Tools for change-towards a child focused outcome

As a family lawyer or Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner (FDRP) we have an obligation to ensure discussions with our clients, and any action or outcomes, comply with our duty to the court[i], and our obligations under the legislation. [ii] How do we fulfill these responsibilities if our clients refuse to co-operate? What strategies can we use to facilitate the required approach? I propose to explore what it is to have a child focused approach and to discuss some strategies for achieving this in family disputes.

Obligations as advisors

We are mandated to view the best interests of the child as the paramount consideration.[iii] The objects of the Family Law Act are very clear, and provide that the best interests of the child are met by:

  • Ensuring that both parents have a meaningful relationship and involvement in their children’s lives; [iv]
  • Protecting children from physical or psychological harm;[v]
  • Ensuring that children receive adequate and proper parenting:[vi]
  • Ensuring that parents meet their duties and responsibilities.[vii]

Guidance on what this means is provided by principles that underlie these objects:

  • Children have the right to be cared for by both parents; [viii]
  • Children have the right to spend time and communicate regularly with both parents and other important people; [ix]
  • Parents jointly share duties and responsibilities for their children; [x]
  • Parents should agree about future parenting; [xi]
  • Children have the right to enjoy their culture. [xii]

In the context of parenting disputes the approach that is consistent with the legislation is “child focused”. This assumes that parents are capable of putting the needs of their children ahead of their own. An ability to do this depends on many factors and is rarely the same for each parent. The ability to do this is of particular relevance for FDRPs, who must work with both parents in the Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) process.

Some of the factors that impact on this ability can include:

  • The stage in the separation process;
  • The length of time since separation;
  • The presence of overwhelming strong emotion;
  • The conflict between the parents;
  • Any difficulties in communication between the parents;
  • The different understandings as to the children’s needs;
  • The differing views as to the impact on the children of the circumstances surrounding the separation;
  • Family violence;
  • Substance abuse issues;
  • Mental health issues;
  • Any significant changes in the family structure;
  • The presence or absence of significant supports.

Many clients when they present with some of these factors are not capable of differentiating the needs of their children from their own needs. Neuroscience provides insight as to why this might be the case.[xiii]

Assistance from neuroscience

Many clients in a time of crisis are stuck in the “Croc brain” sometimes described as the “reptilian brain”. This is the part of the brain that is the most primitive, instinctive and hard wired. In a state of fear and terror, the reaction to messages is to interpret them in terms of danger, and flight, fight or freeze.

A mother might be terrified that her role as mother is under threat, and that her past primary function as carer and nurturer of her child, is being undermined. She could interpret any attempt by the father to spend time with the child as a threat to her position, to panic about what the consequences might be, and to freeze and maintain her position not to relinquish any part of what has given her meaning and purpose in the past. We may see such a mother saying that she will only allow time at a contact centre, or after a parenting skills course, or in her own presence. She would be focused on her need to protect her role as the primary carer, and cannot even consider that this might be inconsistent with her child’s needs.

The father might be frightened that he is being shut out of his child’s life and that he can sense his connection with his child is weakening and diminishing. He will not be able to see any attempt by the mother to restrict his time with the child, as anything other than an act by her to punish him for the separation or deny him his right to be a father. He is fearful that his role as a father is being undervalued. This might be where you hear a father saying that regardless of not having spent much time with the child over the many months since separation, this has not been his fault and there is no reason why he cannot have regular and significant time with the child immediately. He has a personal need to have his role as a father validated, and cannot see that this might not be consistent with his child’s needs!

What can we do to move such parents from being stuck in this rut, to a place where they might be able look past their own needs and consider those of their children?

The croc brain is located at the core of the brain near the brainstem. This is the part of the brain focused on fear and survival. The mid brain, also known as the limbic brain, is located at the centre of the brain. This is the part of the brain that provides meaning and explains the social setting. The neo or frontal cortex is at the outer edge of the brain, and performs the reasoning and problem solving functions.

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Some strategies that will promote this include:In our dealings with our clients we need to facilitate their cognitive functioning being raised from the crocodile brain, through the filters of the mid brain, and to the rational functions of the neocortex.

