WHAT'S PRACTICAL AND BEST FOR YOUR CHILDREN?
When you and your partner separate, probably the first thing you will want to agree on is your children's living arrangements.
Many different kinds of arrangement are possible. In some cases, parents have been able to make arrangements allowing the children to spend an equal amount of time living with each parent.
However, in most cases, children live with one parent and spend time with the other parent on a regular basis. Equally, for practical reasons, one parent may have to make certain day-to-day decisions about the children without consulting the other.
Usually both parents want to play a full role in their children's lives and it can be difficult to agree on living arrangements. The most important thing to consider here are your children's needs, and what arrangements will provide them with stability and security at what can be a very difficult time in their lives.
Most children benefit from maintaining real and lasting involvement with both parents, so you should plan living arrangements which will allow this to happen. Regular visits may be best. Alternatively, short or prolonged periods when the children stay overnight might work better. The time spent with each parent should be sufficiently often and for long enough to help parent and child to strengthen the bond beneficial to both of them.
"Why do I have to go for contact visits at the same time every week? Sometimes I have other things to do with my mates but it's no use saying anything. I don't know who decided. Nobody asked me."
Time - quantity and quality
When a family all live together under the same roof, parenting is a simpler matter. After separation, parents have to be better organised. You and your former partner need to co-operate not only about allocating the time you will each spend with the children but also to ensure that good use can be made of that time. The over-used phrase "quality time" is important.
In circumstances where children are living with one parent, it is essential that the other parent can spend enough time with them so that this contact is enjoyable and relaxed for the children and not seen as a chore or a duty. So think about all the options, including overnight stays, weekends and holidays rather than just falling into a regular pattern such as every other Sunday.
You and your former partner might be able to agree that the one who doesn't normally live with the children can spend time with them in the house where the other lives with the children. This is an arrangement that could suit younger children, though naturally there would need to be a high level of trust and understanding between parents for this to work.
Whatever arrangements you come to, remember that your children need to feel that both of their parents are actively involved in their lives. You should each agree to encourage your children to enjoy the time they spend with the other parent and promote the strengthening of the bonds between them. Be sure to find out from your children what they really want.
Feelings between you and your partner may be running high before, during or after your separation. Do try to recognise the effect that separation has on your children and put them first. Some children are left with a fear that somehow they may be to blame. Many wish, no matter how unrealistic it may be, that you will get back together again. You may be very angry with your former partner, but it is important that your children are not caught up in this and that you do not make abusive or critical remarks about the other parent in front of your children. The best way to show your love for your children is to demonstrate to them that whatever your differences and difficulties, each of you is committed to working out together what is best for them.
" I wish I could spend more time with my Dad. I know he's busy but once a fortnight for 4 hours doesn't give us time to do much. Every time it's the same: go to a film; then to a café; then home. It's boring. "
However difficult your relationship is with your former partner, do try to be reasonable and put your children's needs first. You may have to try several different arrangements before settling on a routine which works best for everyone. Flexibility is essential as there will be times when arrangements have to be changed. You both need to work out how to deal with these situations. And don't forget how important it is to include your children in decisions which affect them.
Keep your children informed
So, if you have to cancel or postpone a visit, make sure you explain the reasons to your children and try to rearrange another time. You should do everything you can to avoid your children feeling that they've been let down. It is equally likely that, on occasion, your children might need to postpone their time with you because of some school activity, a party or some other commitment. You need to be understanding when these situations arise.
Additional ways of staying in touch
As well as spending regular time with your children, you can keep in touch with them in other ways. You could phone them on a certain day, email them, send text messages or write them letters. This may be particularly important if you do not live near them or if you spend time working away from home. Discuss these things with your former partner and try to reach agreement about when and how often this kind of contact takes place to ensure that it doesn't cause any difficulties between you later on.
Some things to consider
- Where will your children live?
- How much time will they spend with each of you?
- How can they best keep in regular touch with both of you?
- Will they be able to stay overnight?
- Where will the children's toys, games and other things be kept?
- Who else ( e.g. grandparents) might they spend regular time with?
- How will you agree on the suitability of people to act as babysitters or childminders for your children?
- Have you asked your children what they want?
At page 7 of the Parenting Agreement for Scotland - Plan document, you will see a series of similar questions where you and your former partner may want to keep a record of what you agree.
KEEPING IN TOUCH
Wider family - and friends
Before you and your partner separated, your children will have had regular contact with a fairly wide range of other adults and children. There will have been family members (grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles) and non-family members (school friends, neighbours, parents' friends and so on).
