Parenting After Separation
Parenting after separation or divorce can pose many challenges. We want to help you and your family adjust and cope with this change in your lives. The links below will help you learn about how to help your children through this difficult time, legal issues, parenting plans, and frequently asked questions.
Coping with Separation & Divorce
Telling Your Child about the Separation or Divorce
- Tell your children together, if possible.
- Use language that fits your children's ages and understanding. Explain clearly and directly what it means to separate or get a divorce.
- Avoid blame and keep children out of the middle. Do not go into details of the reasons for your separation, whatever your child's age. Children need to be able to count on and respect both of their parents.
Helping Your Children Cope & Co-parenting after Separation or Divorce
- This is an important time to be with your children and if possible, spend some alone time with each one to listen to them, and give them the love, attention, and reassurance they need from you. Show sensitivity to children's needs, remembering what matters to them and sharing in their excitement about their pleasures (e.g. hobbies).
- Children need to continue to have a relationship with both parents whenever possible. Co-parenting means that both parents maintain a shared focus on their child's well-being and talk to and about each other in a respectful tone in front of their child. Research shows that when children get along better with BOTH parents, they have closer relationships to each parent.
- The fewer changes you make in the first year following separation or divorce, the better. The children and adolescents who appear to be most vulnerable, socially and emotionally, are those who experience a number of changes (e.g. divorces, remarriages, moves, changing schools). With time and continued support from their parents, children can grow up to be as happy and healthy as children whose parents did not separate or divorce. Familiar and comfortable places, people, activities and routines will help children adjust.
- Recognize when to seek outside help for your child and/or yourself.
Positive Co-Parenting Do's & Don'ts
Children need to continue to have a relationship with both parents whenever possible. There are ways parents can co-parent together and parent individually that are especially important for helping children cope with the stresses of parental separation or divorce.
- Co-parenting means that both parents maintain a shared focus on their child's well-being and talk to and about each other in a respectful tone in front of your child. It also means that each parent actively supports the other parent's time and involvement with their child so that children don't feel they have to choose – and lose. Research shows that when children get along better with BOTH parents, they have closer relationships to each parent.
- Let your children talk about and show enthusiasm for the other parent's home and the activities they share.
- Children often feel a great deal of stress when parents separate and it's up to the parents to make it as painless as possible for them. Children need to understand the changes that are happening in their family, but without hearing all the details.
- If you can work together as co-parents to understand what is hard for your child at any point and how you can make things easier, you will learn what your child can or cannot handle, for instance: children often have difficulties adjusting to change and transitions between parents and houses in the early stages of separation, even when parents cooperate well and there is a minimum of conflict about parenting decisions. These transition difficulties are not necessarily the fault of the other parent.
- Show sensitivity to children's needs, remembering what matters to them and sharing in their excitement about their pleasures (e.g. hobbies) and make children feel valued by spending quality time with each of them. As much as possible, allow them to stay involved in their previous activities, friendships, and interests.
- While many children have difficulties following their parents' separation or divorce, most learn to deal with the changes in their family. The children and adolescents who appear to be most vulnerable, socially and emotionally, are those who experience a number of changes (e.g. divorces, remarriages, moves, changing schools). The fewer changes you make in the first year following separation or divorce, the better. With time and continued support from their parents, however, children can grow up to be as happy and healthy as children whose parents did not separate or divorce.
Age-by-Age Guidelines: Children's Reactions and How to Help
Children approach change differently, depending in part on their temperament and age. Even when parents are cooperative with each other, children will often:
- Find it difficult to leave either parent or move between them (both coming and going);
- Act anxious or whiny, and act in ways that "test" his/her parents' follow through when it is time to make a transition;
- Be wound up, reserved, disobedient, or unhappy for a day or so after moving from one house to the other.
Parents are often quick to think children are reacting to something the other parent is not doing or is doing wrong. But these reactions may not be the fault of the other parent. They are the children's efforts at having some control in their world. For most children, transitions will get easier over time.
Easing Transitions Between Homes
- Follow a schedule and routine for moving between houses.
- Teach your child that your word counts by showing up on time.
- Allow schedules to change from time to time to fit your child's age and stage of development.
- Be as flexible as possible concerning scheduling changes in order to model cooperative behavior to your child.
- Give the other parent as much possible advance notice of changes of schedule, vacation times and travel plans.
- Find activities that allow you and your child an opportunity to build your relationship so that you both look forward to time together.
