I have worked with divorcing clients for the past 25+ years. (My previous blog post explains why this is so important to me.) My goal is always to reduce tension and conflict in the family, since parental conflict is what hurts the children most. I do this by helping parents establish a safe and healthy co-parenting relationship.
You probably feel that you shield the children from conflict, and you may be surprised to learn that your children might absorb their parents’ stress. One child told me that he could tell when his mom and dad had been arguing by how his mom hugged him. Children have sensitive conflict radar detectors and are keen observers.
The best way to avoid future conflicts is to develop a written document, a “Parenting Plan,” that spells out many parental decisions. Both parents must agree to what is in that document because it gets filed with the court with the Marital Settlement Agreement.
What is a “Parenting Plan”?
To start, the parenting plan spells out the way parents will share time with the children. There are many different schedules for co-parenting after divorce. The choice depends on the age of your children, their developmental needs, and how involved you and your co-parent are in parenting. My goal is to find a way to maximize your children’s time with each of you since we know that it’s almost always better for kids to be with a parent than a babysitter. At the same time, the parenting schedule needs to work with your work schedules and any other responsibilities you may have.
If you and your co-parent can't agree on a schedule, then a judge will generally make the decisions for you. Since the judge doesn’t know you or your family, it's far better when parents can work out realistic agreements (perhaps with the help of a divorce coach) that you can commit to and honor.
Ideally, a parenting plan includes a stable, predictable schedule that provides some security for your children. Most parents agree to some flexibility when necessary, but kids benefit when they know which parent they will be with, and when. The right schedule is the one that fits your family best.
Do I really have to have one? Why?
Parenting plans can be very bare-bones or quite detailed. At a minimum, the parenting plan must include the schedule of parenting time. It spells out when each parent is “on duty” and “off duty.”
If you can work with your co-parent to develop a more detailed plan, your children will benefit. Since parenting plans "pre-decide" many of the issues that arise after divorce, you won't have conflicts with your ex. Your kids always do better when their parents can work together peacefully, even if they don't love each other anymore. A divorce coach can guide you in developing a parenting plan that fits your family’s needs.
Parents who nest (or “birds-nest”) during the divorce transition will also be much more successful with a nesting parenting plan. A nesting plan will likely include many of the same topics you’ll have in your parenting plan, as well as unique topics such as finances and how you will care for the home.
The parenting plan can identify likely issues and provide a roadmap for handling issues that aren’t easily resolved. By anticipating issues that will predictably arise you can create a documented plan for how to deal with them. Explicit, written agreements will serve as default agreements, and prevent future conflicts. You may change any of these agreements as long as you both agree.
Your plan can address issues such as the holidays, birthdays, travel, medical decision-making, schools, religious training, extracurricular activities, how and when to introduce a new partner to your children, alcohol and drug use, screen time, chores, special needs, parties, sleepovers, driving, and many other issues. When I work with parents we discuss extended family relationships and how the parents will support those relationships.
Most importantly, parents make agreements about their communication, how much and what information is shared, especially when it concerns the children. They decide how they will use texting, email, and online calendars or other software, such as Our Family Wizard. They make agreements about boundaries and privacy. Many other topics may be included depending on the needs of the family.
The more comprehensive the plan, the easier it will be to minimize future conflicts. But since it isn’t possible to predict every possible issue that may arise as your children grow, the plan should include an agreement about what you'll do when you have a disagreement that you can't resolve without support or help. For example, you may agree that either of you can request the assistance of a neutral therapist or mediator. The other parent agrees to attend, and the parent initiating the assistance pays for the first meeting.
Sometimes parents turn to a therapist for help putting their parenting plan in writing. The therapist can share child development and divorce research as well as his or her clinical experience. This information helps parents consider their decisions. There are also tools online to assist parents who can develop a parenting plan cooperatively and without conflict.
Your plan is unique to your family and can be revised as your family lives with the plan and your children grow older. If you have good-enough communication with your co-parent you may be able to revise your plan together, and the revised parenting plan usually doesn’t need to be filed with the court. When you and your ex agree on a plan the court doesn’t have to get involved and make orders. And when you don’t agree, the court can decide for you. As a court order, the court has the power to enforce the parenting plan if one parent decides he or she won’t follow it. So be sure to keep any agreements you have made, and document them.
It's essential that you follow your parenting plan, as it is a legal document. Keeping your agreements will build trust and respect, so be careful not to agree to something if you can’t honor it. If both you and your co-parent fully participate in crafting a written agreement, the plan will help to stabilize your children and family post-divorce. The parenting plan is a cornerstone of a successful co-parenting relationship and is one of the best ways to help your children adjust and heal.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2021