It’s usually best for children if co-parenting arrangements keep both parents involved in a child’s life. But it’s not always easy to create new parenting arrangements when a relationship breaks down.
For example, you and your child’s other parent might both want as much time as possible with your child, or your child’s other parent might not want to see your child. You might see equal time with your child as a fair solution, but this might not be possible for various reasons – for example, because your child is still breastfeeding. Or it might not be the best option for your child.
There are many practical issues to sort through, too, like where you both live. Children generally do better when their parents live near each other, but this isn’t an option for all separated families.
Whatever your situation, you and your child’s other parent need to make clear decisions about how you’ll parent your child now and in future. It’ll be easier if you can both keep open minds and try to think about how your child is feeling as you work out your co-parenting arrangements.
To meet everyone’s needs – with a focus on what’s best for your child – you might have to make some compromises.
Developing a co-parenting plan
A co-parenting plan is a useful way to set out care arrangements for your child, your parental responsibilities and the new relationship between you and your child’s other parent. The key thing is to ensure that your child can have safe and healthy relationships with all their parents.
A co-parenting plan should address:
- a contact or visitation schedule
- children’s medical needs or concerns
- holidays and special events
- guidelines for decision-making and dispute resolution.
The plan should also include back-up arrangements in case your child needs to stay home from child care or school. That might mean talking to your child’s other parent about how they can help out. You might be able to discuss this in person, on the phone, or via email or text message.
Once your co-parenting plan is in place and working, you need to agree on what happens if one of you needs to change the plan or has a change in circumstances in the future.
You might be able to sort out a new co-parenting plan together. If you can’t, you can get help from a family dispute resolution practitioner, mediator or relationship counsellor. You can also call the Family Relationship Advice Line on 1800 050 321 or Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277.
I was so relieved we had set up a schedule for contact. But there were times when I had to go to my elderly parents interstate unexpectedly, and there were weddings and special events that meant we needed to change things. We ended up realising that it had to be flexible.
– Philly, 30, separated for 1 year and mother of 2 children
Co-parenting successfully: tips
Aim to be flexible
Flexibility benefits everyone. For example, if your child’s other parent is sometimes late for pick-ups, it might help to be ready with alternative plans. If you’re flexible when your child’s other parent needs to change something, they might be more flexible when you need it.
Your plans will also need to adapt as your child grows up and their needs and circumstances change – for example, when they start school, take up a new sport or become more independent.
Try to accept different parenting styles
The parenting style of your child’s other parent might change now that you’re no longer in a relationship. If this is challenging for you, it can help to make a distinction between your preferences and your child’s needs.
- Your preferences might include ‘I want my child to be sugar free’ or ‘I want my child to make their own bed and school lunch’.
- Your child’s needs include things that affect their health and safety, like taking prescribed medication or avoiding foods they’re allergic to.
If you don’t like something your child’s other parent does because of your preferences, you might be able to let it slide. This way, you can focus parenting discussions on your child’s needs.
As long as your child is safe and secure, different parenting approaches and styles can help your child learn that different rules apply in different situations.
Help your child feel connected to their other parent
If it’s not upsetting for you, you could display a family photo that includes your child’s other parent.
You could also try to be positive about what your child is doing when they’re at their other parent’s house. For example, ‘Wow, that looks like a great cubbyhouse. What a fun weekend you’ve had!’ or ‘I love hearing about all your adventures’.
And encourage your child to stay in touch with their other parent when they’re with you. They could use phone calls, video calls, text messages, DMs or email. This is especially important if your child’s other parent lives far away.
Keep your child’s other parent up to date
Your child will benefit when their other parent knows what’s going on for them. You and your child’s other parent could keep each other up to date by using a shared online calendar or app that lists your child’s weekly schedule, including special school or social events.
Your child’s child care service, preschool or school can send records and newsletters to both you and your child’s other parent. You or your child’s other parent can ask for these if you’re not already getting them.
Plan for tasks, activities and events
You might want your child’s other parent to be involved in or take responsibility for tasks like child and family health visits or school outings. If you’re on good terms, you could plan to go to activities like parent-teacher interviews or school concerts together. If you can’t go together, let your child know that you’ll go separately. Plan how to handle it if you’re both there.
Give your child’s other parent some time to learn the ropes
If you did most of the caring for your child before your separation, your child’s other parent might take a little time to learn about the practical side of caring for children. It’s good for everyone if you can focus on the positive things your child’s other parent does.
Be prepared for some challenging feelings
When your child is with their other parent, you might feel a sense of loss, loneliness and disappointment. It can help to see this time as an opportunity. For example, time apart from your child can give you a chance to rest, relax and pursue relationships with family and friends.
Planning can help you cope when your child is away. You could arrange to do some exercise, see friends for a meal, visit family or see a movie.
If possible, agree in advance on the kind of contact you’ll have with your child while they’re with their other parent. For example, you might use phone calls, video calls, text messages, DMs or email. When you’re talking with your child, focus on them and try not to show how much you’re missing them.
Dealing with special celebrations when you’re co-parenting
Sometimes the biggest days of the year – for example, special religious festivals or holidays – are the hardest times to work out parenting plans that suit everyone. Being alone on a significant day, without your child, is difficult for many separated parents.
Flexibility and creativity is the key to sorting this out.
Some parents split special days in half. For example, the child spends the morning with one parent and the afternoon with the other parent. For others, it works better to alternate parenting on special days every year.
And some parents hold celebrations before or after the special day. This is a way to create new rituals while holding on to some traditions that you previously shared, like opening presents in bed in the morning or sharing a special dessert.
It’s important to talk with your child in advance about the arrangements for their birthday and other special days. Depending on your child’s age, you could include them in discussions too.
Also try to share information with your child’s other parent about the larger gifts you might buy for a special occasion, to avoid doubling up.