Dear Judge,

I have strict rules at my home regarding the type of television I allow our son to watch. My coParent does not. Our son returns to my care complaining of nightmares and anxiety as a result of the scary shows he watches with his father. As a result, our son is getting anxiety at night which is causing him to avoid bedtime into the wee hours of the morning. His poor sleep habits are now interfering with his performance at school. Our pediatrician suggested that a psychologist evaluate our son. I want my ex to pay for this since it’s his choices that have led us here. Can the court force him to pay for those doctor visits and any other related medical care?

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It is always difficult when our children are struggling with getting or staying asleep. It is also very challenging when we know they are also experiencing anxiety, nightmares, and difficulty in school. Your question raises many issues: 1) what to do when you and your child’s coParent don’t agree on what media might be appropriate; 2) what to do when anxiety and lack of sleep might be impacting school performance; and 3) whether the court can “force” a parent to pay for medical care.

For the first two issues, there may be multiple reasons why your child may be struggling. Children have nightmares for a variety of reasons. They may or may not be caused by the television or video game habits of the other household. Separation anxiety, family changes, alterations to your child’s routine can all be contributors. I’d also suggest that the conflict and challenges around coParent communication may be an issue.

For a child spending time in two different homes, consistency can be helpful. Where that may not be possible, finding ways to reassure the child that both parents love and care about him can make a difference when addressing his anxiety. Attending school conferences or meetings together to learn about what they suggest can also be helpful because the information about your son would come from these professionals, not either of you. Often it’s more comfortable for coParents who are struggling to get perspective from a neutral party. Similarly, if you are both able to talk with your son’s pediatrician, it can be helpful and can send a message to your child that you are working together to support his well-being and school experience. Perhaps by hearing directly from teachers, the doctor, and, possibly a psychologist, both parents will recognize what might work best for this child. Depending on your son’s age, it can also be helpful if your son can share his nightmares about the shows he’s watching directly with the other parent.

Lastly, Courts in many jurisdictions can make orders for parents to consult with professionals, including psychologists. However, those decisions are made on a case by case basis.  When making those orders, a judge will often decide how costs will be divided. If you are planning on going to Court, it is a good idea to consult with an attorney and check for self-help resources for more information. Before deciding to litigate this issue, however, we recommend giving the coParenter app a try. This free platform can assist with communication between you and your coParent and help you get on the same page about bedtime, homework, school, and media habits. The app even has a scheduling tool that can help reduce conflict and create more consistency as your son moves from one of his homes to the other.  

By working together to look at any and all issues that could be contributing to the problem in both homes, you’ll be showing your son that you’re both committed to doing what’s best for him.

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About Hon. Sherrill Ellsworth (Ret.)

Judge Sherrill Ellsworth (Ret.) is the Chief Community Officer for coParenter.

Ellsworth is the Past Presiding Judge of Riverside County, a Judicial Educator and former Family Law Judge.

After almost 20 years on the bench, she has earned a reputation for being a straight-forward, no-nonsense, fair judicial officer. A broadly talented jurist and settlement expert, Ellsworth has effectively handled complex civil litigation cases, family law, felony criminal trials, probate and general trials throughout her almost 30 years of lawyering and judging. Ellsworth was one of the court's most respected and admired bench officers, earning the trust and revere of her colleagues and the lawyers who appeared before her.

In 2014, Ellsworth was named the Lawyer of the year by the J.Rueben Clark Law Society Los Angeles Chapter. Also in 2014 for her Judicial leadership she was named as an Inductee to Western State University Hall of Fame. And from 2012 to 2014, Ellsworth served as a voting member of California's Judicial Council.

In 2013, Ellsworth was awarded the Douglas Weathers Judicial Leadership Award by the California Consumer Attorneys, as well as various awards for her judicial leadership both as Presiding Judge and for Family Law. In 1999, she was named the American Business Women’s Association Woman of the Year for Judicial Leadership. Ellsworth was appointed vice-chair of the California Court Case Management System Justice Partner Advisory Committee in 2010. She was a member of the Strategic Evaluation Committee appointed by the Chief Justice and of the council’s Trial Court Budget Working Group, Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, Family and Juvenile Law Advisory Committee, and Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants.

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