Page 8: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 6 - Moving Forward: From a Couple to Co-Parents

When you and your ex-partner were a couple, your interactions as a couple and as parents were bound together. After the separation, you move away from the couple relationship toward forming a new relationship as co-parents. A co-parenting relationship refers to a relationship between parents who are separated or divorced, where the focus of the relationship is on what’s best for the children. While not all co-parenting relationships are the same – they may differ in terms of the parenting schedule or how decisions about the children are made – the key aspect is that both parents are focusing on the child’s interests.

Why co-parenting? Decades of research on the effects of separation on children converge around a consistent finding that the vast majority of children do better when they have a meaningful relationship with both parents.

  • In general, children do best when their parents are actively involved in their lives. This is true for all families, separated or not.
  •  When parents are more involved with their children, children are less likely to have conduct and emotional problems, or problems with school achievement.
  • When asked, the majority of children want contact with both parents on a regular basis.

Children Want and Need Both Parents in Their Lives

Parenting with an ex-partner can be exhausting and infuriating, especially after a painful split. It can be extremely difficult to get past the difficult history you may have had with your ex-partner and overcome any built-up resentment. Making shared decisions, interacting with each other at drop-offs, and just speaking to the person you would rather forget all about might seem like impossible tasks.

But while it is true that co-parenting isn’t an easy solution, children benefit when parents work together to focus on their needs. (See box What Is Family Mediation? Whether children have a father and a mother, or two mothers or two fathers, their need for the loving involvement of each parent is the same. Both parents are important to children for emotional support, protection, guidance, sense of identity and their basic trust and confidence in themselves and in the world.

Fathers also Play an Important Role

The critical role played by mothers in children’s development is widely acknowledged. In families headed by a mother and a father, research is now highlighting the importance of fathers in children’s development. Studies show that children do better when their fathers are regularly involved in their care and form close bonds with them. The same is true after their parents’ separation. Both boys and girls benefit from the involvement of fathers who consistently provide emotional support, praise accomplishments, discipline misbehaviour, and support their schoolwork and activities. In fact, studies show that fathers can greatly contribute to children’s learning and ability to get along with others when they are consistently affectionate, supportive and involved.

As they grow older, children of involved fathers tend to have better social connections with their peers, do better in school and have fewer behaviour problems.

Another important way fathers can positively influence their children is indirect – by the way in which they interact with the mother. In other words, the quality of the parenting relationship between the mother and father has been shown to significantly strengthen both parents’ ability to foster their children’s well-being.

What is Family Mediation?

Family mediation is a dispute resolution process to help separating or divorcing parents resolve their problems and to develop co-parenting agreements out of court. It gives you the power to make your own decisions and to settle your own differences. Mediation works if both parents are willing to cooperate. Mediation can help you:

  • separate your spousal role from your parental role
  • focus on your children's needs
  • concentrate on the present instead of the past
  • explore various alternatives for resolving your differences
  • reach an agreement on a parenting plan or other parenting issues

Mediation may be a good option when both of you have a desire to work toward a fair arrangement that protects the best interests of your children. Depending on the unique family circumstance, mediation may not be appropriate when there is violence, child abuse or neglect, chronic alcohol or drug abuse, or serious psychiatric illness on the part of one or both parents.

In mediation, a neutral professional helps you work out a plan on how to care for and share decisions about your children after separation or divorce. A solution agreed to by both of you is usually better than a solution imposed by an outsider, such as a judge, who doesn’t know your family. Rather than pitting you against each other, mediation helps build the capacity of parents to communicate and work together on behalf of their children.

Mediation requires considerable effort. Negotiating with a former spouse in the middle of a break-up may seem impossible for some people. However, the effort you put into the process can help reduce future conflict and ensure that the best interests of your children are kept as the focus of discussions.