- Remember that time together between parent and child is more important than an activity itself.
- Set up a place for your child's creations (art work, pictures, etc.) in order to help him/her feel that "this is home." Encourage your child to bring games, favorite objects, and crafts from each home to the other.
- When possible, involve your child or put him/her in charge of packing and unpacking clothes, toys, etc. for change between homes. This helps him/her feel a sense of control.
- Allow your child to bring friends along to each home sometimes.
- Introduce your child to neighborhood children he/she can play with at each home.
Resolution Services provides the following useful checklists:
Three Legal Issues to Decide
- Decision-Making Authority: determining how to make major decisions regarding care of the children. Parents who are guardians have joint decision-making authority, unless an agreement or a court order states otherwise. A parenting order can include which authority to make decision on particular subjects, parenting time given to each guardian, and process to resolve future disputes. The "best interests of the child" is a standard used in family law to make decisions that impact children. All circumstances affecting the child are taken into account, and what is "reasonable" or "best" in one family's situation may not apply to other families.
- Living Arrangements and Parenting Time: In most situations, children desire to – and have the right to- spend time with both of their parents, regardless of how you feel about each other. Seeing both parents as regularly as possible helps children maintain their emotional connections with each parent despite the separation or divorce.
- Financial Support for the Children: Child support is for the children, and is the right of the child. Its purpose is to maintain a standard of living for children so that they better adjust to their parents living apart. Child support is not tied to parenting time: you are expected to pay child support whether or not you are spending time with your child. It is the responsibility of both parents to contribute to the cost of raising their children to the best of their abilities. Department of Justice Canada Child Support Table
- Child Support Order Application (PDF)
- Steps in the Court Process (PDF)
Dispute Resolution Process
The Courts are very supportive of families working together to establish their parenting agreements through collaborative, honest discussion early in the separation process.
Mediation is a voluntary process. Parents meet with a mediator who remains neutral to them both and helps them communicate, develop options, clarify issues and focus on the future. The mediator does not make decisions but assists parents in reaching an agreement. Most parents who try mediation are able to reach an agreement. Research shows that mediation is faster, cheaper and results in less conflict than going to court. Any settlement reached between the parents will be written into a "Mediated Agreement" document, which is not a legal document, but can be the basis for a child-support court order or parenting agreement that is legally binding. Most experts agree that beginning mediation earlier is most beneficial. Mediation has been used most often in low to moderate conflict situations; higher conflict couples who want to stay out of court may find collaborative family law more appropriate for their situation.
Collaborative Family Law (CL)
CL is similar to mediation, as it is based on beliefs that parents can reach their own decisions and find agreements that work for all family members. However, in CL, each parent has a lawyer, who gives legal advice and supports his/her interests during the negotiation. The lawyers also prepare the paperwork to make any agreement legally binding. These lawyers are not allowed to represent either parent if the parents cannot reach agreement and decide to take their conflict to courts for a judge's help in deciding; this provides a strong reason for parents to work harder to settle their disputes. A neutral parenting expert and a neutral financial expert are sometimes hired in the collaborative model to work together with the parents and lawyers as a larger team.
Judicial Dispute Resolution (JDR)
In JDR, a judge meets with parents (and usually their lawyers) for at least half a day to discuss any matters that are still in dispute. The judge may try to direct parents toward agreement. However, the judge cannot make a decision and insist on a resolution. If a settlement is reached, the judge may grant a consent order that makes the decision legal.
About Parent Plans
Parenting plans describe how parents will make decisions, share parenting time and expenses, and handle changes or disagreements. The parenting plan states whether parents will be making decisions together or one parent will have more authority for making certain kinds of decisions. They are strongly encouraged, regardless of the legal approach you choose for separation or divorce, and can protect you if problems arise. Creating a developmentally sensitive and thorough parenting plan now is a way to think carefully about your children and how you will continue to parent them separately and together.
Things to consider:
- Shared parenting arrangements benefit children's and parents' adjustment to separation and divorce in general. Shared parenting leads to both parents staying involved, which has direct benefits for children and the family's economic stability. It gives both parents the opportunity to get help and support from the other. Children report less missing and longing for the non-residential parent many years later. Shared parenting works best when parents are reasonably healthy people, cooperative and polite to each other, and able to keep children's interests front and centre.
- Shared parenting arrangements do not work well for all families. When parents are in ongoing conflict, shared parenting arrangements do not heal the relationship, and instead, children get caught in the middle of the fighting more often.
