Samantha Newton and Megan Prideaux from the family team of Ashfords solicitors on Bristol offer expert advice for the co-parenting of children
The transition from parenting children whilst living under the same roof to co-parenting from separate households brings with it unchartered challenges for separating couples.
Parents face not only the children’s new weekly arrangements but also thinking about how they will split the holidays and the logistics of everything that comes with children’s routines. Key milestones also need to be discussed such as choosing a nursery or school and making important medical treatment decisions. For those that are new to co-parenting or a finding certain aspects of it difficult, consider the following…
THE DAY-TO-DAY ROUTINE
The child or children’s weekly routine, once they live between two houses, is often an immediate priority after separation. There is no right answer or one size fits all approach as to how much time the children should spend at either home, or in what pattern they should move between homes. Assuming it is in the children’s best interests, it is often appropriate for there to be a shared care arrangement. Finding a routine that enables both parents to care for the children around work and other commitments can also be difficult, especially where parents work shifts or are not in a job with set hours.
Some parents agree a seven day rolling arrangement during term time where the children spend a week with each parent. Others agree a fortnightly routine whereby the children spend time during the week and every other weekend with each parent. The children’s ages, distance between your homes, work and other factors may be important in deciding what works for your family. If possible, agreeing for there to be some flexibility in the arrangements can also take the pressure off whilst maintaining stability for the children.
THE BIG DECISIONS
Usually both parents will have parental responsibility and so have the right to be involved in these decisions. When it comes to the big decisions such as where your child should live, go to school or what is best for their health, discussing these issues early and head on is key. For example, start discussing schools well in advance of the application deadlines so that you both have time to research, visit school open days and work out what you consider to be best for your child. You can attend the schools together, or organise separate visits.
If you are not in agreement as to the best school for them, you then have time to reflect and seek advice or extra support to come to that decision together. For example, you could attend mediation to work through your views and come to a solution. As a last resort, the court can make decisions as to the best school for a child to attend or any other specific issues you cannot agree on. If the children are already at school, it is sensible to notify the school of your separation and ask that they send school reports, new calendars and key school events such as school plays and parent’s evenings to you both.
EXPECTATIONS AND BOUNDARIES
Setting out from the beginning how the two of you wish to communicate about the children, whether that be face-to-face or over email, as well as what will happen in an emergency scenario, is useful. Once the new arrangements are up and running, it can be a difficult adjustment period for both children and parents. Whilst the children are with one parent, consider putting in place a routine for telephone or video calls with the other parent so they can keep in touch.
Children are resilient and it is important that they get good quality time with the other parent too, so try not to over-do it with the calls, perhaps have this on a set day and time and help them settle into the routine.
Communicating what you both expect and want to happen helps to prevent issues further down the line and makes sure you both know where you stand. It is also important to agree behaviours with each other – for example, agreeing not to discuss adult issues with or in front of the children, avoiding quizzing the children about a new partner or asking questions which may put them in an awkward position. Children have a natural desire to please both parents, and often may be saying things because it is what they think you want to hear. It is really important to keep children out of adult issues.
Cafcass, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, is an independent body designed to promote the welfare of children and families in the court setting, even if you are not involved in the court process. Its website would be a good starting point and contains some really useful resources for separating parents, including an outline parenting plan.
If you are finding it difficult to reach a decision as to what is in the best interests of the children, or are struggling with the communication aspect of co-parenting or handovers, then there is external support available. Parents who are at an impasse can think about attending family mediation to talk through the areas in dispute and come up with a parenting plan for the children’s arrangements together. Family therapy or separate counselling or coaching can also be helpful to work through any emotional barriers. There are also third parties who can help, such as independent social workers.
In addition, separated parents information programmes are available privately, as well as through the court process, for parents who are struggling with co-parenting or have recently separated. These courses are hugely beneficial to help parents understand separation from a child’s point of view and to learn principles of how to manage and reduce the impact of conflict on their children.
Parents would not usually attend the same sessions and so it is a safe space to explore the impact of your own separation for your children. We encourage most, if not all, of our clients to attend these courses. The course providers for the local area can be identified through Cafcass. Consider reaching out for support early on to prevent issues from escalating and damaging your relationship further.