Parenting after Separation
This section is all about putting your children first. It provides a brief introduction to parenting after separation and looks at different types of parenting issues, including parenting schedules and parenting plans. It also provides a selection of related parenting resources and reading materials.
While the other sections in this chapter discuss the legal issues involved in determining how children will be cared for after a couple separate, they do not talk about the non-legal issues. This section will discuss issues such as: what it means to parent after separation, how separation affects children, and how parents can talk to their children about their separation.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Parenting after separation
- 2.1 Parenting tips
- 2.2 Parenting schedules
- 2.3 Parenting plans
- 2.4 Sample parenting plans
- 2.5 Common visitation issues
- 3 Parenting resources
- 4 Resources and links
If you've got children and you've separated from your partner, you'll find you've got three enormous problems to deal with.
First, you've got to get a grip on all the emotional baggage that comes along with the end of a relationship. Second, you've got a pile of legal issues you have to sort through. Finally, but most importantly, you and your former partner have to develop a strategy for parenting your children after the relationship ends.
No matter how pressing the first two issues are, you must remember that the post-separation parenting of your children must take priority over everything else. If you think the end of your relationship is difficult for you, imagine how confusing and unsettling it must be for your children. Their needs and best interests must come ahead of your own, and those of your partner. This is certainly the view that the court will take.
You will have found that during your relationship, issues involving the care of your children just sort of worked themselves out, perhaps smoothly, perhaps not. In general, you will have developed a routine, a routine that you and your partner were comfortable with and one that your children have become accustomed to.
After separation, that routine isn't possible anymore, especially if you and your partner are living in separate homes. Suddenly, the children can no longer rely on both of you being around the house, or on the schedules you used to keep. They can no longer count on all the little things like the bedtime story from dad, the special breakfast, playing catch after school with mum, and so forth. On top of all that change and uncertainty, the children will be fully aware that something isn't right between their parents, even if they don't quite grasp exactly what's going on.
While this may sound a little preachy, the fact is that no matter how adults are able to rationalize the consequences of the end of their relationship, children can't. Your job, regardless of your own emotional and legal entanglements, is to protect your children from your dispute as much as possible, and to develop a parenting regime that will be in the best interests of your children.
The words we use often shape how we see the world around us. There's a big difference, for example, between saying "Pat lied to me about ..." and "Pat was mistaken when he told me that ..." In the same way, there's a difference between saying "Tuesday is my access day" and "Tuesday is when I visit with Moesha."
Over the past ten years or so, the courts and policy makers have become increasingly sensitive to how the words used to describe a parent's involvement with their child can impact on both the child's and the parent's perception of that relationship. As a result, shared parenting is becoming increasingly the standard, even in situations where, twenty years ago, Parent A would be described as the "access parent" and Parent B would be described as the "custodial parent." The phrase "access parent" can often lead to a sense, shared by everyone, including the children, that this parent is somehow a lesser parent, has less of a role to play, or is less important to their child's life. It also encourages the idea that there are "winning parents" and "losing parents" when it comes time to determining the parenting arrangements for a child.
Words like "custody" and "access," are still used in the federal Divorce Act. As noted above, these can be loaded terms with a lot of extra meanings that aren't particularly helpful to the children, or to each parent's view of their role with the children. This is one reason why the newer provincial Family Law Act talks about the care of children in terms of guardians who exercise parental responsibilities and have parenting time with their children, and people who are not guardians who have contact with a child. This is a huge improvement, and the language of the Family Law Act should be used whenever possible.
A few notes from JP Boyd
I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a counsellor. As a result this section should be read with a grain of salt, as it is based on my observations of my clients' experiences and a healthy dose of common sense. For the same reason you are cautioned that this section should not be used as an authority on parenting. The goal of this section is simply to provide some information that may be helpful for parents to consider as they approach the issue of parenting after separation.
