The Essentials of a Successful Parenting Plan
I have worked with divorcing clients for the past 25 years. I have learned many things I wish I had known when I got divorced in the early 1990s. Most parents discover that raising children is even more rewarding than they had dreamed of. I wish I had known that being a single mom was more complicated than it looks.
And I wish I had known how to create a successful parenting plan and co-parenting relationship possible with my ex.
In my work since then, I have focused on helping parents establish a safe and healthy co-parenting relationship. Parents can anticipate issues that will predictably arise and have a documented plan as to how to deal with them. The best way to do this is to create a written co-parenting plan with explicit agreements that both parents have bought into.
Often these plans are attached to and filed with the final divorce papers, the Marital Settlement Agreement.
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 and fighting 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. Like a peace treaty, 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. The plan is created by the parents working together. Often parents seek the help of a divorce specialist. The plan is unique to each family and anticipates many of the issues that will predictably arise. It can be revised as the family lives with the plan and the children grow older.
How to Create a Successful Parenting Plan
Sometimes parents turn to a therapist to facilitate this conversation. The therapist can share child development and divorce research as well as his or her clinical experience. This information helps parents consider their decisions. Over time, parents may revisit the parenting plan if family circumstances change.
If the parents are communicating well, there are tools online to help them create their own plan.
A former client, Stephanie, 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 which parent is “on duty” and which is “off duty.” The plan is tailored to each family’s needs. Taking into account their work schedules, 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. 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 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?
Parents should make 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 “birds-nest”) during the transition to divorce will also be much more successful with a nesting parenting plan. A nesting plan will likely include many of the above topics, as well as unique topics such as 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 your children adjust and heal.
Ann Buscho, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Northern California. She specializes in issues related to divorce, parenting, parenting planning, and co-parenting counseling. www.drannbuscho.com