Advice for Divorced Parents of Young Children
Getting a divorce can be tough. It’s an emotional and tense process, even if you and your spouse are amicable and able to effectively talk through your options. When you have minor children, that makes the divorce process even more challenging.
But when you consider the needs of your child first, you’ll get through this in one piece. It may not be easy but, in the end, it’ll all be worth it as you enter your post-divorce parenting life with a clear plan and direction for your children.
What can I expect when co-parenting with my ex-spouse?
When you co-parent with your former spouse, it’s a change in circumstances for everyone involved. The most important thing to remember is that you must do what you can, both spouses, to ensure your child experiences as little change as possible. This is going to be a traumatic experience for everyone involved, especially young children. Always keep this in mind.
When you have minor children and you’re going through a divorce, your divorce proceedings will include details and negotiations about your child and all matters relating to them. During your divorce, you’ll need to address the following:
- How your child will split their time between their parents
- Who will be able to make medical and schooling decisions
- Which parent’s address will be used as the permanent address for your child
- How visitation will work if one parent does not have equal time-sharing
Most importantly, you and your spouse will need to agree on how to address your child’s questions during the divorce. It’s best if both of you can be present and discuss things with your child together. That will give your child more confidence that their life will not be interrupted.
But even in more contentious situations, you and your spouse must agree on how to discuss the divorce with your child, even if you’re doing it separately. Vitally, you'll need to agree that you won’t disparage the other parent when talking to your child. Not only will that hinder your child’s relationship with their other parent, but it could also present legal issues for the parent making disparaging comments. If you need an objective third party who can help you work out a parenting plan, we recommend finding an experienced divorce mediator who specializes in parenting conflicts.
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Where will our child live?
When considering where your child will live and how you'll co-parent with your child’s other parent, always consider what’s in your child’s best interest. That’s also what a court will consider. Not every divorce will require a judge to review factors for a child’s well-being but some will. When a court does get involved, a judge will look at several factors:
- Both parents’ ability to provide a stable, loving, and financially supportive home
- The relationship the child has with both parents
- Both parents willingness to continue their relationship with their child
- Where the child has lived
- The child’s preference, if they are old enough to state one
These are good guidelines for you, as well. Be objective and fair. Even if you want full custody of your child, is that really what’s in their best interest? Shouldn’t your child have the opportunity to develop their relationship with their other parent?
Absent extreme circumstances like one parent being incarcerated, you’ll need to start with a presumption of equality. So when you're considering who has primary custody of your child, consider that you’ll most likely end up somewhere near 50/50. It may not always be exactly equal but that should be your intent.
Crafting a parenting plan with young children
It’s important to consider the above factors because you'll need to put them in your parenting plan. A parenting plan is a legally binding document that lays out the rights and responsibilities of each parent. Be aware, however, that’s not set in stone and can be modified if circumstances change.
Having a parenting plan is crucial to ensuring that you protect your rights to see your child. Without a plan, as many divorcing couples choose to go, there’s no formal agreement and if your spouse breaks your informal agreement, you can’t hold them accountable. It’s essentially a contract between you and your child’s other parent that discusses who has custody of your child and when. If your former spouse breaks the agreement, you have a formal parenting plan in place to take before a judge to show them the terms were violated.
Every parenting plan is different, as every family has different needs and circumstances. Let's consider a couple of examples.
If you and your spouse are amicable and you both agree that your child deserves to spend as close to equal time as possible with each parent, your parenting plan may break down as follows:
- Each parent has the child for one week at a time
- You rotate major holidays and vacations (those should be listed in your plan)
- You share birthday responsibilities and rotate between your two homes
- You’re both involved in medical and schooling decisions
- Neither of you can travel with your child out of the country without written agreement from the other party
- Any changes to your parenting plan must be agreed upon in writing
What if I'm concerned about my child's safety?
Lets consider a different example, one where your spouse has previously threatened to harm you or your child. Here, the parenting plan may look a bit different.
- You have primary custody of your child.
- Your spouse is entitled to supervised visitation at predetermined times and locations (you won’t be present but a professional supervisor will).
- After a certain number of successful supervised visits, your spouse will be able to have unsupervised visits and, eventually, have overnight stays with your child.
- You’ll retain sole decision-making authority over your child medical and schooling needs (this may change if your former spouse eventually receives shared parenting responsibilities).
- Any changes to your parenting plan must be agreed upon in writing.
These two scenarios are quite different but both involve a formal parenting plan. Without one, you’re opening up the door to abuse of parenting boundaries. Parenting plans are crucial to your relationship with your child. Whether you create one together with your spouse or a judge creates one for you, having a parenting plan will ensure your rights with your child remain intact.
Tips for transitioning to two-household co-parenting
How you and your spouse talk to your child about each other, the divorce, and the entire family situation will make a big difference in how your child processes the divorce. This is an emotional process but if you think of your child’s other parent as a business partner, that can help make the process more transactional and less emotional, reducing the likelihood that either of you will speak ill of the other.
- Be polite and respectful of your child’s other parent, even if you disagree
- Don’t speak ill of the other parent
- Be clear and specific when discussing matters with your former spouse (keep it business-like and transactional)
- Remember to keep your promises to your child (they need stability and love now more than ever)
- Try to avoid talking about your divorce and instead focus on your family unit
- Work together with your former spouse to provide your child with a safe and stable family environment, even though they’re splitting their time
- Don’t fight with the other parent, especially in front of your child
- Make sure to discuss important issues about your child with the other parent as soon as possible (school injuries, report cards, new friends)
Ultimately, remember to keep your child’s best interests in mind. That may mean you have to move on from a topic before you speak ill of your child’s other parent. Keeping your child out of your marital issues can be hard but it’s almost always the best thing for them.