Working out the parenting arrangements for your children is likely to be at the forefront of your mind as a parent. Parenting, however, can be tough at the best of times so understandably parenting when you are no longer in a relationship with the other parent can be very challenging.
It can be difficult to know where to start. Going to court and having a judge decide matters for you might feel like the easy option, but the reality is a court order is often a very blunt tool which does not always result in building effective long-term parenting plans. It is estimated that about 30% of cases in the family court at any one time are cases involving parents having to return for further assistance within 12 months of a final order being made. So, what tools can help you build an effective long-term parenting plan?
- Awareness of conflict and behaviour
Be aware that conflict is a normal part of family life. What is important to children is how that conflict is dealt with. A prolonged parental conflict that is not constructively dealt with can cause many difficulties for children including behavioural problems, somatic and psychosomatic symptoms, underachievement at school and low self-esteem.
Have an awareness that your children may show their distress in their behaviour rather than words. Children may react in ways that seem attention-seeking or manipulative but their reactions maybe a way of showing their needs and the pressure they are under. The way they show their feelings might cause further difficulties as parents tend to interpret the behaviour differently and give a different meaning to it. Each parent then blames the other for causing the problems.
Protective strategies maybe adopted by your children. For example, they may think “it will be OK as long as I don’t let mum or dad speak to each other” and then they seek to protect you and their other parent as well as themselves by refusing to see one parent even when deep down they want to. Many children try to help their parents by telling each parent what they think that parent needs to hear.
Be aware of your behaviour. Make sure that you are not using disputes over children as a vehicle for unresolved feelings in relation to the breakup.
- Understanding your children’s needs
Providing your children with the following is likely to be what they fundamentally need when their parents are separating:
- Clear explanations, that are appropriate according to their age and understanding, as to what is happening.
- To keep their attachments and relationships with both parents and other important people in their lives for example grandparents.
- Reassurance they are not in anyway responsible for the breakup.
- Permission from each parent that they can go on loving the other parent.
- Maintenance of their usual daily routines as far as possible.
- For you and their other parent to make thoughtful decisions without involving them too much or using them for emotional support.
- To know that you and their other parent is able to cope despite living apart.
- For you and their other parent to have time to play and have fun with them.
- Knowing how to tell the children about the breakup
Explaining the situation to children can be extremely difficult. It is never going to be an easy conversation to have.
It helps to avoid conflicting accounts. Try and have an agreed explanation, appropriate to the age of the child. This should be delivered ideally together if possible and in any event without contradicting or denigrating each other.
The children will need reassurance that the breakup is not their fault, that you both still love them and that you are both sorry about the separation.
Let them know it is OK to feel sad or angry or both as these feelings are natural and that they can talk about them with both of you.
Try to get the message across that you are separating because you no longer make each other happy rather than saying you no longer love each other, as young children may worry that if you can stop loving each other that you will stop loving them too.
- Think about the complementary qualities you both have as parents
It is usual for parents to have different personalities and skills when it comes to parenting.
Think about how these qualities can be used in a complementary way to benefit your children.
Write a list of qualities that you each have that you can each bring to parenting, think about this not just from the point of view of what qualities you can bring but also what qualities the other parent can bring too. These may be contrasting qualities – for example, one of you maybe very organised and structured and the other very spontaneous – your children are made up from each of you, think about how your respective qualities can benefit the children.
- Separated Parents Information Programme
The Separated Parents Information Programme is a course which helps you understand how to put your children first when you are separated from the other parent, even though you may be in dispute with your child’s other parent.
The course helps parents learn the fundamental principles of how to manage conflict and difficulties.
You will not attend the same session as your child’s other parent. You can contact your local provider for more information.
- Online resources
There is lots of information online for separated parents. So much, in fact, it can feel overwhelming and difficult to know where to turn to for reliable information. Here is a list of some of my top online resources for separating parents:
Resolution – Children and the Law – Resolution is the national governing body for specialist family lawyers. Their website contains lots of information for separating parents. Including sections on how to look after yourself, how to maintain relationships with your children, how to help your children deal with their emotions and how to manage life between two homes.
Click Relationships – Parenting Apart – This website allows you to create a free account, share questions and stories with the community, try fun and helpful activities. There is a good short online course you can take to help you learn how to help prevent situations between separated parents getting heated. There are also some really good articles on specific issues such as how to manage handovers, raising a baby after a breakup and parenting apart when you have disabled children.
CAFCASS – Parenting Hub – All the help and advice on this website comes from experts at charities, Cafcass, children’s services providers and the Ministry of Justice. This website hosts the Getting it Right for Children programme. This is an online course that helps demonstrate how different ways of communicating can help separated parents. There are four different stories, which you can engage with. Each story has four videos, which show the situation going wrong and how everyone felt; then the situation going right and how everyone felt. The programme also provides interesting tips to help you develop strategies on how to stay calm, manage anger and communicate better.
Voices in the Middle – This website provides a place for young people to find help when their parents are separating. There is also a section for parents which provides some helpful information in relation to how you can help your teenager as well as a conversation guide.
- Communication Apps
Parenting apart can seem like a logistical nightmare, particularly if communicating with the child’s other parent is for whatever reason difficult for you. There are numerous apps that can help. For example, Our Family Wizard – this app has been designed to help reduce the stress of managing family plans across separate households and has features such as a Calendar, a Message Board (which has a tool that you can use, ToneMeter™, to help to commit to keeping communication positive and productive), and Expense Log and an Info Bank (where you can both store important information such as school schedules, emergency contacts and medical history).
- Online Parenting Plan
If you are looking to create a parenting plan the CAFCASS – Parenting Plan is available free of charge. This includes a guide to help separated parents in decision making concerning their children and working out practical arrangements.
- Family consultant
Many separated parents find it difficult to work out a parenting plan as strong emotions, or unhealthy patterns of behaviour can result in games, blocks or impasse. Family consultants can help. They are therapeutically trained and understand the psychological and emotional difficulties faced by parents who are separated, and the impact this has on their children. They increase insight for the parents and bring clarity to difficult situations to reach decisions. Formulated agreements are then more likely to endure, benefiting the whole family.
For a lot of parents, one of the key tools they need in their toolkit to build a parenting plan is mediation.
Mediation provides a supportive environment where you can talk to your child’s other parent directly in a supportive forum that may not be available to you elsewhere. Options can then be constructively generated and reality checked.
If you and the child’s other parent are able to find workable outcomes together that can then create the foundations for a more constructive parenting relationship moving forward which will ultimately benefit your children.
Within mediation, there is room for creativity and adaptability to meet the needs of you and your children. By way of an example, mediation can take many different formats such as co-mediation, hybrid mediation and child inclusive mediation, mediation alongside the court process and mediation involving professionals such as family consultants or therapists. If an outcome cannot be worked out in mediation then there is always the option of referring the issues to an arbitrator to determine.
We have an experienced team of mediators who can help you. In addition to our trained mediators, we also have expertise in the collaborative process, arbitration and solicitor-led negotiation. Please contact us if you need assistance in working out the terms of a parenting plan for your children.