There are a ton of Parenting After Separation (PAS) programs conducted by trained psychologists and counsellors available throughout British Columbia. If you are separating or have separated, I highly recommend that you attend one of these programs. No matter how good (or bad!) you think your relationship is with your ex-partner, these programs are usually very helpful. Also, in some cases, you, your former partner, or both of you may be ordered by the court to attend a Parenting After Separation program.
Parenting after separation
Some psychologists and many separating parents believe that the best post-separation parenting arrangement is one of equal time.
The Family Law Act specifically dismisses this perspective.
Section 40 (4) reads:
In the making of parenting arrangements, no particular arrangement is presumed to be in the best interests of the child and without limiting that, the following must not be presumed:
(a) that parental responsibilities should be allocated equally among guardians;
(b) that parenting time should be shared equally among guardians;
(c) that decisions among guardians should be made separately or together.
Children need their parents to continue to contribute to their care and upbringing after separation. Further, children have the right to expect their parents and caregivers to work together, whenever possible, to ensure that their needs are met.
While many families work well with a week on/week off schedule or other shared parenting arrangements, the Family Law Act rejects the notion that parents should have the right to have or expect an equal, or near-equal, amount of time with their children before or after separation.
Not all parents can separate in a civil manner, and not all parents share an equal interest or ability to in participate in the lives and parenting of their children. Some parents may be quite content to walk away and start a new life; others are painfully torn by the conflict between their former partner and their role as a parent. However, in the absence of some serious problem (such as abuse, alcoholism, or pedophilia) that renders a parent unfit to play a meaningful role in their child's life, the practical reality of parenting after separation is this: it is almost always in a child's best interests to grow up with two parents, with as strong a bond with both parents as possible, and to spend as much time with both parents as possible.
Divorce or separation doesn't mess kids up — conflict does. Conflict in intact families and separated families is bad for children.
The Ottawa Centre for Mediation, formerly the Ottawa Centre for Family and Community Mediation, offers the following parenting dos and don'ts.
Things to think about:
- Children can best deal with their feelings surrounding the separation experience in a climate of cooperation.
- Working together as parents means cooperating with the other parent about raising the children. If you can't do this in person, try communicating by phone or by using notes that are exchanged with the child.
- It is a myth that parents who did not get along as a couple cannot work together as parents. They can. It takes time and effort but parents can redefine the relationship from being a couple, to a more business-like relationship of being partners in the parenting of their children.
- Go directly to the other parent for information, an answer, or a solution to a problem. Do not allow the child to be in the middle, to act as a messenger, or act as a spy. If you cannot deal directly with the other parent, use another adult.
- Give the benefit of the doubt to the other parent’s motives.
- Do not let yourself get caught in any angry feelings the child may have towards the other parent. Encourage the children to speak about their difficulties with the other parent to the other parent; do not get caught in the middle. Do not let the children become caught in the middle.
Children may be harmed if they:
- are restricted or prevented from spending sufficient time with both parents,
- are told that one parent is good and the other is bad,
- are encouraged to take sides, or
- don't feel free to love both parents and also stepparents.
Parents may harm their children if they:
- don’t prepare children for changes that will occur,
- burden children with adult problems, such as their legal issues or financial woes,
- compete with or criticize the other parent in front of the children,
- badmouth or blame the other parent in the children’s presence or earshot, or
- expect children to comfort them.
In short, you are the parent, and your children have the right to expect you to do the job of parenting.
While there is an assumption that equal or near-equal shared time is generally considered the best parenting arrangement possible, that is not true for all children or all families. Some things to be considered when you are developing a parenting schedule are: the child's age, relationships, and each parent's parenting skills and abilities.
Very young children, especially breastfeeding children, require more constant attention and are not able to be away from one parent (generally the breastfeeding mother) for long periods of time. In situations like this, there may be very frequent but shorter periods of parenting time for the non-breastfeeding parent. This will change, of course, as the child grows older.
Not all parents have the time to devote to an equal parenting arrangement, and not all parents have the skills and resources to offer the children.