  • Promoting a feeling of safety;
  • Ensuring a message is non-threatening;
  • Being clear and simple in presentation;
  • Focusing on the here and now;
  • Using concrete facts;
  • Assuming a short attention span;
  • Using images including visual images, that are new and exciting!

I want to focus on two main skills of FDRPs that achieve this goal.

  1. Reframing; and
  2. The use of a solution focused model.


A frame is a border that encloses something to be viewed.

Each parent presents with their own frame through which they interpret the situation and provide their individual perspective. These are very different and therefore result in vastly different scenes and outcomes.

In the examples discussed above, the mother has a frame around her picture with herself firmly in the middle as primary and sole carer of the child, the child clinging to her, and the father in the background as a menacing force. The father has the mother in the middle with the child hidden behind her, he forced out to the fringes of the picture, not part of the parenting scene at all. The FDRP must provide a different frame with the child in the foreground and both parents on either side. [xiv]They must come to see what the child needs from them, to comply with their obligations pursuant to the objects and underlying principles of the Family Law Act.

We do this by changing the border in favour of the child. The issues can then be seen in this context and from the perspective of the child. We translate the issues and the discussion into the language of child focus. This allows parents to let go of their fear for the future and the pull of the crocodile brain, to consider the meaning of the situation for the child in the mid brain, and move through these filters to use the reasoning and problem solving skills of the neo cortex. In this way individual needs can be put to one side, with focus on the needs of the child.

By reframing the discussion around the child, it is possible for both parents to bring colour and detail to the images of the child within this frame. By focusing on the needs of the child in this setting, the parents are likely to be able to be able to discuss their mutual role as parents in this context. At this point, the FDRP can use their solution focused skills to facilitate joint problem solving for the benefit of the child.

Using our example, the mother will be encouraged to describe the child, their interests, needs, likes and dislikes-their routine, their hobbies, their friends, their strengths and weaknesses. The child will become not only an extension of her, but an individual in their own right. She could be asked to consider what the child would need right now as well as in the future to achieve what she hopes for them, and perhaps to think of how she would like them to think when they look back on this difficult time in their life.

This information would be shared with the father, and he will be asked to contribute to the creation of a colourful and detailed picture of the child, their needs, and his hopes for them now and in the future. In this way a mutual image will be created as common ground and a foundation for mutual problem solving.

A Solution Focused Approach

At this point, we are able to discuss what the parents want for their child in the future, what they want to change and how they want to make that happen. The solution focused model provides for a focus on hope, optimism, self-efficacy, resilience, competencies and possibilities. This is designed to strengthen their relationship and encourage trust and respect between them. [xv]

It is important to frame the discussion around a parenting relationship that can benefit them both. [xvi]This depends upon communication and trust as the fundamental features of a cooperative parenting relationship. A mutual commitment to developing these aspects of their parenting is crucial to the course of their conflict and their progress towards their goals. An exploration of their interdependence, as well as their independence can aid understanding of how their fates are woven together and the need for a mutual approach. [xvii]

Even the ability to discuss a different idea or emotion in an FDR can create change. This experience, the mental act of focusing attention, stabilizes the associated brain circuits, that can lead to physical changes in the brain structure. Identifying and creating new behaviours by picturing them in the mind will develop new mental maps with the potential to result in behavior. [xviii]

By maintaining a child focused approach in a series of FDR sessions, this attention can reshape the patterns of the brain, and new circuits are stabilized and developed. In our example, initial difficulties in looking at the situation from the child’s perspective will become easier over time and with repetition.

To participate in this journey, our parents must be able to contribute information about themselves and the child to this discussion, to take on board even a limited amount of knowledge and guidance as provided by the FDRP, but above all, to have imagination and the ability to consider hypothetical questions. They must be able to discuss and consider a situation different from what has been occurring and given rise to the dispute. This gives rise to the hope that things might be different. [xix] 

The Journey to Resolution

Setting goals is a step that FDRPs are familiar with. However, the nature of these goals are vital to maintaining a client’s commitment to the process of FDR. Goals should stretch them in the sense of being challenging, but must at the same time be easy enough to be accomplished. They should cover all aspects of the journey to attain resolution-set the destination to be reached (the goals), the road map that is to be covered to get there (the pathway), as well as the means of transport (the agency). [xx]

The goals should be developed in terms of reaching towards a better situation in the future. In our example they might be framed as achieving a meaningful relationship between the child, parents and other important people such as cousins and grandparents. In this way they will increase motivation and provide high hope for positive change in the future.

