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Your Family First - What is a Parenting Plan and what are the benefits?

View profile for Emma Heptonstall
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What is a Parenting Plan and what are the benefits? A Parenting Plan is a written document that parents make on the practical aspects of parenting when they separate and divorce. They are designed to give each parent and their children clarity about when they will spend time together and what responsibilities each has, including what will happen on special occasions and the like.

The Parenting Plan can be as flexible or a rigid as you need it to be but must be aimed at supporting your children based on their individual needs, personalities, age, sex and preferences. Depending on the ages of your children, you may wish to get them involved in the creation of your plan. You can share parts of the plan with them and choose to keep other aspects between you and your children’s other parent. Remember, the purpose of a Parenting Plan is to make co-parenting easier for the whole family.

How can a Parenting Plan help?

One of the biggest benefits of writing a Parenting Plan, is that it brings clarity. When parents disagree about the emotional and practical aspects of parenting, it’s harmful to their children. Children want their parents to get along, even if they understand that their parents can’t live together anymore.

Children dislike being put in the middle and asked to make choices about which parent to spend time with and when. They want you to agree this between yourselves. Your children also like to know that each parent is happy that they spend time with their other parent and that they are not responsible for their parents emotional well being – this is damaging and abusive.

Whether you are the parent with whom the children stay with most frequently or not, you will move forward much quicker if you are clear in your own mind what’s happening with the children and when. You want to know that if it’s your weekend to have the children that you are free to organise a weekend full of activities or a weekend away without having to worry about whether you will see the children or not. Equally, you don’t want demands from your co-parent to have the children at a moments notice, if this is the children’s time with you.

When it comes to bigger decisions like health care, money and religion, you can make agreements to cover these issues in just as much detail that’s right for you and your family. If levels of trust are low on separation, you may feel happier with a very detailed plan covering all bases, but as time moves on you may alter the plan to reflect the changing needs of your children, and changes in your levels of communication and trust as co-parents.

Are Parenting Plans for everyone?

Are Parenting Plans for everyone? No. However, they are for more people than they are not. Co-parenting at the point of separation and for sometime after can be challenging, but with patience, time and a willingness to move forward for the sake of your children, it’s often possible to get to a place where you can focus on the children first and spend time together as a family when its important to do so.

So when isn’t a Parenting Plan a good idea?  The first thing that you need to be sure about is your safety. Parenting Plans are not always appropriate if you are experiencing domestic abuse either physically or emotionally, or your child’s other parent has been abusive to them. ( This does not include isolated incidents occurring in the heat of relationship breakdown when your former partner is angry and upset but the behaviour is out of character).  If you are uncertain about this – seek advice from Cafcass. If your child’s other parent has been misusing substances such as alcohol or drugs take further advice- co-parenting may still be possible with additional support.

When is the right time to create a Parenting Plan?

The right time to create a Parenting Plan is when both your and your children’s other parent are both ready to work together for the best interests of your family. That might be at the start of your separation, or it might be a little further down the road. What matters is your willingness and intention to create a plan that works for everyone involved – that includes both of you, your children and anyone else mentioned in the plan –  such as grandparents. You can create a plan either by sitting over a coffee or over the telephone or via Facetime or Skype. Face to face contact is often best however, as you can see the other parents reactions to your suggestions.

If your children are old enough, you can get them involved. If the creation of a plan feels challenging, consider using your family mediation session to help you work it out. Sometimes the support of an independent third-party is just what’s needed to help you reach agreement because they have no emotional attachment to the outcome.

Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It may take several meetings for you both to agree on a Parenting Plan and that is ok. What’s important is that you are both comfortable with it and it works. It’s essential that you are both in a good emotional state – tired and frustrated? Don’t do it! You job is to listen with undivided attention and respond calmly and in a measured way. Ranting, shouting and talking over one another is a recipe for disaster and a waste of both of your time.

 Listening means hearing what the other person is saying, not just waiting for your opportunity to shout them down. Where possible, validate the thoughts of the other person even if you know their idea isn’t workable. For example “thank you for offer to pick up (child) on a Thursday evening. That’s really kind. They have to be at (activity) straight after and I’m already taking (child). How about you see them both on Friday?” The more solution focused you can both be, the quicker and easier it will be to create your plan.

Putting your children first

When you put your children first, it becomes easier to create a Parenting Plan because the focus is on them and their needs, not you and yours. Remember that Parental Responsibility is about all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities that a parent has in relation to their children – this means that your children’s needs always come first, even if there are times when that is uncomfortable or even painful.

The law is clear and so is the psychological research – your children need both of you (it’s an extreme and rare case that ends with an order for ‘no contact’ – that decision is made by a court after careful consideration, and is not within your power to decide). As such, your starting point is ‘what do our children need from us, and how can we work together to best achieve that for them‘? If your children are old enough, get them involved in designing the plan. Make it fun and let them see that your ‘family’ does still exist. This is not the same as making them responsible for any decisions – that remains your job!

Deciding what to include in your Parenting Plan

What you decide to include in your Parenting Plan is up to you – each family is unique. As a basis you may want to see it as a kind of family contract that you all agree to (age and emotional maturity of children permitting).

You may want to begin by stating that you are both the parents of –  name all your children, and have a little paragraph which sets out the principles by which you want to parent, for example:
•You both want to put the needs of your children first.
•You want to show respect for your co-parent and your children.
•The emotional and physical health of all family members is important.
•As parents you accept responsibility for all of your children’s individual needs.
•As parents you wish to avoid aggressive or on going conflict which is harmful to your children.
•As parents you feel both safe and able to co-operate with one another.

Before you sit down to draft the plan, be clear about areas that you are likely to agree on and discuss these first. This will help you relax into the process a little more, and help if trust is low. Move on then to areas that are more contentious – whatever those are for you. Remember that the idea is to work together towards a solution! What compromises can be made (on both sides)? What interim measures can be put in place whilst trust or parenting ability develops (for example you have a young baby).

Consider also what’s important to you as individuals and what is less so. Some parents want to see a copy of every letter that comes from school, or to be involved in every (minor) GP visit or illness -others are less worried about this. Neither is right or wrong. Decide how you’ll deal with emergencies – do you agree next of kin? Do you want to review your plan regularly, and if so, how often? How will you introduce new partners or ask for holiday time? Do you agree boundaries / ground rules for the children? All these things can be part of you plan.

Decide how best you’ll communicate with one another. As mentioned earlier, phone is best but if that really isn’t possible, will it be email or text? Remember it’s easy to misconstrue the written word. How will you discuss financial matters that involve the children such as school trips, clothes and holidays? Do you both agree on what older child provision you feel is important such as university costs, learning to drive and such. Remember, this is not to say that you’ll make any provision for these things or you may wish to leave these issues until your children are a little older if they are quite young now.

Remember the benefits of your Parenting Plan!

Your Parenting Plan is just that – it’s yours, and it can grow and develop as your children do. You do not have to think of every eventuality that may occur for the next ten years – focus on what’s necessary right now and the next six months if that’s all you can cope with. Agree that you will revisit your plan towards the end of an agreed period to discuss what works and what you (or the children) would like to happen differently.

Emma Heptonstall is a Family Mediator with Crombie Wilkinson Your Family First in York, United Kingdom

To find out more and to view more blog posts from Your Family First visit www.yourfamilyfirst.co.uk

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