Different Parenting Schedules
The Langley Family Justice Center published an excellent pamphlet called "Suggested Visitation/Time-Sharing Skills" which they gave to their clients, drawn from Gary Neuman's book, Helping your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way. The following is adapted from this pamphlet, and is intended for parents who do not intend to establish an equal time-sharing arrangement.
Birth to 8 months 2 or 3 weekly visits for 2 to 3 hours each supervised visits in the primary parent's home 2 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one shorter visit 9 to 12 months 2 or 3 weekly visits for 4 to 8 hours each, plus one longer weekend visit 2 to 4 weekly visits for 3 hours each 2 or 3 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one weekly 24-hour overnight visit 13 months to 3 years 1 or 2 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one weekly 24-hour overnight visit 1 or 2 weekly visits for 4 to 6 hours each, and possibly one weekly short overnight visit 2 weekly 24-hour overnight visits that are not consecutive, plus one weekly visit for 6 to 8 hours, and a less than equal sharing of holidays 4 to 5
1 or 2 weekly visits for 6 to 8 hours each, plus one weekly 24-hour overnight visit 1 or 2 weekly visits for 4 to 6 hours each, and possibly one weekly short overnight visit 2 weekly 24-hour overnight visits that are not consecutive, plus one weekly visit for 6 to 8 hours, and a greater sharing of holidays 6 to 8
every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays one weekly 24-hour overnight visit, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 two-day visits during the summer every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays 9 to 12
every other weekend, from Friday after school until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 consecutive weeks during the summer holiday, and half of all other holidays every other weekend, Saturday morning until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus 3 three-day visits during the summer every other weekend, from Thursday after school until Monday morning before school, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus half of all holidays 13 to 18
every other weekend, Saturday morning until Sunday evening, plus one weeknight after school until one hour before bedtime, plus summer visits set in consultation with the child every other weekend, from Thursday after school until Monday morning before school, plus half of all holidays
In an equal parenting schedule, the time that a very, very young child, less than 18 months of age, requires to integrate fully with the other parent can be compressed.
Most children may be able to start spending an equal amount of time with each parent by the time they enter kindergarten, although the weeks should be divided so that the change in home is more frequent.
By grade two or three, many children may be able to do a whole week with one parent, followed by a whole week with the other parent. Most parents exchange the child on Fridays after school to minimize disruption to the child's schoolwork, although exchanging on Tuesday prevents any arguments about who was responsible for ensuring that weekend homework got done.
By the time the child is in his or her early teens, the week-on/week-off arrangement may be extended to two weeks with each parent. This will change as the teenager gets older, and his or her preferences should be taken into account. Some parents even wind up working on a month-on/month-off arrangement with older teens; again, though, this will depend on the child and the parents.
There are some parents who achieve nearly equal parenting by the unequal sharing of holidays.
A parenting plan is a written agreement that describes how issues involving the care of children will be handled, typically with a long-term view that addresses how visitation and other arrangements should evolve as the children grow up and mature. Parenting plans are most common when the children are very young when their parents separate, or when parents need extra clarity.
The main reasons why parents might want to make a parenting plan are to address future issues ahead of time and to minimize the likelihood of future conflict. A parenting plan takes the basic developmental points in the children's life into consideration:
- The parenting schedule appropriate for a breastfeeding one-year-old won't be appropriate when the child is weaned.
- The parenting schedule that works for a three-year-old won't work when the child turns five, enters the school system, and is suddenly tied to a schedule neither parent controls.
- The schedule of a seven-year-old must accommodate sports and other extracurricular activities as well as homework and other take-home assignments.
- Nine-year-olds will be starting to go to day camps or overnight camps during the summer.
- The schedule of a twelve-year-old must take into account their social schedule and activities with friends.
In other words, a parenting schedule can't be static; it has to be able to evolve with time. This is precisely what a parenting plan is intended to address.