The Mediator's Role

The mediator you choose may be a lawyer or a mental health professional with specific training in family mediation. It is the mediator's role to help the family as it reorganizes, and to guide the decision-making process without taking sides or making decisions. Although the mediator must be skilled in family dynamics, child development, conflict management and the law, the mediator is not there to provide legal advice, to write a binding contract or to provide therapy. Rather, the mediator may help you look at things in a different light, give you options and help you look at the pros and cons of the various alternatives in a cooperative way. The mediator does not pressure either of you into a particular position, but invites both of you to share what you are prepared to do for the sake of the children’s best interests.

The Mediation Process

The principles of mediation are the same whether dealing with parenting issues or financial matters, whether dividing parenting time or family assets. The mediator tells you about the process of separation or divorce and what decisions and issues you may face. The mediator provides information and helps you understand your roles during and after your separation or divorce.

Involving Children in Mediation

Children (generally over the age of 5) may be involved in some parts of the mediation process. The mediator may wish to:

  • give children opportunities to discuss their views about decisions affecting them
  • give children and teenagers an opportunity to talk about fears regarding their parents' separation or divorce (this might include drawing pictures or writing a letter to their parents)
  • gain an understanding of the children's unique developmental needs

(See Section 11 – Resources for information on how to find family mediation services in your area.)

“Getting to Yes” for the Children

Without a doubt, putting aside relationship issues to co-parent your children may be one of the most difficult and stressful tasks you take on. (See box “I Do” Agree to Co-Parent”.) But keep in mind that when parents reduce conflict and put their efforts into providing the best parenting possible in their own homes, a major positive change can occur in their children’s lives. Why? Through co-parenting, your children should recognize that they are more important than the conflict that ended the relationship – and understand that your love for them will prevail despite changing circumstances. In addition, children are more likely to:

  • Feel secure. When confident of the love of both parents, children adjust better to the separation and have better self-esteem.
  • Benefit from consistency. Co-parenting fosters similar rules, discipline and rewards between households, so children know what to expect, and what’s expected of them.
  • Better understand problem-solving. Children who see their parents continuing to work together are more likely to learn how to effectively and peacefully solve problems themselves.
  • Have a healthy example to follow. By cooperating with the other parent, you are establishing a life pattern your children can carry into the future.

“I Do” Agree to Co-Parent

In our society, there are rituals and ceremonies for birth, for graduation, for marriage, and death. Not so when it comes to separation and divorce. But if there were such a ritual for parental separation or divorce, it might resemble a “ceremony” that formally changes the nature of the relationship between partners. Such a ceremony would acknowledge the grief, loss and anger associated with the dissolution of the personal relationship and formally recognize a new and different relationship as co-parents of the children. The foundation for this “co-parenting” relationship is the parents’ love, commitment and optimism for the children. The justification for this ritual can be found in the wealth of research demonstrating that children do better when they have a meaningful relationship with both parents, whether the parents live together or not. At the centre of this ritual, the children experience a safe environment in which to openly share their thoughts, feelings and desires with the adults who love them. The children’s input is repeated back by the parents to ensure that they have correctly understood what their children have expressed. The ending of the ceremony connotes the beginning of the parents’ work to develop a parenting plan, with the best interests of the children at the top of their minds.

Without a formalized custom, there are, thankfully, a variety of services and resources designed to help keep both parents involved and minimize parental conflict – no matter how painful the split.

Choosing the Best Option for Reaching Agreements

When you’re deciding together which parenting arrangement is best for your children and other issues like child support, there are many ways to come to a decision.

You can reach an agreement with the other parent through negotiation (with or without a lawyer), through mediation, or through collaborative law. Or, you can have someone else decide the issue through arbitration (available in some provinces) or by going to court. These are all different types of “dispute resolution.”

When relationships end, most parents can agree on how they will parent their children without going to court. Court is costly, time-consuming and stressful. Going to court generally increases the animosity between parents and reduces the chances of them ever working together to raise their children.

A Parenting Plan: The Co-Parenting Management Tool

A parenting plan is a written document that outlines how parents will raise their children after separation or divorce. A parenting plan, developed with the best interests of the children in mind, lays out how your children will spend time with each parent; how you will make decisions about your children; how you will exchange information and communicate about your children; how you will handle appointments and extracurricular arrangements for your children; and how you will resolve disputes.