Reducing the disruption in their lives
Now that your children have experienced their parents' separation, you will understand the value of minimising the disruption in their lives in other ways. So you'll want to ensure that they keep up contact with these other people who are important to them and who they're used to seeing regularly.
It is up to you and your former partner to decide how best to do this. You may feel upset at the breakdown of your relationship but that is not a reason to exclude your former partner's family from your children's lives.
Ask your children
You might want to discuss with your children who they feel they would like to keep up contact with. We have included an example of a diagram which they might draw for themselves - or you could help them. Alternatively, they might want to simply write a list. Some of these people might see your children every day, for example, a grandparent who collects them from school. Other people may see them less often, but it is important to think about your child and who matters to them. You might be surprised to learn some of the people your children feel are important to them, such as a teacher or a friend's parents.
"I've got my own mobile phone now, so I can go to my room and talk to Dad whenever I want to. I've taught him how to 'txt' though he's still pretty slow. I can keep in touch with my Gran as well."
"I never see Granny and Grandad now. I used to go to their house a lot but since Dad fell out with Mum he won't let them come near me. When Granny phoned up, Dad wouldn't even let her speak to me."
People who are important to me
Quite possibly it won't be necessary to draw a diagram or write a list. But it will undoubtedly help your children feel more settled and secure if you can take steps to see that they don't lose contact with wider family and friends at this difficult time in their lives.
Some things to consider
- Which family members and friends will your children stay in contact with?
- How will they stay in contact and how often?
At page 9 of the Parenting Agreement for Scotland - Plan document, you will see a series of similar questions where you and your former partner may want to keep a record of what you agree.
In addition to their education, school has a huge influence on children's emotional and social development.
It's natural that, following separation, both parents will want to be kept informed about, and involved in, their children's schooling.
Even though you're no longer partners, you are still parents
However, when parents separate, this can often prove difficult for the parent with whom the children are not living. Perhaps this is because these parents don't know how to engage with the school following the separation or perhaps they are even discouraged from doing so by the other parent. Not only is this unfair on the parent who is excluded but it can have adverse effects on the children too.
We know that children's education and their general development can suffer if they are upset over their parents' break-up. But there is clear evidence that if parents remain courteous to one another and united in their approach to their children's welfare, including education, adverse effects on children can be greatly reduced.
Keep the school informed
The more information available to the school, the easier it will be for them to accommodate your family's new circumstances. So as soon as possible after you and your partner break-up, you should let the school know. If you can agree to do this jointly, all the better.
Tell the school if the children's address will change. Let them know about the children's living arrangements and be sure to tell them the contact details for both parents so that they can keep each of you informed about the children's progress. The school may also need to know what arrangements have been made to collect a child from school. You may have to vary these arrangements from time to time, for example, if the children are staying overnight with their other parent.
You should find that your children's school is understanding and helpful. After all, they too want what's best for your children and you will be helping them to help you.
" Both my parents want to go to Parents' Evening but they refuse to go together. My mate's parents are divorced but they go to these things together. Why can't mine? "
Some things to consider
- How will you let the school (or nursery) know about your separation?
- Does the school know about the children's living arrangements?
- Who should the school get in touch with in the event of an emergency?
- Does the school know to keep you both informed about your children's progress?
- What about parents' evenings and other school functions - who will attend and will you attend together?
- How will you and your former partner make decisions about which school your children will attend; how will you help them make decisions about their choice of subjects and future careers?
At page 11 of the Parenting Agreement for Scotland - Plan document, you will see a series of similar questions where you and your former partner may want to keep a record of what you agree.
HOLIDAYS AND OTHER 'SPECIAL' DAYS
School holidays present both challenges and opportunities for separated parents.
On the one hand, you will need to speak to one another to make arrangements about who will look after the children when they're not at school. On the other hand, the holidays are an ideal opportunity for each parent to spend time with their children in a relaxed way outwith the usual routines.
Even when you and your former partner were together, you will have had to juggle your time to accommodate school holidays. This is especially true when both parents work full-time. But now that you have separated, it is even more important that you work out when each of you will have responsibility for the children during the holidays. Try to be flexible and take account of each other's needs - and, of course, the needs and wishes of your children.
If you and your former partner are taking holidays at different times it creates opportunities for each of you to have extended periods where you can strengthen the bonds you have with your children. This can also mean the children spending more time with other members of the wider family, such as grandparents.