The pathway to achieving these goals should involve the belief that there are multiple ways to reach them, and that the parents have the ability to plan the direction and road map. They should consider short and long term aspects, and be encouraged to develop options that are challenging but also attainable. Our parents should have a sense of confidence that the journey may require some effort but this will be worth it in the long run. This links the present to the future and the image of a better place to come.

The agency or the way down this pathway, requires a conviction that there is the inner determination to implement this plan even when faced with obstacles. Feedback regarding successful progress is important to reinforce the goals, confirm motivation, and ensure progress. Review sessions would be crucial for our parents to hear positive feedback about their achievements and gains in moving closer to their destination. [xxi]

All of these components are intertwined and work together. It is the joint development of the goals, the working together towards a co-parenting relationship, and the mutual achievements reached for the benefit of their child as reinforced in the joint FDR process, that is the “critical element for achieving harmony in human relations”. [xxii]

Positive emotions as the key to success 

We have seen that when stuck in crocodile brain, our parents are likely to be dominated by the negative emotions of fear, flight and fight that are linked with survival and trigger a narrow and egocentric view of the situation. When presenting the conflict, the attention of each parent narrowed and limited their ability to engage in the FDR process.

In contrast, focusing on the child can bring about positive emotions that broaden awareness and facilitate novel, varied and exploratory thinking. Looking at a photo of a child and talking about them in detail, is likely to bring a parent to a positive space, where they can share the achievements, interests and special features that only they as a parent of that child can appreciate. No-one else is likely to take the same amount of pride in that child’s day to day achievements!

The introduction of these positive emotions aligns both parents and broadens their thought-action repertoire, so that they can build enduring personal resources to assist their family physically, intellectually, psychologically and socially. Their patterns of thought will become more flexible, unusual, creative and inclusive. Their thinking will be more efficient and open to information and options. This will undo the effect of the negative emotions they initially presented with. [xxiii]


All family lawyers and FDRPs must aspire to a child focused approach in parenting matters. To be effective at facilitating this for our clients, we need to appreciate the information from neuroscience and psychology about how the brain impacts on ability to reason and problem solve. This informs us about how to approach our clients in a way that enables us to set clear goals that focus on the future, designing pathways to achieve goals, motivation to achieve these goals, and to provide feedback to support this achievement.

[i] Rule 3 of the Legal Profession Uniform Law Australian Solicitors Conduct Rules 2015

[ii] S60D of the Family Law Act

[iii] S60CA of the Family Law Act

[iv] s60B(1)(a)

[v] s60B(1)(b)

[vi] s60B(1)(c)


[viii] s60B(2)(a)

[ix] s60B(2)(b)

[x] s60B(2)©

[xi] s60B(2)(d)

[xii] s60B(2)(e)

[xiii] There are many texts on this subject. Some include: “Pitch Anything” by Oren Klaff; “Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being” by martin Seligman; “Handbook of Solution-Focused Conflict Management” by Frederike Bannink.

[xiv] Jenny McIntosh, Child psychologist, in her materials provides a very good visual reframe of a bridge between the parents with the child standing on this bridge. Without a good co-operative alliance the bridge starts to crumble and the child is likely to fall. With good solid co-operation the bridge is strong and the child is safe! This can be found at

[xv] “Handbook of Solution-Focused Conflict Management” by Fredrike Bannink, page 3 referred to the “Handbook”

[xvi] sometimes referred to as the “win-win” for example in the materials by Fisher and Ury, or as non-zero sum games in the Handbook page 6

[xvii] Handbook page 7

[xviii] Handbook page 8 as well as Martin Seligman “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive psychology to Realize Your Potential for Behavioural Change”.

[xix] Handbook page 9

[xx] Handbook page 11

[xxi] Handbook page 11 and 12

[xxii] Handbook page 13

[xxiii] Handbook pages 14 and 15

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