Everything you need to know about arrangements for children upon divorce/separation By Saika Alam, family law solicitor & Mette Theilmann, parenting mentor 

WHAT ARE THE ORDERS THAT A COURT CAN MAKE WHEN PARENTS CANNOT AGREE OVER THE CHILDREN ?  

By Saika Alam from Branch Austin McCormick, family law solicitor   sa@branchaustin.com 

Coming to an arrangement over the children can be one of the most traumatic aspects of separation. The impact on the children of your relationship breakdown will probably be your biggest concern. In some cases, despite your best efforts, it will just be impossible to reach any kind of resolution over the children, particularly if there is any domestic abuse involved. Going to court should always be a last resort but if you are forced down that road you will need to know the kind of orders that the Family Court can make where children are concerned.   

If you cannot agree where your child should live or how much time your child should spend with each of you.     

You can apply to the Court for a Child Arrangements Order – You might be more familiar with the terms “custody” and “contact orders”.  Child Arrangements Orders have now replaced these terms and instead of custody you would be applying to the Court for a “live with” order or an order setting out the amount of time the children should spend with your former partner or spouse.  

Decisions about your children’s health or their education – if you cannot agree which school your child should go to or what medical treatment he or she should receive you could apply to the court for a Specific Issue Order. A Specific Issue Order is an Order asking the Court to make a specific decision for a child such as which school they should go to or what kind of medical treatment your child should receive if your child is unwell.   

Sometimes a parent will simply remove a child from his or her school without the consent of the other parent. If you find yourself in this position you can apply for an order that your child is reinstated to school and also a Prohibited Steps Order preventing your child from being removed from school again or from being removed from your care if appropriate.  A Prohibited Steps Order directs a parent not to take a particular course of action prohibited by the Court Order.    

Decisions about religious education – sometimes parents cannot agree on whether a child should have a religious upbringing.  If you cannot reach an agreement a Court can step in and make that decision for a child. You would apply to the Court for a Specific Issue Order and the Court would decide if it was in your child’s best interests to have a religious upbringing.   

PARENTING AS A TEAM, SEPARATELY

By Mette Theilmann from Predictable Parenting  www.mettetheilmann.com 

We all know that in an ideal world you and your ex would co-parent, agree and communicate about the wellbeing of your children. Sadly, its not always that straightforward or even possible.   

But bear in mind that your ex will always be the other parent in your child’s life and therefore will remain in your life too, so there WILL need to be some level of communication. 

Co-parenting is when you and your ex-partner together, make decisions about the welfare of your child and preferably align your parenting styles. But if your relationship with your child’s other parent is strained then a parallel parenting style might be better.  This is particularly so  when co-parenting is not possible or safe for one of the parents or the children involved.    

Parallel parenting means that your paths will cross as little as possible – your lives are ‘parallel’ and distance and space is key. Not only physically but in everything you do.   

The aim here is to have as little contact as possible to eliminate conflict or danger.   

When is parallel parenting appropriate?   

Parallel parenting can be very helpful during a divorce or separation that is high conflict or if one parent feels that they are at risk of harm from the other parent. That harm can be physical or emotional. Even if children are not seeing or hearing conflict between their parents, they can still pick up on negativity between their parents. Some parents will use their child to manipulate the other parent, or use money as a means of controlling the other parent. This creates an unhealthy environment that will affect their child now and in the future. 

This is when parallel parenting might be of benefit as such parenting style creates clear boundaries that reduce the opportunity for conflict.

Benefits of parallel parenting

Parallel parenting reduces the effects of any parental conflict on a child. Also the additional boundaries help parents feel physically, mentally and emotionally safer and this can only be  beneficial for both parents.  

Parallel parenting can support a child to have healthy relationships with both parents as the child does not have to take sides and the child is not subjected to the conflict that might occur if the parents were trying to parent in the usual way. 

Parallel parenting is a great way to establish a low conflict communication style.It’s a way to be able to look back at your parenting and think, ‘I did an OK job’. Yes, it would have been great if you could have had a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex partner but where this was not possible you opted for the next best thing: i.e. avoided a toxic and damaging relationship. 

