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Parenting arrangements after separation

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The way in which parents handle separation and divorce has an enormous effect on the way children cope with their lives. 

Contents

After a separation and divorce, most parents want to work out plans for how their children will live. For some this works without too much hassle, but others may need to go to the Family Court to sort out future parenting arrangements. Sometimes parents just can't agree. They may think differently about what is best for their children or they can be caught up in their angry or hurt feelings about each other, and can't talk without arguing.

Most parents have a continuing deep love for their children and a terrible sense of loss during times when they cannot be with their children.

Sometimes parents are worried about their children's safety or care with the other parent. They need somewhere to raise their concerns and have the parenting arrangements for their children clearly spelled out. When parents are unable to come to an agreement about plans for their children the court will make the decisions.

The way in which parents handle separation and divorce has an enormous effect on the way children cope with their lives. 

Note: This topic includes legal issues about divorce, separation and caring for children. The law used in this discussion is South Australian law. It is important to check what the laws are where you live and how these affect your parenting after separation.

What about the law?

 The Family Law Act considers the child's best interests before those of the parents.

A child has a right to:

  • a meaningful relationship with both parents
  • be protected from abuse, neglect or family violence
  • receive adequate and proper parenting to help them achieve their full potential
  • know and be cared for by both parents
  • spend time with and communicate with both parents and other significant people, such as grandparents and other relatives
  • the support and encouragement necessary to maintain a connection with their culture.

The words 'custody' and 'access' aren't used anymore. Decisions made are about where children live (residence) and when they spend time with their other parent (contact). Sometimes decisions are also made about children spending time with other family members, like grandparents.

The law outlines the rights and responsibilities of parents.

  • Children have the right to spend time with and communicate with both parents. It is not about parents' rights to see their children.
  • Parents are expected to share the responsibility of their children, even if the children live mostly with one parent, although this doesn't always work out.

The law expects parents to cooperate. However being involved with the legal system can be very distressing for many parents.

  • It is fine when parents' feelings about the separation have been sorted out and they are enjoying their new lives.
  • It's much harder when they are still feeling hurt.
  • It also becomes really difficult if they are worried that the other parent can't properly care for the children or if they're concerned that their child is missing them.

It's best if both parents can work together on a plan that covers everything affecting the children. This plan is a 'record of agreement' setting out each person's responsibilities towards their children. If you want to make the plan legally binding it should be registered with the Family Court, but many parents prefer to sort it out together and not involve the court.

References:

Family Law Act 1975, latest version 1 July 2014 
http://www.comlaw.gov.au/Details/C2014C00355  

Family Court of Australia 
http://familycourt.gov.au/ 

Your feelings about court

Parents can find it difficult going to court.

The whole process can leave parents feeling bewildered and frustrated and can sometimes drive more of a wedge between them.

Why? Because:

  • things which were private before are now written on paper
  • people may think that the most terrible untruths have been presented about them without proof
  • parents can feel upset about the things said in court or the decisions that are made.

If you're in this situation you may hear things being described in ways you don't agree with or which make you look like a bad parent. It's important to be able to cope with this. You have to be able to tell your side of the story to the judge without being so upset or angry that you can't get across what you mean.

What parents can do

  • Be patient. It can take time to sort things out in court. If you are finding it stressful, find ways to look after yourself. Talk to someone.
  • Remember that the other parent is likely to feel upset as well. This may mean that he or she says some hurtful things, does not tell the whole story, or 'paints a picture' which is quite different from what you believe happened.
  • Make sure you have a break from thinking about court all the time.
  • Ask friends and family not to talk about it at times, even though they are just concerned for you. Find things that can distract you for a while.
  • Make sure you feel comfortable with your lawyer, if you have one, and that your lawyer really understands what you want. After all, the lawyer's job is to stand up for your rights. Keep focused on what your children need.
  • Let the court know, as best you can, how things are. You are going to court because you and the other parent haven't been able to sort things out. It then becomes the judge's decision and you have to find ways to come to grips with it and move on with life.
  • You are there to sort out what's best for your children. Think again if you find you want to 'get even' with the other parent. Don't get caught up in 'winning'. This approach may end up hurting everyone, especially your children
  • Find ways to feel more at ease in the court setting if it is strange and scary. Ask to have a look in a court room before the set date.