As you review this section, it’s a good idea to read the guides on the subject produced by your province or territory and by Justice Canada. The following documents are available on the Justice Canada website:

  • Making Plans: A Guide to Parenting Arrangements After Separation or Divorce provides helpful information about parenting after separation and divorce and how to decide on the best parenting arrangements for your children. It also includes a helpful glossary of legal terms related to parental separation and divorce.
  • The Parenting Plan Checklist provides a list of issues for parents to consider when developing a parenting plan.
  • Parenting Plan Tool provides examples of clauses for parents to use in developing a parenting plan.
  • Federal Child Support Guidelines: Step-by-Step provides information on options for reaching agreements about child support issues.

(See Section 11 – Resources for more information on these guides.)

Setting aside hurt and anger. The key to co-parenting is to focus on your children – and your children only. Co-parenting is not about the past, or who did what to whom but about the children’s stability and well-being. In the process of co-parenting, your own emotions – any anger, resentment or hurt – you need to take a back seat. This is not to say that your feelings aren’t justified or that you don’t deserve to have your needs met. On the contrary, there is a time and a place for you to focus on your needs. (See Section 2 – Taking Care of Yourself: Inside and Out for information and tools designed to help you feel better and get your own needs met.)

It all begins with your mindset. Think about communication with your ex-partner as having the highest purpose – the well-being of your children.

When Cooperative Co-Parenting Seems Impossible: Parallel Parenting

For parents who feel overwhelmed by their own feelings of anger, grief and loss, sitting down with a former partner on a regular basis to engage in a civil discussion about raising the children may seem out of the question. If it seems impossible for one or both of you to communicate without fighting or name-calling, but you are both involved parents, there is a way to co-parent with minimal contact with your ex-partner.

This approach is called “parallel parenting.”

Parallel parenting is actually a term adapted from child development theory. Very young children, under age 3, can learn to play next to one another – in a room, playground or sandbox – before they learn to play cooperatively and share their toys. This works as long as they leave each other alone and don’t try to take each other’s toys, throw sand or interrupt the play in some other way.

With parallel parenting, parental responsibilities are divided and each partner parents fairly independent of the other. Parents communicate with each other only when necessary, in a business-like fashion and only about issues directly related to the children.

In some cases, as strong feelings subside with time, parents are able to shift to a more cooperative form of parenting. In other cases, parents may continue to parent in “parallel” with one another for quite some time. Remember – no matter what form of co-parenting you are doing – it is important to focus on what’s best for your children and to shield them from parental conflict. (See box Cooperative Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting.)

Cooperative Parenting vs. Parallel Parenting
Cooperative Parenting … Parallel Parenting …
Parents communicate more freely and directly on large and small issues. Parents communicate little and by neutral means, such as by e-mail. They do communicate in children’s emergencies.
Parenting plans can be flexible and negotiable. Parenting plans need to be very specific and detailed to avoid conflict and reduce the need for communication.
Transfers of children can be direct. Transfers occur at neutral locations, such as school, daycare or at an extracurricular activity (for example, one parent may drop off while the other picks up).
Parents consult and discuss their children. Parents inform one another on issues about the children by e-mail.
The two households are able to cooperate with each other. The two households operate independently … “This is what we do in Mom’s house; this is what we do in Dad’s house.” However, remember that younger children thrive when they have consistent routines.
Differing parenting styles can be discussed. Discussion of parenting styles is off-limits.
Communication can be more general. Communication is strictly limited to issues about the children.
Meetings can be informal. Meetings, if they occur at all, are scheduled, time-limited, formal and may require a third party such as a counsellor, mediator or parenting coordinator.
Understandings may remain unwritten. Decisions related to parenting should be clearly written and shared, for example by e-mail, for clarification and agreement.
No third party needed. Third parties such as counsellors, mediators or parenting coordinators may be essential to work out changes or disagreements.
Parents are able to talk positively to the child about the other parent. Parents do not talk about each other in front of the children.

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