Parenting plans also typically address guardianship issues and cover how the parents will make decisions about the children's care, medical needs, and schooling. Since parenting plans aren't mentioned in the Divorce Act or the Family Law Act, there are no rules about what should and shouldn't be in a parenting plan. It's up to the parents to be as inclusive and creative as they want.
Parenting plans can be included in separation agreements, but not always, in court orders. Usually, court orders contain a general statement about guardianship and parenting time. However, at times, especially when parents do not agree, the court can and will make very specific orders about the parenting arrangements, such as who is responsible for taking the children to the dentist and the sharing of birthdays, to name a few. Detailed orders are usually crafted to a particular family in an attempt by the court to cover as much of a child's day-to-day life as possible in the hopes of minimizing conflict between the parents.
Parenting plans can also stand on their own as a separate document.
What is crucial in developing a parenting plan is to have a plan that accommodates and meets the children's needs and is not simply in place for the ease or convenience of parents. The same parenting plan may not work for all children in a family, and the goal of all parents should be to support the healthy developments of children as individuals and not simply as a sibling group.
Sample parenting plans
A lot of users of this resource have asked about sample parenting plans. I can't post an example of a parenting plan or separation agreement of my own, as I always draft those from scratch to reflect the unique needs and circumstances of each client. I can, however, post the link to the federal Department of Justice's Parenting Plan Tool, and the following parenting plans that are drawn from the Idaho Benchbook, a creation of family law lawyers from the Idaho state bar and judiciary. Other parenting plans and parenting agreements can doubtless be found online.
- Sample #1: developed for a young child with a primary parent, frequent contact with the other parent but no overnight visitation and addresses safety and transportation issues
- Sample #2: developed with a primary parent, every other weekend visitation and addresses substance abuse issues
- Sample #3: developed as a 50/50 shared parenting plan and addresses extra-circular activities and summer vacations
Note three things about the Idaho plans:
- Much of the legal language in the Benchbook plan is suited to American law and won't be suitable for British Columbia parenting plans; you'll have to adapt the terminology accordingly.
- The plans refer to American subjects (like holidays and social security numbers) that you'll have to change or delete.
- The plans can be adapted to include visitation schedules that will evolve as the children grow up.
You might also want to have a look at the Parenting Time Guidelines found in the Indiana Rules of Court, which are extremely detailed and very child-focused.
Common visitation issues
There are lots of stumbling blocks that can crop up in preparing a parenting schedule, and it can be very difficult to anticipate all the special days that you might want to address in addition to the week-to-week schedule. Most often, these special days are things like Mothers' Day or Fathers' Day, the children's birthdays and religious holidays.
Other problems can come up when the parenting schedule is ignored by a parent or refused by a child. Some solutions to issues like this are discussed below. More information can be found in other sections in this chapter, including the Estranged & Alienated Children section.
Weekends can be especially important to schedule carefully, and it may be important that they be shared between parents, particularly if the children are going to school. Often the parent who has the children during the work week becomes the disciplinarian, since that parent has the burden of telling the kids to go to sleep on time, do their homework, and so forth. The other parent, on the other hand, becomes the "fun" parent, taking the kids to the park, to the movies, and buying them treats on the weekend.
It may be important that weekends be shared to avoid the children developing a discipline parent/fun parent dynamic. It is rarely a good idea to come up with a schedule that gives one parent all of the children's weekends, unless of course that is what your particular family needs and what will be in your children's best interests.
Statutory holidays and Professional Development Days
Make sure that statutory holidays and school professional development days are taken into account when you work out a parenting schedule. Many schedules that require a parent to return the child on Sunday evening, for example, allow that the child be returned on Monday evening if the Monday is a statutory holiday or professional development day at your child’s school.
When you're working out your parenting schedule, don't forget about special days like birthdays, Fathers' Day, Mothers' Day, religious holidays and so forth. Some (but not all) parents do things like alternating the children's birthdays, or making special arrangements for extra time on Fathers' Day and Mothers' Day.
