Why we don’t talk about “Child Custody” in Australia, and how it matters.

If the idea of “custody” reminds you of jail, prisoners or ownership, you’re not alone. If you feel that it’s an uncomfortable word to use about children, so did many other people, and that’s why officially we don’t use “custody” in the context of Australian Family Law anymore.

You could argue that it’s just a word, and we all know what is meant by it, which is true. But as with many words, it can have a power beyond its face value. “Custody” must be an uncomfortable word for children to digest about themselves. Not only because of the idea of them being the prisoner of their parents, but maybe it even sounds like they are prisoners of their parents’ war?

Today we have much healthier terminology, and a much healthier approach to what is in the best interests of children and their right to a meaningful relationship with both parents. We speak about children “living with” and “spending time with” their parents. Different isn’t it?
In the old days, psychologists talked about “custody” and “access”, because that was the language of family law. Many of them have told me that they strongly disliked having to use those words, and that the changes made to the language in the 2006 Family Law Act reforms were most welcome.

We have a long way to go yet, but separating parents are getting more information and are able to think more about child psychologists as a friend of their family at a critical time, and the change in language helps that. It was surely disempowering to be told that the other parent would have “custody” and you would have “access”. It is the kind of language that set parents up to think and talk in the language of dispute, not in the language of constructive co-parenting.

Defensiveness is “our primary means of self-protection and thus leads us directly into power struggle”. Sharon Strand Ellinson, “Taking the War out of our Words”.
Today, parents can talk to a psychologist about living arrangements and the time their children will spend with each of them. Not only is that more like the way people normally speak, but it doesn’t carry coded messages about power, rights and winning, that the old language reflected.

In my practice, I assume that parents will benefit from a child specialist psychologist when they are in the throes of separation. For most families, creating Parenting Plans is a new and difficult experience, and one they are usually happier to get through with some help. Especially from professionals who can now use co-operative sounding words, not war-like words that remind us all of children as objects in a tug-of-war.

We are not yet in a perfect world of co-parenting after separation, but taking the war out of some of the important words about parenting is a definite positive.