Separating or going through a divorce is one of life’s most difficult journeys. When you are separating, a lot of legal words get thrown around – custody, residence, contact, access, child arrangements, shared parenting and of course, co-parenting. Understandably, all of this legal jargon can be very difficult for parents to understand.
In recent years, one of the “buzz” words has been ‘co-parenting’. But what does co-parenting after separation or divorce actually mean?
The basic premise of co-parenting is about co-operative parenting. It is about parents sharing the upbringing of their children and the decisions about their children’s welfare.
The legal position on divorce/separation
The starting point during a divorce or separation is that the court leaves it to the parents to decide arrangements for their children’s care between them. In other words, it is for the parents to try to find a way to co-parent together for the benefit of the children and to make joint decisions regarding their children’s upbringing.
Both parents retain what is known as Parental Responsibility for their child. In practical terms, Parental Responsibility means that both parents have to have a say in major, important decisions about the following and final decisions should not be made without the agreement of the other parent:
- Determining the child’s education and where they go to school;
- Choosing, registering or changing the child’s name;
- Consenting to a child’s operation or certain medical treatment;
- Consenting to take the child abroad for holidays or extended stays;
- Determining the religion the child should be bought up with.
If there is disagreement about which parent a child lives with or how much time they should spend with a parent, or if there is disagreement regarding an issue relating to Parental Responsibility which cannot be agreed, then it is open to either parent to make an application to the court for the court to adjudicate on the issue. The court will approach all applications under the Children Act 1989 and apply the factors set out in the welfare checklist. When making any decision about a child the court’s primary consideration is the welfare of that child.
Although court proceedings are always an option they should only be used as a last resort. They are, in the main, costly, lengthy, stressful and may involve long confrontational court hearings. This usually has the effect of entrenching the parents’ distrust and animosity towards each other further, which ultimately has a very negative and long-lasting effect on the children’s emotional wellbeing. The majority of experts and professionals agree that it is much better for children if parents can find a way to successfully co-parent their children together without resorting to the court.
Moreover, issues relating to day to day parenting issues are not within the remit of the court to resolve, for example, discipline, rules around bedtime and routines, what children should wear, which third parties should provide care for the children etc. Very often, it is these parenting issues, which are not legal issues, which cause disputes and disagreements. This is precisely why effective co-parenting is so important.
How do we co-parent successfully?
Co-parenting does not mean a slavish equal split of time spent with each parent or an equal split of day-to-day responsibility and decision-making for every parenting decision. What it does mean in practice is:
- Communicating effectively for the benefit of the child and keeping each other informed about important issues in the child’s life.
- Providing consistent parenting in both households.
- Playing to each parents’ strengths and weaknesses.
- Respecting the other parent and their role in the child’s life, even if they do not spend an equal amount of time with the child.
Top tips for co-parenting
Family Consultant, Kim Crewe provides her top tips for successful co-parenting.
- Think about the time the children have with you as their time rather than your time and as they grow older recognise they will want to have time with their friends in the time they usually spend with you.
- Be reliable, a child’s self-esteem is built upon the knowledge that “I matter”. If you are late without letting the other parent know it can cause anxiety for your co-parent which will then impact on your child.
- Let your child know that mum and dad talk about their best interests so however, challenging your relationship is with your co-parent your child has a sense of ‘mum and dad talk about me’.
- Recognise that children do say one thing to one parent and something different to the other, they do this for parents who live together and are more likely to do it with parents living apart. So, for example, if your child comes back from being with Dad saying, “Dad is going to buy me an iPad”, do check calmly with Dad that this is correct.
- Think carefully about how you ask them about their time with their other parent, it is important that they don’t feel they have to take sides or that you will be cross about something the other parent has done.
- Children can manage to move between their two homes, but they need to feel that the arrangement is not going to cause difficulty for their parents. The handover needs to be pleasant, tell the other parent a bit about what your child has been doing and wish your child a nice time with Mum or Dad.
- Be responsive, respond in a timely and friendly way to texts, emails and calls, if you feel the level of communication isn’t helpful then do discuss this. Begin emails, in the same way, each time so that your co-parent feels some warmth in your approach.
- Children like predictability and parents do too, so setting your arrangements out in a parenting agreement can be really helpful. It can be really useful to be able to go back to a written agreement if things should go awry between you.
Many people involved in a co-parenting arrangement elect to have a written co-parenting agreement.
Drafting a co-parenting agreement can facilitate discussions about what everyone expects and wants for the child’s upbringing and can help flag up areas of disagreement. Discussing such issues helps to minimise the chances of a dispute in the future and reduces the possibility of court applications having to be made.
It is never possible to legislate for everything in advance and of course, circumstances change, so it’s important for parenting agreement to be flexible and for both parents to recognise that it will need to be adapted as the child grows and their needs change.
A co-parenting agreement can set out:
- What role each parent will each play in the child’s care and upbringing.
- How the child’s time will be divided between the parents.
- How a decision will be made on important aspects of the child’s upbringing such as their health and education.
- Day to day issues such as pocket money, each parent’s relationship with the school, making doctor and dentist appointments and how and when to introduce new partners to the children.
The agreement can be as detailed or as flexible as you want, depending on your circumstances.
Co-parenting agreements are not legally binding and will not be determinative in the event of a dispute and an application having to be bought to court, though sometimes they can assist the court in understanding what has been agreed as to what would be best for the child.
Working together with your ex-partner to raise healthy, loving and stable children after a split is rarely easy and can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task, especially if you have a contentious relationship with your ex-partner. But it is possible. There is little doubt that co-parenting amicably with your ex is best for children’s emotional wellbeing and will give them the stability, security, and close relationships with both parents that they need to grow into balanced stable and well-rounded adults.
The specialist team at Family Law Partners take a solution-focused approach to arrangements for children and work with you to find short and long term resolutions. Please contact us to discuss your own unique situation.
Kim has been qualified as a therapist since 1995 and works as a family consultant to families and people who are separating. Kim can be contacted here: https://thecrescentpractice.co.uk/