Remember: Underneath it all you both love your children - even if you show it in different ways.

Your children's feelings

The hard part for children is that unless they have been really hurt by a parent, they usually want to keep loving and seeing both parents. Sometimes even if they have been hurt by a parent they still might want to spend time or communicate with that parent.

Children:

  • can tell if their parents aren't getting on or are arguing about them
  • suffer if their parents start bringing them into their fights
  • will be emotionally abused if their parents continue to involve them in their arguments.

     Ongoing fighting between parents harms children most of all.

At times like this, parents have to be almost super-human. You have to be able to put your feelings about each other aside. After all, your children didn't separate, you and your partner did.

What parents can do

  • Make the effort to sort things out together rather then going to court. Children often don't know much about court and may think it's about punishment, getting taken away or going to prison. It's important that they don't have these worries.
  • Help your children accept (rather than worry about) Family Court proceedings.

When you feel confused and anxious, your children can quickly pick this up and then feel scared or uncertain. They may feel that they have to take sides. This isn't fair. Just because you and the other parent can't agree, it doesn't mean your children should feel they can't love both of you.

Things to try

  • Think about whether your children have to know you are going to court.
  • If you tell them, simply explain that a judge is helping you and the other parent make a decision. Don't go into details.
  • Don't show your children court papers. While you may want to talk to others don't talk about court in front of your children.
  • Don't let other people talk about the details in front of your children.
  • Even if you think the other parent is being unreasonable, don't tell your children. Find an adult to talk to, a family member, friend (who will listen without getting too upset) or a counsellor.
  • If the other parent is talking about court to your children, let him or her know this is not OK. Court is adult business. If necessary, get the court's help to make this stop.
  • Make sure your children's lives are as normal as possible. Let them keep seeing their friends, play sport, visit other family members.
  • Children need to be allowed to get on with their own lives without having to be troubled by adults' problems.

Court decisions about where children live

Some children live their lives between houses, for example they might live with their parents one week each. Parents need to sort out their feelings for this to work well. They have to keep in touch and up to date about their children's lives. Children can enjoy week-about residence. It lets children stay close to both parents.

Although this takes effort to arrange it can work if:

  • you can communicate with the other parent (if you disagree about something, talk about it when your children aren't there)
  • you don't criticise each other to your children (this confuses them and upsets them because they feel disloyal when they hear these things) 
  • you don't use children as messengers (it's better to speak or write notes to each other, even about the simple things)
  • you don't undermine (put down) the other parent's ways of discipline or routines. If you are strongly opposed then take it up with your ex-partner or go through a third party if you can't talk reasonably to each other. Children can cope with differences but not undermining
  • you both are involved in children's schooling, sport, etc
  • ideally the houses are not too far apart so children can easily see their friends and not have to travel too far for activities
  • each house is set up for your children, so they don't have to take lots of things from one house to the other (you need to be organised)
  • you remember that children's needs change with age (some adolescents decide it's easier to live in one house because of the extra time they want to spend with friends, doing school-work, etc)
  • you keep in mind that children are different. Some children find it easy to live at two houses. Others get confused and find all the changes difficult. If your children don't seem to be coping, talk with the other parent about how to sort out the problem.

Note: Babies and very young children normally do best if they live with the parent they know best and are closest to, with just short times with the other parent at first. You need to go by how it affects your child. Even very young children and babies can show when they are happy and when they are stressed.

Court decisions about spending time with a parent

Sometimes children live most of the time with one parent and briefly with the other, for example every second weekend and part of the holidays.

