When you have children, divorce or separation can be an overwhelming prospect. There are so many questions, so many ‘what ifs’, and so many factors to consider. Who will the children live with? Will you be able to stay in the family home? How often will your children see each parent?
Research has shown that children of separated parents find it easier to adjust to changes when they are able to continue to spend quality time with both parents in a consistent and relaxed manner. There are, of course, exceptions to this guideline – and if a child is fearful or anxious about visiting one of their parents it’s important to listen to their reasons and prioritise their feelings. A flexible routine of time-sharing is ideal, allowing you to adjust and adapt to your children’s needs, and accommodate both parent’s schedules.
Working together is key – making things difficult for your ex will only make it harder on your children. Start making plans for co-parenting as early as possible and enter into the separation process with your children’s needs as a priority. Mediation and collaborative family law are effective out-of-court methods for separating parents, and can be a good practical way to create a positive plan of action for your children in the future.
It’s also important to be aware of your children’s varying and changing needs throughout different stages of development. For example: arrangements for a six month old will be vastly different than for a teen. You will need to take your children’s age, existing routine and child-care requirements into consideration when making a plan for co-parenting, as well as any foreseeable changes that may arise during and after separation, such as moving house, changing school, or dividing up holiday periods.
Children may find their parents’ separation more difficult than you realise, but with careful understanding from your child’s point of view, you can ease them happily into their new situation. It’s important to let them adjust at their own pace; don’t insist on a strict division of care or demand that your children spend time with their grandparents. Successful co-parenting comes down to flexibility and collaboration. Your children have the right to a relationship with their parents, but it is up to you to try to make that relationship as loving, supportive, and long-standing as possible, and a large part of that is attempting to cooperate with your co-parent.
Here’s a basic guide to the issues you may wish to consider based on your child’s age:
- Babies (0-12 months): Infants benefit from consistent and familiar routines with their primary caregivers. Feeding and sleeping patterns should take priority, and flexibility is a must – babies’ needs are constantly changing, whether they’re teething or learning to crawl. Babies of separated parents usually spend most of their time with one parent while frequently spending time with the other – for example a few hours twice a week or more. Contact with baby’s extended family, such as grandparents, is important too. After all, they say it takes a village to raise a child, and extra support is always welcome for parents of young children, especially if you’re adjusting to life as a single parent.
- Toddlers (12-24 months): Toddlers are continuously expanding (and testing!) their boundaries, learning new skills, exploring their emotions, and developing physically and mentally. Co-parenting a toddler means keeping each other up to date on your child’s development, routines and (often highly inconsistent) likes and dislikes… Regular time with both parents will be of huge benefit to your child – creating a consistent, familiar environment at each parent’s home will help your child to settle into the transition.
- Preschoolers (2-4 years): Co-parenting a child who attend nursery often becomes more routine-based, fitting in around your work hours and your child’s nursery attendance. Ideally, both parents should have contact with your child’s place of care – either picking up or dropping off regularly. Contact with the non-primary caregiver may however be more suited to alternate weekends and a few non-consecutive nights per week. Children of this age can often be challenging as they begin to explore their independence – prepare for tantrums and tricky behaviour. As co-parents, forming a united front and keeping each other informed of the latest developments is essential to help you work together and make your child feel supported and secure.
- Children (4-6 years): School-aged children will already have a regular routine and it is best to try to keep this as consistent as possible throughout separation. However, kids are very adaptable, and so long as you work with them through any adjustments and respect their need for involvement, you may be surprised at how well they cope with the changes. Children of this age are beginning to become more independent, developing complex language skills as well as exploring the relationships they have with different people. While they may not be able to fully comprehend the implications of separation, children will appreciate frankness and honesty when they have questions. When arranging how to divide time between each parent, you will need to take school and work schedules in mind, but children of this age are likely to be more comfortable with spending longer periods away from their primary carer so you may wish to split care over weekdays and alternate weekend care. You can help your children adjust by making an easy-to-understand chart for them to follow which shows when they’ll be spending time with each parent, and keep in close contact with each other to keep your parenting routine consistent.
- Children (6-12 years): Older children will likely have a much better understanding about separation and how it may affect them. They will also be more independent and flexible in their routines, and it may be useful to invite them to give input to a co-parenting plan so they feel involved and in control. Bear in mind that even though they are growing up fast, older children may still feel vulnerable and anxious about your separation and will need reassurance and understanding. When arranging your co-parenting schedule you may all find it easier to organise longer stretches of care with each parent so as not to disrupt extra-curricular and social routines too much.
- Teenagers: As teens mature they will become responsible for their own routines and begin thinking about life beyond school, but having a solid foundation in their home life is vital to enable their growing independence. Separating when you have a teenager means finding a balance between involvement and support. While teens are more capable of working around new routines and coping with complex emotional issues they will still need your reassurance. Let them be involved in decisions that affect them directly but don’t weigh them down with responsibilities regarding the details of your separation.
Clear communication is essential when making arrangements for co-parenting after separation. If you’re struggling to communicate face to face with your ex, working with a mediator or making arrangements via email can be helpful to provide a ‘buffer’ (as well as ensuring you have a record of your agreements to check back on if things become complicated).
Try to stay flexible and accommodating, and always place your children’s needs and happiness at the top of your priority list. It will take time for you all to adjust to the changes to your lives, but eventually you should find a new routine that suits everyone.
Finally, it’s important to avoid asking your children to make decisions about how to divide up parental care. By all means involve them in the process and ask for their opinions and preferences, but they should not have to ‘choose’ between their parents – even if it’s just for a weekend.
If you’re in need of advice on negotiating children’s issues during separation, or would like to know more about mediation and collaborative family law, please get in touch with our friendly family law team at Frances Lindsay & Co. Our solicitors will be happy to talk you through the options available to you – whether you choose to pursue a court divorce or settle things with a mediator. Let us take the weight off your shoulders and help you plan a positive, effective co-parenting plan.Tags: child based divorce, collaborative family law Thames Valley, divorce solicitor Berkshire, divorce solicitor Buckinghamshire, mediation solicitor Thames Valley, mediator Windsor