Co-parenting children after separation and divorce
Setting the ground rules
If you are newly separated or considering separating you will be caught up in some life altering decision making. The most important decisions are those that affect your children.
There is no one superlative that adequately describes the pain and sadness that goes with the breakdown of a marriage - whether common law, religiously blessed or official. The hopes and dreams that you had are no longer. Your children however are a daily reminder of the love you once had, and may still feel, even after separation.
It is often said, and it is true, that children are resiliant. However they do get very badly hurt during the separation process if the parents do not choose appropriate and respectful behaviour towards the other parent. Failure to do so can lead to mental health, addiction or anxiety later in life.
Create a clear set of ground rules about how you will behave. Write this in the first person. How each of you as a parent will manage co-parenting and communication will really help your child or children in the long term.
Write a values statement to exchange with your former partner that states what is important to you about parenting. Starting off with "our children know they have a mummy and a daddy who loves them" is the gold star version. If you can't manage this, try to include "our" rather than "my" children in the statement. Find and focus on as many points as you have in common rather than what you disagree on about parenting.
Try to keep disputes out of the earshot of your child or children. Remember "little jugs have big ears", so even if you think they are not hearing a telephone conversation they probably are and will certainly pick up on the negative energy. You are human, and we all make mistakes. If this does occur in front of the children, let them know that it is not their fault that you and their other parent are having a fight. Emphasize that both their parents love them.
Practise self care and permit yourself to go through the grieving process with friends and family or others who support you. Get counselling or coaching it the situation becomes overwhelming. Being a healthy parent and putting your needs first will help your children feel safe during this process.
Consider where the child or children should live. Legal words can feel like a loaded gun so consider shared parenting rather than custody and access. So think of those phrases as creating safety for your the children, rather than someone winning.
All decisions should be based on the ages and well being of the children. Quality rather than quantity of time is a key factor as is being financially reasonable.
Approaching this mindfully will help you both clarify what really IS in the best interest of the children It is not about controlling the situation because you are scared. Of course you are scared, it is a big deal and so are your children if they get caught up in the middle of the decision making or, are completely left out of the decision making..
Research indicates that children who have a strong relationship with both parents - even when the parents do not live together thrive. The other factor that is important is reducing stress on the children and too many transitions can create stress for children and parents alike. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/fl-lf/parent/2004_3/cust-gar.html .
Sharing time on an equal basis and moving homes may not be good for small children or teenagers. Sensitive personalities, illnesses and behavioural issues can become more pronounced if the children do not feel at home with the living arrangements or feel caught in a trap.
Mediation or Legal Advice?
Before you approach a lawyer you might wish to consider mediation. Mediation is a framework that helps both parties come to an understanding and agreement - rather than an adversarial blame based approach.
Mediation focuses on the future and on strengths rather than blame and winners and losers Once you have reached a mediated agreement you can independently consult a lawyer, who supports the mediation process. The mediated agreement is then converted into a legal and binding contract. Some lawyers also offer mediation services. Mediation through a non legal mediator, followed by legal consultation, will save you a considerable amount of money and give each party, including the children if age appropriate, a voice. Mediation may be less stressful for everyone.
If your ex partner is abusive or there is a risk to your safety or the safety of your children get help immediately.
In this case mediation is likely not the route for you and you may need police, social workers or transition house services.
If your children have witnessed and or experienced abuse whether it be physical, sexual or verbal find out about local supports for them, such as "children who witness abuse" in your community. Getting the children help and a trained listening ear, play therapist or art therapist will help them now and in the future. It is important for the children to know you are safe for them to talk to, that you will listen to how they feel and that none of this is their fault.
An abusive relationship does not necessarily mean the children cannot have a healthy relationship with your ex partner. Each situation is different and you should always seek professional help and advice following abuse.
Links to resources. The list below offers some resources and reading that may be helpful.
- Welcome to the UK Register of Mediators
The UK Register of Mediators is your assurance of a practising mediator's quality, integrity and accountability.
- Mediate.com - US and World Leading Mediation Web Site - Find Mediators
Mediate.com offers the world's leading directory of mediators plus over 11,000 articles, news items and videos. Mediate.com is Everything Mediation!
- Mediate BC