For religious holidays, like Christmas, many parents work out a plan so that in even-numbered years, one parent will have the children from Christmas Eve to the afternoon of Christmas Day, and the other parent will have them from the afternoon on Christmas to the evening of Boxing Day, a schedule that reverses on odd-numbered years. Be creative about scheduling these sorts of special days. In the case of Passover, for example, some parents alternate the first and second nights each year.
The main school holidays are the winter break (usually about two to two-and-a-half weeks), the spring break (a week or two weeks) and the summer holiday (slightly more than two months). These holidays can be split up, shared between parents every other year, or treated with the same schedule as if the child was in school.
Particularly during the school closures during the summer, both of the parents should have a fair chunk of time with the children. Summers don't have to be split equally — some people's work schedules just won't give them that much time off — but each parent should at least have a solid week with the children. During times like this, the usual parenting schedule is suspended so that each parent's holiday visits are uninterrupted.
For working parents, summer holidays may require cooperation (or not) regarding the scheduling of camps and day camps. Ideally, parents can arrange their holidays around the children's availability. However, not every parent has that flexibility. What parents need to keep in mind are the memories that they are creating for their children. Will their children remember summer holidays as being a tug-of-war between parents, or a time of relaxation and fun?
Children's refusal to visit
Children can be resistant to change and transitions can be difficult for them. Sometimes children will not want to leave one parent and this could be the result of many things, not necessarily a real desire not to see the other parent. Separation anxiety, misplaced loyalty or simply a reaction to all the changes a child may be facing can be common reasons for resistance to visits.
The Family Law Act confirms that when determining what parenting plan is in a child’s best interests, the court and the parties must consider the child’s “view, unless it would be inappropriate to consider them” (section 37(2)(b)).
There is no age provided in the Family Law Act as to when a child’s views are to determine their own parenting schedule. While people typically think the age of 12 is somehow a determining age for when children can make their own decisions on their own parenting schedule, the language of the Family Law Act does not specify any particular age when a child's views determine the parenting arrangements.
Generally, children should not be responsible for making their own parenting arrangements or be involved in negotiating that issue between their parents. If a child is saying that they does not want to see the other parent, then that is a factor the parents need to consider. A child’s voice must be heard; however, it is important to make the distinction between a child having a “voice” compared to a child making a “choice”.
A child’s interests are not necessarily served by limiting contact with one parent when a child requests it. It is important to know why a child is taking a resistant position and to address any underlying factors that may be affecting the child’s choice in the matter.
Private counselors and other resources, such as the Hear the Child Society or Views of the Child reports can aid parents when this type of behaviour occurs. If a child is consistently refusing to see the other parent, then it is important to know why.
Parents' refusal to visit
Children need stability and consistency in their lives. It is disruptive to both them and the other parent when a parent misses a scheduled visit, cancels at the last minute, or just fails to show up at all. This is an absolute no-no. Both parents need to be able to rely on a fixed parenting schedule; this benefits the child by giving them a reliable routine, and it benefits both parents by allowing them to plan their life apart from the child. Some flexibility from both parents is a wonderful thing, but a situation where one parent is constantly backing out, cancelling, or changing dates is not good for anyone.
Under section 63 of the Family Law Act if a parent routinely fails to exercise parenting time or contact, then the other parent can apply to court to be reimbursed for the costs associated with the failure to exercise the scheduled time. In an application brought under this section, a Court may also order a parent or both parents to participate in family dispute resolution, have one or both parents and/or child attend counseling or specified services or programs or involve a supervisor for transfers of a child. Addressing missed visits is a process option that was not previously available to parents under the old legislation.
There are quite a lot of public and community resources available to help parents deal with parenting issues, including issues arising while the parents are together. No matter what your circumstances are, if you are having problems, get help. Whether that help involves reading a book or a pamphlet, or going to a seminar, or meeting with a support group, your children are worth it.
