Parents considering divorce or separation are faced with the task of making many decisions regarding their children, including a placement schedule, how to manage holidays, and how to navigate future issues such as significant others. Each family is different and each set of parents may need a different level of support to help them come to these decisions. Some families prefer to attempt these discussions on their own while others desire neutral professional support in the form of mediation. Others may find it challenging to come to agreements and need to rely on attorney processes, collaborative divorce, or, ultimately, the courts to make decisions for them. The process of how parents come to agreements is equally important as the details of the agreement given parent ability to work together and manage conflict is the main predictor of how children adjust to divorce and separation. If you have questions about process options and would like to speak to a neutral professional, please consider reaching out and I would be happy to assist.
What is a Family Plan?
The family plan is a document that represents the agreements between parents regarding:
· How they will make big decisions for the children (i.e., school choice, which doctors to use, whether children should participate in extracurriculars, etc.),
· How the children will share time across two houses (or with each parent in situations of continued cohabitation),
· How they will handle important holidays,
· How they will adjust the schedule for travel and vacation,
· How they will manage the introduction of significant others,
· How they will communicate about the children
· How they will deal with disagreement and future issues
The family plan is ideally detailed to avoid potential conflicts and to allow parents the opportunity to think about specific situations before they occur in hopes of creating a scenario that goes well for the children in the future.
What is the Focus of the Plan?
The plan should focus on the children; prioritizing the children’s physical needs (e.g., nap/sleeping routine, eating routine, medical care, protection from harm), emotional needs (e.g., relationship with parents, temperament, levels of anxiety, etc.), developmental needs (e.g., younger children need more frequent contacts with each parent than adolescents; younger children need more supervision and parent direction than older children), social needs (e.g., time with friends, time in activities), and educational needs (e.g., space and time to study, parent support, etc). Parents will want to think through and make specific agreements about how each child’s needs will be met; including them in the family plan as a reminder for them in the future and to help them stay focused on their children’s best interests in times of high adult emotion or disagreement.
Parents should prioritize their children’s needs and find a way to compromise with each other to help the children experience a united parenting. This can be a challenging goal given the adults in the family have emotions and needs as well, along with the fact that divorce/separation can be taxing on parental relationships. Parents are, therefore, encouraged to discuss how and when they will communicate about the children, what they agree to share about the children, how they will communicate concerns about the children, and how to handle future disagreements. These discussions ideally lead to agreements on communication protocols and can be included in the family plan to help each parent follow through with their agreements in hopes of improved and effective communication despite their family changes.
What if I Find this Difficult?
Divorce and separation are emotionally challenging experiences for parents and children alike. While many parents will be able to sit down together and craft a plan with minimum support, it can be challenging for even the best-intentioned co-parents. Investing in a process that supports your family and helps create a thorough, child-focused family plan is well worth the effort. It is an opportunity to help the children understand that mom and dad are working together for their good and it is an effective way to create a plan that can support the children in their adjustment while also decreasing the risk of parent conflict in the future. If you find the task of developing a plan challenging, look in your community to identify helping professionals who may be available to support you through the process. There are many professionals who will share in your goal of supporting you and the children through the process.
Casey A. Holtz, Ph.D.