentially, are they making a careful, reasoned decision to introduce someone to their child with whom they expect to have a long-term relationship or are they simply bouncing from one relationship into another and just want to share the initial excitement of that new relationship with their child?

As provided in a NCBI publication, citing a well-documented association regarding Marital Birth and Early Child Outcomes:

“Growing up with two married, biological parents is correlated with better cognitive, academic, and behavioral outcomes relative to growing up in all other family types.”

At the same time though, there is equal documentation demonstrating the negative impact on a child’s mental health when raised in a home that is in constant turmoil due to parental conflict and dispute. In example, in a FutureofChildren.org journal article, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, the authors note:

“[…] a link between instability and behavior problems, with children who experience instability in the people with whom they live going on to display more externalizing, attention, and social problems[…].”

In short, raising a child together as a married couple is not always the most beneficial environment for a child, nor is it, as many parents are aware, always possible. However, parents must make sure that any issues that may negatively impact a child’s mental health, do not also carry over into a parent’s relationships with a non-parent partner. As stated by the authors in the previously mentioned FutureofChildren.org publication:

“Both cohabiting and dating mothers confirm that mothers experiencing instability in their relationships go on to report more stress and to engage in harsher parenting.”

Consequently, it is important for parents to know that they can raise a child apart from one another and can develop relationships with non-parent partners, while also protecting their child’s mental health—if the proper precautions are taken.

Parents should be aware of risks for abandonment or attachment issues, particularly where the child’s has been introduced to multiple partners in the past, and more importantly in scenarios involving parental cohabitation. As stated in ‘The Impact of Cohabitation of Children,’ an article provided by the TwoOfUs.org, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, Administration for Children and Families:

A revolving door of live-in boyfriends or girlfriends can be confusing to a child, so limit the number of significant others you bring into your home. This may make it easier for your child to attach to your partner, if and when you find someone truly worthy of commitment.”

Whether evaluating the appropriateness, necessity, timing, or manner of introducing a child to a partner, or defining non-parental roles, it is important to note the variation between the needs of a child during early developments stages, as opposed to the needs of tweens and teenagers. The intelligence, experience, understanding, and ability to adapt are also vital considerations, because as every parent knows, no two children are exactly alike.

For example, according to Dr. Dikel, children under the age of six are very self-focused and feel responsible for everything that happens to them in their lives.  As a result, they believe that everything that occurs is due to some action on their part.  If parents have split up or divorced already, the child is probably feeling some level of responsibility for that, and possibly some guilt as well.  For that reason, entering into a new relationship and introducing that non-parent to a child, especially if cohabitating, should be done only after careful contemplation.  Certainly, a parent wants to try to ensure their child does not have to undergo feeling responsible or guilty for the ending of more than one relationship.

Next, parents should assess whether the person they wish to introduce possesses the character traits necessary to be a positive influence on their child(ren). Ask yourself the following: (1) Is this person trustworthy, responsible, and reliable? and (2) Would you have any hesitations or concerns whatsoever in entrusting the care of your child to this person?

Additionally, as a relationship between a parent and non-parent develops, it is important to establish parameters for the non-parent’s role in the child-rearing process. For example, ambiguities in supervisory, disciplinary, or financial roles can cause confusion for the child, in what researchers have referred to as ‘role ambiguity.’ For some parents, it can be helpful and may even be necessary to define parental and non-parental roles in the early stages of dating. Doing so prior to cohabitating, or even prior to the child and non-parent spending substantial time together, is critical.  However, where a parent and non-parent partner are cohabitating, preventing role ambiguities should be considered an indispensable component to protecting your child’s mental well-being.

Of particular note according to Dr. Dikel is that, “Once a child has been introduced to a non-parent with whom a parent has a relationship, the parent should be constantly on guard to ensure that the non-parent is not trying to pressure the parent to choose between them and the child.  These pressures can be direct or indirect and are often insidious.  This issue should be addressed early in the relationship between the parent and non-parent and absolutely prior to the non-parent being introduced to the child.”  If the non-parent does nonetheless attempt to apply the pressure to choose, the parent should remind the non-parent that they will not be forced to choose between the two.  If the non-parent continues on that path, counselling may be helpful, but if not successful, the relationship with the non-parent should be terminated as quickly as possible.

Finally, to help facilitate addressing these concerns, it is helpful to speak with a mental health professional that specializes in providing services geared towards children and families. In selecting a child therapist, or other mental health provider, choose a provider that also has experience in working with legal professionals in child custody matters as well—preferably, a professional that can offer therapy, consultation, and evaluation related services—but that is also qualified provide testimony as an expert witness when/if necessary.

For example, Thomas N. Dikel, Ph.D. is a well-known professional in Gainesville, who continues to offer valuable services both to the clients of the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A., and to the attorneys of our firm as well. His extensive experience in Mental Health Care, noteworthy credentials, and numerous qualifications (i.e. Developmental Psychopathologist, Child Abuse and Neglect Specialist, Forensic Psychologist, Pediatric Neuropsychologist), have led to Dr. Dikel’s success in becoming a respected professional in both the medical and legal setting.

If you have a legal question or concern regarding child custody, the Law Office of Alba & Yochim P.A. encourage you to contact our experienced Gainesville Family Law Attorneys. For non-legal mental health related inquiries, we recommend you seek the services of a qualified professional such as Thomas N. Dikel, Ph.D.

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