Programs and agencies
The Parenting After Separation program is run by the provincial Ministry of Justice. It is the mandatory program required of parents by certain Provincial (Family) Courts, but is open to everyone. A list of the agencies that provide this service is available from the Family Justice division through Clicklaw. You can download the Parenting After Separation program's handbook online, in English, Chinese, Punjabi and French.
The Parenting After Separation program is offered in Cantonese and Mandarin in Surrey, Richmond and Vancouver, call 604-684-1628. The program is also offered in Punjabi and Hindi in those areas, call 604-597-0205.
Simon Fraser University offers Information Children, a fairly broad and extremely useful non-profit program that deals with parenting issues and includes mediation services. This program offers parenting workshops in New Westminster and Burnaby, and has a handy parenting helpline. Contact Information Children through their website or at:
The provincial Family Justice Centres may be able to direct you to other helpful parenting resources, and are located across the province. Contact them through Clicklaw's HelpMap or at:
Recommended reading for parents
The federal Department of Justice has a number of high-quality resources in the family law section of its website that you may find helpful. You'll find publications and research papers about parenting after separation and on other topics important to children's well-being after their parents separate. These papers are of a uniformly high quality and are well worth the read. This website has a section on creating parenting plans that links to three useful resources pages:
The federal Department of Justice's website also has information on helping your kids cope.
There are lots of good books about parenting after separation available at your local bookstore, included the following (my favourites are in bold):
- The Good Divorce: Keeping your family together when your marriage comes apart, by D. Ahrons
- Helping your Child through your Divorce, by F. Bienenfeld
- The Truth about Children and Divorce, by R.E. Emery
- Healing Hearts: Helping Children and Adults Recover from Divorce, by E. Hickey and E. Dalton
- Helping your Kids Cope with Divorce the Sandcastles Way, by M.G. Neuman
- Mom's House, Dad's House: Making Two Homes for Your Child, by I. Ricci
- Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising your Child with an Uncooperative Ex, by J.A. Ross
- Helping Children Cope with Divorce, by A. Teyber
Recommended reading for children
The books that follow are drawn from the suggestions of the Vancouver law firm Henderson Heinrichs and are reproduced with permission.
- At Daddy’s on Saturdays, by L. Walvoord and J. Friedman; for ages 5+
- Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families, by L. Krasny Brown and M. Brown; for ages 4+
- Divorce is a Grown Up Problem, by J. Sinberg; for ages 4+
- Let’s Talk About It: Divorce, by F. Rogers; for ages 5+
- On Divorce by S. Bennett Stein and E. Stone; for ages 3+
- What’s Going to Happen to Me?, by E. Leshan; for ages 9+
- Why Are We Getting a Divorce?, by P. Mayle and A. Robins; for ages 6+
The provincial Ministry of Justice has published two websites at www.familieschange.ca designed to help children understand and cope with the issues that arise when their parents separate or divorce. One is for children and the other is for teens; both are very well put together.
The federal Department of Justice has published a book for 9- to 12-year-olds called What Happens Next?, available online and in print. The print version is a lot friendlier and what I'd suggest giving to a child.
- Clicklaw Common Question: More information about the Parenting After Separation program
- Justice Education Society: Parenting After Separation handbook for parents
- Justice Education Society: Parenting After Separation brochure
- Justice Education Society: Aboriginal Parenting After Separation
- BC Ministry of Justice: Feedback from Parenting After Separation Program Participants
- Legal Services Society: Parenting After Separation courses
- BC Ministry of Justice and JES: A guide for grown-ups (Complement kids' guide to separation and divorce)
- Parenting After Separation program
- Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines
- Sample Parenting Plans Idaho
- Online Parenting After Separation Course
- Simon Fraser University's Information Children Website
- Department of Justice's Supporting Families Website
- Justice Education Society and BC Ministry of Justice's Families Change Website
- Hear the Child Society
|The above was last reviewed for legal accuracy by Mary Mouat, QC and Samantha Rapoport April 14, 2017.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|