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The Essentials of a Successful Parenting Plan

Divorcing parents need a detailed, written co-parenting plan. Here's how.

A comprehensive, detailed, and documented parenting plan, like a peace treaty, will help parents avoid future battles. This way, parenting disagreements will not escalate into conflicts.

Developing a parenting plan together will ensure a smooth transition to co-parenting.
Source: fauxels/Pexels

A good parenting plan cannot anticipate every possible conflict. But it can identify likely issues and provide a roadmap for handling issues that are not easily resolved. Co-parenting and the absence of conflict will help your children adjust to the new family structure. It will help them thrive in this uncertain world.

I have worked with divorcing clients for more than 25 years. I have focused on helping parents avoid court while establishing a safe and healthy co-parenting relationship. During COVID many couples have been able to develop successful nesting and parenting plans to stabilize their families. In fact, my book, The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting was released in September.

Most divorces include a basic schedule of sharing time with your children. A more thoughtful parenting plan will ensure the success of your co-parenting experience.

What is a thoughtful parenting plan?

Parents who work with a divorce coach or experienced family therapist can anticipate many issues that will predictably arise. The plan documents how you will deal with them. If both parents participate in the development of the parenting plan, and willingly commit to the very detailed and explicit agreements in the plan, co-parenting will go much more smoothly.

Parenting plans are often attached to and filed with the final divorce papers, the Marital Settlement Agreement. However, the parenting plan is a “living document.” That is, you can make changes in the plan at any time, by mutual agreement. As your children grow, as your circumstances change, you will want to revisit and revise your plan to fit your current needs.

Why You Need a Parenting Plan

Traditionally, the parenting plan has been about child custody and the legal authority to make decisions on behalf of the children. This bare-bones plan does little to support a healthy co-parenting relationship during the initial period of separation and post-divorce. Research has shown us that the single most harmful aspect of a divorce for children is parents in conflict.

Conflict hurts kids when it continues after the divorce is over. Many adult children of divorce will confirm this. Even when parents feel that they shield the children from conflict, children will absorb the parents’ stress. A 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.

Given the research, I have found that a more comprehensive and detailed parenting plan will help parents avoid future battles. With a plan, co-parenting disagreements or skirmishes will not escalate into conflicts. Even the best parenting plan cannot anticipate every possible conflict. But it can identify likely issues and provide a roadmap for handling the ones that are not easily resolved. The plan is co-created by the parents working together. Often parents seek the help of a divorce specialist. The plan is unique to each family and tailored to the needs of each family member.

How to Create a Successful Parenting Plan

The guidance of a divorce coach or therapist will help you develop a successful parenting plan.
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

Sometimes parents turn to a therapist to facilitate this conversation. There are advantages to working with a divorce coach or therapist while developing a parenting plan. The therapist can share child development and divorce research as well as his or her clinical experience. This information helps parents consider their decisions.

If the parents are communicating well, there are tools online to help them create their own plan.

A former client, Stephanie (not her real name), called me recently. She let me know how glad she was that she and her ex had made an agreement about how and when their children would be informed of any new relationships. Four years ago, when she and her ex were developing the plan, I coached them to discuss this issue. The topic brought up painful emotions for both of them and they were reluctant to talk about it. They agreed that if a parent was in a committed, long-term relationship, that parent would inform the other parent before telling the children. They also agreed that it was the right of the parent in the new relationship to tell the children.

Stephanie said to me, “I am so glad that we agreed to this even though I didn’t get the point of it when we divorced. If my kids had come home to tell me their father was getting married before he had let me know, I would have been so upset. My kids would have had to see my shock or anger. Because he had already told me, I’d had time to digest the information. I was more able to help my kids process the news.” Dealing with new relationships is just one of a number of topics that are included in a good parenting plan.

What Is Included in the Successful Parenting Plan

A parenting plan includes a detailed schedule. It spells out when each parent is “on duty” and which is “off duty.” Taking into account their work schedules, and their children’s needs and ages, the parents develop a basic time-sharing calendar.

I encourage parents to talk about exceptions, such as holidays, birthdays, summer planning, travel with or without the children, and family traditions.

The parents decide who holds the passports, who is the liaison with doctors, the schools, etc.

Parents often want to include agreements about screen time, school activities, and religious education.

They discuss extracurricular activities, medical decisions, decisions about driving, sleepovers, parties, and more.

 Julia M Cameron/Pexels
A parenting plan tells your children that you are working together even if no longer married. This makes kids feel secure.
Source: Julia M Cameron/Pexels

Parents often discuss and make agreements about communication with the children when off duty.

They discuss discipline, rules at each home, and the children’s chores.

We craft agreements around safety concerns, and the parents’ use of alcohol or drugs, particularly when the children are present.

We discuss extended family relationships and how the parents will support those relationships.

Most importantly, parents make agreements about their communication, how and what information is shared.

They make agreements about boundaries and privacy.

Many other topics may be included depending on the needs of the family.

What If a Problem Comes Up Later?

A critical part of the parenting plan is an agreement about what they will do when they cannot resolve a future disagreement. For example, they may agree that either of them 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.

Parents who nest (or “birdsnest”) during the transition to divorce will also be much more successful with a nesting parenting plan. A nesting plan will include many of the above topics, as well as unique topics such as budgets, finances, and care of the home.

If both parents fully participate in crafting a written agreement, the plan will help to stabilize the children and family post-divorce. The parenting plan is one of the essential tools of a successful co-parenting relationship. Having a plan is one of the best ways to help you and your children adjust and heal.

An earlier version of this post was published on

ⓒ Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2020.

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