When parents decide to end their marriage, they can sometimes become so embroiled in their interpersonal conflict that they lose sight of the children’s needs. But it’s really important for parents in this situation to realign their priorities to ensure the divorce process is as healthy and stable as it can possibly be for the kids. Enter the so-called “child-centred divorce”. This term refers to when parents deliberately choose to make the children’s best interests their primary concern, with the goal of minimising the negative efforts of divorce on the kids. Let’s take a look at some practical strategies for a child-centred divorce.
[Tips for how to have a child-centred divorce…continued]
Here are a number of tips that can help you achieve a child-centred divorce.
1. Commit to peaceful co-parenting
The research has been clear for a long time: witnessing parental fighting has a negative impact on children. So a child-centred divorce requires the adults to make a conscious commitment to stop fighting with each other. This can be a tough ask, but it’s so important when it comes to having a child-centred divorce. Divorcing parents have to learn to put aside their own feelings on the breakup and who’s to blame, as well as their perceptions of their “rights” and entitlements regarding the children. In order to focus on the children’s emotional and practical needs, you and your co-parent need to establish an amicable co-parenting relationship where you can rise above your personal conflict for the sake of your children. As co-parents, you’ll inevitably need to communicate on issues and it’s vital to be able to do so civilly.
Aside from keeping the marital conflict away from children’s eyes and ears, the most basic ‘rules’ for peaceful co-parenting include:
- Respecting your child’s right to have a relationship with their other parent
- Agreeing not to argue in front of the kids
- Never speaking badly about your co-parent to your kids
- Being happy for your children if they tell you what a fantastic time they just had with the other parent (as opposed to trying to make them feel bad for it)
- Being on time for changeovers
- Not involving the children in the adult details of the divorce
- Having a plan for reacting to any attempts by your ex to push your buttons. (This means knowing your triggers and how you will intend to stay calm. Understanding what you need to achieve in a particular interaction with your co-parent will also help you avoid straying into unrelated, emotional territory.)
- If civil communication is still too difficult, stick to written communications and avail yourself of an app that monitors your communications for unhelpfully emotional or inflammatory content.
(You might also like to read our blog on getting along for the sake of the kids.)
2. Make a parenting plan
Once you have decided to divorce, it’s a good idea to straight away work on a parenting plan with your co-parent. A parenting plan can act as a temporary outline until final orders are made in your divorce. And having a parenting plan in place will help stabilise family arrangements for your child while the divorce is under way. Working out how time will be scheduled with each parent and the nitty gritty of implementing agreements helps avoid disputes and will ensure you and your co-parent are on the same page from the start. Think of it as a blueprint for your children’s care. (See also our blog on what to include in a parenting plan.)
If you are unable to agree on arrangements though, you will likely need to head to mediation to attempt to resolve the issues, and if that is unsuccessful, litigation may be needed.
3. Listen to the children
It may not be possible for the adults to accommodate exactly what the child wants (often, the child just wants the parents not to get divorced!). But actively seeking to understand what the children say they want can help you ensure you address the children’s needs when you formulate new parenting arrangements. It can help to try to put yourself in your child’s shoes to see things from their perspective.
Being attuned to your child’s views on the divorce means you’ll also be alert to any feelings of guilt or responsibility the child is feeling (these are common emotions). Reassurance is vital so that children, especially younger ones, don’t end up blaming themselves or being worried they have driven a parent away. Be patient and ensure you clarify any misunderstandings your child may be having. Keep communication factual and be aware of when you are making things about yourself and your own emotions.
4. Consider collaborative divorce
When it comes to peaceful co-parenting and a child-centred divorce, one of the best things you can do is explore your options regarding the low-conflict process of collaborative divorce. Instead of the ‘war’ of litigation, collaborative divorce helps parents set aside their differences and work towards achieving the best possible outcome for the children and each parent. Aside from the time and costs savings compared to litigation, collaboration has the added benefit of modelling positive conflict resolution behaviour to your children. People who opt for collaborative divorce tend to find that both the legal, financial and psychological distress of divorce is minimised, which always benefits the child.
The beauty of collaborative divorce is that other professionals aside from lawyers are brought in, including child specialists who can assist with keeping the child’s needs at the forefront of the negotiation. This especially helps if parents have become so focused on their own needs that they have started to forget the need to be child-centred.
5. Try to present a united front
When communicating about your divorce to your children, the most important thing your children need to hear is they are safe and loved and you are still a family. Ideally, you can deliver the news about your divorce together with your co-parent, so that you present as a united front. (When it comes to explaining a family law situation to children you might like to read our recent blog.)
6. Ensure continuity
An important aspect of a child-centred divorce is to aim to create a sense of continuity and consistency for your child, even when there are dramatic changes to your child’s life, such as learning to live across two households. Try to keep regular daily schedules no matter which house they are currently in. Consistent discipline and stable routines and structure (regular meal times and bed times, and so on) can help keep their internal body clocks in the same rhythm, which is beneficial. Ideally, you and your ex will agree on how to discipline and on maintaining consistent schedules between two homes. If you are fundamentally in disagreement, make sure you at least maintain consistency in your own home. (Read our tips on how to help your child adjust to having two homes.)
7. Consider if birdnesting might be an option
One particularly child-centred divorce option is to adopt a so-called birdnesting arrangement. This is where a family keeps the status quo with regard to the family home during separation and divorce (and sometimes for even longer periods). The difference is that while the children remain living there 100% of the time, the parents take turns living there when they have care of the kids. When not in the family home, the parents find accommodation elsewhere.
8. Manage divided loyalties
Divided loyalties can come about when children feel forced to choose sides in their parents’ breakup. Never try to “win” your child over to your side of the divorce argument. And avoid competitive parental behaviour (e.g. playing one-upmanship on fun activities or gifts, etc). Instead, keep experiences inexpensive and focus on enjoying quality time. If possible, attend key or special events in your child’s life together with your ex. If you can’t, let your child know of arrangements for spending time with each parent and acknowledge your child’s feelings on the subject.
9. Listen to your mediator
If you will be attending mediation for your parenting issues, look to your mediator for guidance. They are experienced in helping parents make decisions in the best interests of the children (though they do not give legal advice). Neutral and objective, mediators are trained to help you discuss the difficult issues with less emotion and with the children’s best interests always at the forefront of your mind. (Read our tips for preparing for parenting mediation.)
10. Find support
You can help reduce any traumatic effects of your divorce on the children by seeking out specialised help and services. There are various services available to help kids when they need support after parents separate. Family counselling or individual therapy with a counsellor or psychologist can allow children to process their emotional turmoil in a neutral space, away from the fear of upsetting either parent.
You might like to visit the Government’s Family Relationships site to explore some of your options–for example, there is a Supporting Children After Separation program that can help. The Family Relationship Advice Line is a national telephone service that helps families affected by relationship or separation issues, and can refer you to local services that provide assistance. Other useful sites include Relationships Australia and Best For Kids.
If you would like assistance with a family law matter, or more information on collaborative divorce, then please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.