How to achieve parallel parenting 

  • Avoid physical contact where possible: drop off and pick up from school not from homes etc.   
  • Avoid communication in person: you can agree to communication times and how: i.e., ONLY by texts and ONLY for example on Fridays unless urgent. You might want to use a separate mobile phone just for contact with your ex partner, or choose an app or a web-based service designed for this purpose so that you are not reliant upon your personal means of communication. For example, Talking Parents is a free secure messaging service which can be used for all communications. That way you can still communicate but have those boundaries used in a parallel parenting style, i.e. exchanging only information that NEEDS to be shared.   
  • Choose a neutral place if you do have to meet in person or use the phone or video conference, but make sure you agree on method and location. 
  • Make an agreement and stick to it. For this you might need a mediator or a court order, but once an agreement is in place this will reduce the amount of communication required. 
  • Set a specific start and end time and location for contact time. Also agree on how you will deal with changes and cancellations, which you should do in writing. For instance, you might agree that your ex-partner will use a babysitter rather than  contact you so that you are not first in line for ‘babysitting’ if your ex-partner has something on such as a business trip or a holiday where your child cannot go with your ex-partner.  
  • Set up a ‘plan’ for disputes so you don’t end up in court; work out how you will handle any disagreements i.e., agree to have a zoom meeting, only in writing (no verbal contact), through a neutral third person etc.     

Tips for making it work

If you think that parallel parenting could work for you, make sure you keep any communication (no matter how limited it is) short, simple and clean.    

  • Use an ‘I-message’: make your messages relatable to you: I feel upset when I have to wait for Sam to be dropped off, I would prefer that we stick to the agreed plan please. Instead of: you are always late and don’t respect my time and you need to stop that and stick to what we have agreed etc. This approach is less aggressive and confrontational and leads to less battles.    
  • Control what you can and let the rest go: you cannot control anybody but yourself. If you spend too much time outside your control zone, where you try to change your ex-partner, telling him or her what to do or not to do, you might constantly be starting fires that need to be put out. So, try to be the best parent you can be and remember that your child CAN deal with two different  sets of parenting styles.   
  • Less is more: using too many words can be dangerous, you might go into ‘negative word flow’, where you say or write things that you later regret. Make your sentences short, simple and clean. Say what you need to say (in the best interests of your child) and don’t add additional words that are likely to get your ex-partner’s back up.     
  • Think it, don’t ink it: Try to think about what you will say (or not) before you say it or before you send your ex-partner a text or email. Maybe run it past a friend first so tha you avoid sending an inflammatory message that can lead to conflict or even be used in court against you. Think about what you NEED to write, what are you trying to achieve by using less words, keep it as an I-message – then leave it. Come back to it. Show it to a friend. Then once you feel OK about it – then send it. Take your time.    
  • Keep the long-term goal in mind: You want to be able to look back and say to yourself, ‘I did the right thing; the situation was still hard and far from perfect, but I am proud of the way I handled it. You want to keep a healthy and safe relationship with your child. You want to keep your dignity. Your ex-partner will always be in your life and you will want to be able to go to your kids’ birthdays, weddings, grandchild’s birthdays etc even when your ex-partner is also going. So, every time you are about to say and do something, STOP and take a deep BREATH. Check in with yourself and remind yourself of your long-term goal: I want to be able to look back at this and remember I did my best for myself and my kids. I don’t want my kids to be damaged by this. Then you can THINK: what do I need to do and say to reach my long-term goal? Listen more, say less, do not respond in the heat of the moment, be polite, meet in the middle and so on.     

Parenting with an ex-partner can be really tough so I hope that you can find a style that works for you and your child, whether that be co-parenting or parallel parenting. I wish you all the best with your parenting journey.   

Please note that if you feel your child is at risk of harm, either emotionally or physically we recommend that you seek professional advice. There may be situations where contact with one parent should NOT take place, or take place only under supervision.