How Can A Parenting Plan Help You?
The number one advantage of creating and working with a parenting plan is that it brings clarity for everyone. Clarity for you and your ex, for your children. Clarity for any professionals that support your family if you share it with them.
While children might feel loss and hurt that their parents are separating, by far the most damaging aspect of divorce is when they are used as weapons in power plays. A parenting plan puts the children’s welfare at the heart of decision-making. It provides a clear record of what’s been agreed to. This brings calm to everyone.
How can a parenting plan help you? covers the ins and outs of parenting plans. We consider why they are helpful, what to include, and how to work with your ex to create them. If you have children it’s a must-read!
How do parenting plans help parents?
A parenting plan will set out the main areas of responsibility for children, including concrete issues such as where they are when, as well as more conceptual issues such as how to approach religion and moral upbringing. This means at times of tension you always have something to refer back to.
You will move forward much quicker in your own life if you are clear about what’s happening with the children and when. It is vital for planning. You want to know if it’s your weekend to have the children. Knowing if you are free to organise time away. You don’t want demands from your co-parent to have the children at a moment’s notice if it’s their time with you.
When it comes to bigger decisions like health care, money and religion, you can make agreements to cover these issues in just as much detail that’s right for you and your family. If levels of trust are low on separation, you may feel happier with a very detailed plan covering all bases. But as time moves on, you may alter the plan to reflect the changing needs of your children, and changes in your levels of communication and trust as co-parents.
How do parenting plans help children?
Firstly, just as knowing where things stand will help you move on and create a happier post-divorce life, the same is true for your children. Divorce can feel turbulent and disorientating. Knowing where they will be and when acts as a solid foundation when emotions and other practical issues may be up in the air.
Secondly, children want their parents to get along, even if they understand that their parents can’t live together anymore. Children dislike being put in the middle and asked to choose which parent to spend time with and when. They want you to agree this between yourselves, taking into account their ideas too.
Even though they might not express this, your children also need to know that each parent is comfortable that they spend time with their other parent. Unless there are safeguarding issues children have a right to a relationship with both parents, and a parenting plan can spell this out for everyone.
Are Parenting Plans for everyone?
Are Parenting Plans for everyone? No.
However, they are for more people than they are not. Co-parenting at the point of separation can be challenging, but with patience and a willingness to focus on your children’s rights and needs, it’s often possible to get to a place where you can focus on the children first. So even if you think your ex is a total pillock right now, keep those feelings to yourself and your friends (and me if you’re in The Absolute Academy or working 1:1 with me!) and keep the needs of your children front and centre.
When isn’t a Parenting Plan a good idea? When you or your children’s safety is at risk. If you haven’t read How to Create a Parenting Plan do so now.
Parenting Plans are not always appropriate if you are experiencing domestic abuse either physically or emotionally, or your child’s other parent has been abusive to them. Note that this does not include isolated incidents occurring in the heat of relationship breakdown when your former partner is angry and upset with you but the behaviour is out of character.
Ask for advice
You probably have a gut sense whether you or your ex did something stupid as a one-off, or if there is a pattern of abusive behaviour. If you are uncertain about this seek advice from Cafcass. If your ex has been misusing substances such as alcohol or drugs take further advice – co-parenting may still be possible with additional support.
Put your children first
When you put your children first, it becomes easier to create a Parenting Plan because the focus is on them and their needs, not you and yours. Remember that Parental Responsibility is about all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities that a parent has in relation to their children.
This means that your children’s needs always come first, even if there are times when that is uncomfortable or painful. The legal starting point is your child’s right to spend time with both parents, not your right to spend time with your child.
The law is clear and so is the psychological research – your children need both of you (it’s an extreme and rare case that ends with an order for ‘no contact’ – that decision is made by a court after careful consideration and is not within your power to decide).
As such, the question you and your ex need to ask is:
What do our children need from us, and how can we work together to best achieve that for them?