You should discuss with your former partner how they feel about you taking the children away on holiday with you. While this should be an enjoyable and positive experience for you and your children, you should recognise that your partner may have sensitivities about it - especially if you are considering taking the children abroad. So it's best that you discuss your plans well in advance and seek to come to an arrangement which both of you are happy with.
Other 'special' days
Apart from holidays, there are other specific days such as a child's birthday, New Year, Christmas or other religious festival, which you will want to think about. For example, where and how will your child's birthday be celebrated and who will be invited? You may find that it is better to discuss these things with your former partner now, rather than waiting until the day arrives only to find that you both have very different expectations about what is going to happen. And don't forget to ask your children for their views.
Discussing possible gifts with your former partner is also a good idea as it can help ensure that the children don't end up receiving presents they don't need or perhaps already have. (This approach might also help ensure that children can't play one parent off against the other in order to get what they want!)
Some things to consider
- When the school holidays come along, how will you share responsibility for caring for your children?
- What will happen when schools are closed for single days such as inservice days?
- Can either of you take the children away on holiday? Abroad?
- What arrangements will you make for birthdays and other 'special' days?
- Have you asked your children for their views?
At page 13 of the Parenting Agreement for Scotland - Plan document, you will see a series of similar questions where you and your former partner may want to keep a record of what you agree.
"I had a great summer this year. I had 3 weeks with my Dad and the rest with my Mum. Dad and his new girlfriend took me to Spain and Mum took me away for a week with my Gran."
"Every Christmas it's the same. First my Dad insists that I have a huge turkey lunch at his house, then a few hours later my Mum makes me eat the same thing for my dinner. I don't even like turkey!"
Decisions about a child's health are a matter for both parents.
You will want to agree with your former partner about arrangements for routine procedures, such as dental check-ups. You will also want to think about how to deal with any continuing health problems a child may have and perhaps even what to do in the event of a medical emergency.
If your children are living with you, for practical reasons it is likely that you will be the one who ensures that regular medical and dental appointments are kept. If one of your children has a chronic health problem, such as asthma, you and your former partner will want to ensure that you each know the details of any necessary medication or treatment.
Sharing information is key
Each parent should keep the other up-to-date about all matters relating to the children's health. This doesn't just mean in the case of medical emergencies but also in relation to general health issues and illnesses such as colds or recurring headaches.
By coming to an agreement over health matters, not only will this help both of you to exercise appropriate care but it will also reassure your children that their parents are both fully committed to their well-being.
" I had a great day out with my Dad but there was a bit of a panic when I had an asthma attack - we had forgotten to bring my inhaler. "
Some things to consider
- Who will be responsible for ensuring that the children keep routine medical and dental appointments?
- Have you informed your children's GP practice about:
- your separation?
- your children's living arrangements?
- The fact that you will both continue to be involved in the children's lives?
- Do you both know the details of any medication your child takes?
- Who will give parental consent to medical treatment when consent is required by a GP or hospital?
- Remember that, depending on their age, your children's views may also have to be taken into account.
At page 15 of the Parenting Agreement for Scotland - Plan document, you will see a series of similar questions where you and your former partner may want to keep a record of what you have discussed and agreed.
You may already have made arrangements for the financial support of your children.
In order to arrive at a sensible and workable arrangement, you and your former partner will need to carefully consider your children's current and future needs, as well as how much money can be afforded to meet these needs.
Consider one another's situation
It's a fact that money can be the most common source of disputes between separating parents. This may be understandable but it needn't be inevitable. When considering financial provision for your children, each parent should try to understand the position of the other. Children are expensive and the parent who has in the past dealt with the costs out of the household budget, such as buying new shoes or paying for hobbies, may feel that the other parent does not have a realistic view of the true cost of raising children.
Think of the children
On the other hand, parents without the day-to-day care of children will often complain that the additional financial burdens they have to cope with ( e.g. having to pay for new accommodation) are not always appreciated by their former partners. So, listen to each other and try to understand the other's position but always bear in mind that you are aiming to come to an arrangement which will be best for your children.
As parents you both have a financial responsibility towards your children, so it's important that you each honour whatever financial arrangements have been put in place. This is essential for the future welfare of your children.
Some things to consider
- Have you considered the likely cost of bringing up your children?
- How will children's clothes and shoes be paid for?
- How will school trips be decided on and paid for?
- How will bigger items be decided on and paid for, such as a computer or sports equipment?
- How will you take account of your children's changing needs as they get older?
At page 17 of the Parenting Agreement for Scotland - Plan document, you will see a series of similar questions where you and your former partner may want to keep a record of what you have agreed.