  • Parents and children then have to get used to seeing each other less often .
  • You have to make a new family life together. This can be difficult for the parent who wants to squash lots of things into a short stay and especially when older children want to keep up with their friends and activities without their parent there.
  • The weekend parent may be seen as the 'fun parent' with whom the child does fun things while the other parent spends a lot of the time 'parenting' which involves discipline, chores and the routine of life.
  • It's important to realise that children usually value the 'all the time' caring even if they seem to resent and complain about the discipline and chores.

Some things which can help

  • Remember that your children are living with you, not just visiting. This means there need to be routines and house rules.
  • Children need relaxing times as well as fun times. It's often in the quiet times that children find it easiest to talk about their feelings.
  • Stay in touch with your children when they are not with you. A quick telephone call lets them know you are thinking about them.
  • Make your house a home for your children. It's important they have somewhere to put their things, and some private space. Have toys, clothes, etc in your house, so your children don't have to live out of a suitcase.
  • Make new traditions for your family such as shared photo albums, favourite games and activities, and special times.
  • Follow through on their appointments and activities (eg parties, dentist) even if you weren't the parent who made the arrangements.
  • If you have a new partner make sure the children still get time alone with you. Your life is moving on, but they need reassurance that they are just as important to you.
  • Some children may not accept your partner and resent the person being around. This may show in their behaviour or they may tell you. Children are often torn between wanting you to be happy and 'feeling good' themselves. If this becomes a problem that cannot be sorted out, you need to think about the best interests of your child.
  • If problems develop with your children not wanting to come on weekends, stay as involved as you can.
    • If your children have a genuine complaint it needs to be sorted out.
    • Sometimes children get caught up in problems between parents and feel it's easier to stop spending time with, or communicating with one parent. Do what you can, even if it means just writing letters and sending cards. Children need to know you will hang in there, even if it's too hard for them to see you at the moment.
  • Make sure you spend time with your child when it is arranged. You need to be reliable otherwise children can feel they are not important to you. Not keeping arrangements can also lead them to distrust you.
  • Your children should see you as often as possible. For some children once a fortnight is not enough. Maybe you can arrange to see them or speak to them during the week as well. For younger children sometimes a tape of a parent's voice is reassuring or a tape of you reading a story can be played at bedtime.

Your relationship with the other parent

You and the other parent will always be parents to your children even though your relationship as partners is over. Sometimes letting go of the hurt and angry feelings from the partnership is very difficult, but if the anger keeps on going your children will be very distressed. If you can't let go, seek help . . . for the sake of your children.

In carrying out your shared responsibilities it can help if you:

  • keep your word (if you have to change arrangements, let the other parent know as soon as possible)
  • remember, the better your relationship with the other parent, the easier it is for your children (even if the other parent is being unreasonable, you don't have to be)
  • don't try to sort things out when you are feeling angry, tired or hurt
  • respect the other parent's privacy (don't walk into their house without being invited, telephone at an unreasonable time or interrupt their special occasions)
  • try for your children's sake to be polite and respectful to the other parent even if you don't feel like it.

Reminders

  • You are going to the Family Court because you and the other parent disagree about what is best for your children and you can't sort it out together.
  • Make sure you put your children's needs first.
  • Children need to feel their wishes are taken seriously even though adults make the decisions.
  • Protect your children from knowing too much about the court proceedings. They need to be allowed to get on with their own lives without having to be troubled by such matters.
  • If things go wrong and you can't sort things out go back to your counsellor, lawyer or the court.
  • It's the responsibility of parents to sort out things like where children live and when they spend time with each parent.
  • Make sure your children know it is okay to love both parents, even though you are not agreeing.
  • Introduce new partners to your children gradually. It's important they don't take on a parenting role too quickly.
  • Expecting that your children will like your new partner can lead to disappointments for all.
  • Providing children are safe, they have both a need and a right to a relationship with both parents.

Resources

South Australia

Australia

More information

The Raising Children Network has many topics in their section

Direnfeld G 'Children and parents adjust to separation'
http://www.yoursocialworker.com/s-articles/separation_adjustment.htm

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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