If your children are old enough, get them involved in designing the plan. Make it fun and let them see that your family does still exist, yes in a different form, but with them still at the centre.
Involving the children is not the same as making them responsible for any decisions – that remains your job! And that they are not responsible for making you or your ex happy either – giving them responsibility for your wellbeing is damaging and abusive.
What should you include in your Parenting Plan?
What you decide to include in your Parenting Plan is up to you – each family is unique. As a basis, you may want to see it as a kind of family contract that you all agree to (age and emotional maturity of children permitting).
You may want to begin by stating that you are both the parents of – name all your children. Include an introductory paragraph that sets out the principles by which you want to parent, for example:
- You both want to put the needs of your children first.
- You want to show respect for your co-parent and your children.
- The emotional and physical health of all family members is important.
- As parents, you accept responsibility for all of your children’s individual needs.
- You seek to avoid aggressive language or behaviour
- As parents, you feel both safe and able to co-operate with one another. You could also state how frequently you will review your plan. This may be more often as you settle into co-parenting, and slow down as you both find your rhythm.
Before you sit down to draft the plan, decide the areas you are likely to agree on and discuss these first. This will help you relax into the process a little more, and help build trust between you.
Handling areas of contention
Move on to areas that are more contentious. Remember the idea is to work together towards a solution! What compromises can be made (on both sides)? Are there interim measures that can be put in place whilst trust or parenting ability develops (for example if you have a young baby)? What support can you get to come to an agreement if needed (for example working with a family mediator)?
Celebration and leisure times are often hot topics: what happens at Christmas (or other religious festivals), school holidays and birthdays? As these can be emotional times for everyone it’s a good idea to get guidelines in the plan while everyone is calm.
Age-appropriate future planning
Now think about situations that might occur in the future. Decide how you’ll deal with emergencies – do you agree on who’s next of kin? Will you introduce new partners (and when)? How will you agree and fund school-related costs such as uniform or trips? All these things can be part of your plan.
If you have young children at some point you will need to discuss issues relating to them growing up: whether they can stay over at friend’s houses, whether they will get driving lessons and who will pay for these, etc. But you may decide to defer that conversation until nearer the time, which is fine. Deal with what you need to right now.
Consider your values
Consider what’s important to you as individuals and what is less so. Some parents want to see a copy of every letter that comes from school, or to be involved in every single GP visit or illness – others are less worried about the more minor health and school decisions. Neither is right or wrong.
What’s important is that the parenting plan is something both you and your ex can abide by. If you can’t agree about specifics, trying to understand the value behind why you want things to be a certain way (for example you want to know about every illness because you want to ensure you can follow up when the child is back in your care, not because you don’t trust your ex) can help you understand each other.
Decide how best you’ll communicate with one another. Phone or face-to-face is best so you can have a conversation. But if that really isn’t possible, will it be email or text? Would you both feel better using an App like Our Family Wizard, which keeps an un-editable record of what you’ve agreed? Remember it’s easy to misconstrue the written word.
It is easy to get heated when talking to your ex, especially if you have recently separated and are feeling raw. Remember to always have the children’s needs as your priority.
Rather than fling accusations such as ‘You always’ or ‘You never’ at each other, stick to ‘I feel’ statements. For example, rather than ‘You are always late to pick the children up on Fridays’ try ‘I feel frustrated for the children that they are left waiting to see you when you are late, as they are so excited.’
Remember this is your Parenting Plan!
Your Parenting Plan is just that – it’s yours, and it can grow and develop as your children do. You do not have to think of every eventuality that may occur for the next ten years – focus on what’s necessary right now and the next six months if that’s all you can cope with. Agree that you will revisit your plan towards the end of an agreed period to discuss what works and what you (or the children) would like to happen differently.
Need my help?
Not everyone finds drafting a Parenting Plan easy. If you’d like my support with putting your plan together or responding to your child’s other parent’s ideas then please reach out. A one-off coaching session can help you with the clarity you need to move forward and develop a plan that works for you all.
Just contact me here to book in a call.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com