We need to talk about the children

  • June 09, 2016
  • By Hunters Law

This article is also published as part of Jo Carr-West’s monthly divorce series in Family Law.

One of the hardest things for parents following separation is continuing the conversation about what their children need in order to keep channels of communication open, and to continue to parent as part of an effective working relationship. For many couples, the hurt and breakdown of trust associated with the end of their personal relationship is a significant barrier that makes it difficult to do this. While this can become less hard as time passes, it is also easy to become complacent in the patterns that have been built up following separation.

A timely reassessment after the dust of the initial separation settles is a valuable tool in making sure that arrangements made for the children are still the right ones, and enable both parents to think through whether anything needs to change. Investing in a parenting course, such as those run by Tavistock Relationships or Resolution, can be beneficial in sparking further evaluation of how the children are coping with the changes in their lives, as well as assisting parents in assessing how their relationship with each other is working. The courses can be attended by both parents, either individually or together.

If that route is not appropriate, the final part of the academic year and the middle of the year following separation is a good time to reassess plans already made and to think through any changes that might take place later.

Some areas that it might pay to revisit are:

Summer holidays

The first summer holidays after separation are often a source of anxiety. The family’s financial position will inevitably have been affected by separation, and parents often feel concerned as to whether or not a summer holiday is affordable before they even begin to think about where the children are going to be and with whom.

Now is the perfect opportunity to review the practicalities of any holiday arrangements which have already been put in place. Considering a number of practical questions can help iron out any difficulties. It is worthwhile for both parents to think about when the children are going to be away; whether either or both parents need to have the children’s passports; and whether the holiday arrangements are realistic, with enough time in between each holiday for the children to adjust to being home and settling down with the other parent.

Another practical difficulty resulting from the long school holiday is the need for additional childcare if one or both parents are working. This might not have been a feature for the family while they were living as one unit, but a change to the normal school routine might involve needing to cover longer hours of care for the children. If one party has planned where the children will be and when, it is crucial that the other parent is aware of the arrangements and what impact it might have on when the children will be with them.

Similarly, it is prudent to consider the arrangements for the end of the school holiday. Is there enough time to stock up on school uniform and equipment for the year ahead? Who is going to be in charge of that and how will it be funded?

How are the children coping?

In the same way as the adults involved in a separation will have felt otherwise at different times, so will the children affected by separation. It is important to speak to school staff and ask for their views on whether the children are managing the changes in their lives. Consider whether the children might need addition and if they are receiving everything they need to help them through the challenges of their parents’ separation.

Look beyond the child’s immediate relationship with each parent and sibling, and reassess whether the children have managed to maintain healthy relationships with their extended family members and family friends. This can often be difficult, and runs the possibility of compounding a child’s sense of isolation. If this is an area of the children’s lives that has suffered, think about what changes could be made to address this and re-establish any broken bonds.

This is also an important time to look ahead and begin to plan for the remainder of the year.

New school year

If a child will be changing schools at the beginning of the next academic year, start to plan now for the impact that this might have on the arrangements of them spending time with each parent. Consider the practical implications of longer journey times or different school hours, and how this might affect the arrangements for the children to be collected or spend time with their parents after school. Make sure that the new school has contact details for both parents, and that relevant staff are aware of the child’s home circumstances.

School applications

The autumn brings applications for both primary and secondary schools for children of relevant ages. It is sensible to have early discussions about the child’s options and how the admissions process will be approached.

Happy holidays

In every other sense it is ridiculous to make plans for Christmas in June; but for a newly separated couple approaching their first December in a new family set-up, it is not too early to start organising what is going to happen. Thinking now about how celebrations during December might work, and even possibly broaching the subject in discussion with the other parent at this early stage when no firm decisions need to be made, gives everyone time to absorb the other party’s proposals and avoids either parent being put under pressure nearer the time.

These issues will need to be resolved together. If face-to-face or phone discussions are not a possibility, turning to a mediator can provide a forum for these issues to be aired and worked on without needing to apply the rigours of the legal system to practical family decisions.

Jo Carr-West

Partner, Hunters incorporating May, May & Merrimans

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