- Parents must create a schedule that has room for both parents' time with their child and opportunities to become comfortable, skilled caregivers. Spending regular time with both parents (except in instances of domestic violence/abuse/neglect) is desired and healthy for children of all ages.
- Infants need enough time with each parent to build secure attachment relationships. For them, it is critical to involve both parents in child-rearing as soon after parental separation as possible.
- Strive for a balance of consistency (following a routine, showing up on time), and flexibility (e.g. special events, work schedules), in your parenting schedules. Your child will learn about how to cooperate with other people by watching you.
- Asking children for their input about how they will spend their time, and really listening to what they say, will help them to feel cared about and respected, and will help them to overcome feelings that they are powerless in a changing world. However, it is important to give children a voice, not choice. Making final decisions is the responsibility of the parents.
Recent research has shown that when children are asked for their input (versus left out completely) during the process of mediation:
- Parents and children are more satisfied with parenting agreements and are less likely to change them;
- Parenting arrangements are more stable;
- Parents are less likely to go back to court over parenting matters;
- The quality of family relationships (between parents, father-child, mother-child) tends to improve over time.
- Parenting Plan Outline (PDF)
- Preparing for Your Parenting Plan (PDF)
- Parenting Plan Worksheet (PDF)
What makes it more or less difficult for children to adjust to separation and divorce?
Children's temperament (traits that they are born with, such as their adaptability and how strongly they usually react to situations); the family's economic situation (e.g., whether the children have to move to homes in less pleasant neighbourhoods, attend schools that are less supportive, or decrease their favourite activities; how well parents co-parent together and how well they parent individually have great potential to help children adapt.
I feel that I am doing my part to parent in the best interest of my children after divorce. How can I get the other parent to start doing the same?
Focus on what you can control – that is, your relationship with your child. Though you may see plenty of room for improvement in the other parent's parenting, you will not be successful at telling him/her what to do. You can talk together about the best ways to help your children cope, and how they make you feel, and what you hope can happen for your child and yourself, and see if that opens the door to conversation. You can also ask your former partner to join you in mediation or counseling to try to put some guidelines into practice. Mostly, you can try to behave well and see if your example encourages your ex-partner to act similarly to you.
What if the other parent is unable or unwilling to be involved with the children?
- Support your child in expressing disappointments without criticizing the other parent.
- Inform the other parent of the child's activities. If there is a history of disappointments, do not tell the child to inform his parent. Inform the other parent yourself.
- Do not push the child to involve his/her other parent. If the child wants to phone or write, then support that choice.
- Focus on what you can control - your relationship with your child. Sympathize with your child's feelings. While this behaviour might not change, sometimes after separation, an uninvolved parent feels more free to become more involved. Make room for it when it happens.
- If possible, keep in contact with some people from the other parent's side of the family.
What if I am a parent who wants to see the children, but the children don't want to see me?
- Don't give up. Drop your child little notes. Send cards on her birthday. Stop by at his activities if it doesn't upset him. Keep saying "I care about you and hope we can talk sometime soon."
- At the same time, don't be pushy. If you did hurtful things in the marriage or were not always involved when you were living with them, they will need some time to heal and decide if it is emotionally safe to be with you. If you are ready to be a positive presence in their life, keep letting them know that and showing them you will not try to force the issue, but you will stay steady.
- If you need help with your former spouse, try mediation with someone who is familiar with handling higher conflict situations and understands about changes in the parent's role post-separation or divorce.
How much will divorce cost me?
Emotional and financial costs of separation and divorce can be difficult to predict. Financially, amicable divorces have been reported as averaging between $5,000 and $10,000 but can exceed these numbers. Generally, the farther to the right you get on the dispute resolution process continuum, the costlier the divorce.
Family Community Support Services (FCSS), Town of Banff: 403.762.1251
Checklists for Divorce
Resolution Services/Family Justice Services: 403.297.6981 (Dial 310-0000 first for toll free access in Alberta, or visit Alberta Courts
- Provides information, referrals to other agencies, assistance with court documents, education programs for parents and families experiencing separation or divorce, mediation and dispute resolution programs. Alberta Justice offers mediation services to families, without charge to those who qualify.
Private Mediator (Fee for Service): Alberta Family Mediation Society, 1.877.233.0143
Lawyer Referral: 1.800.661.1095
Legal Aid: 1.866.845.3425
Provincial Court of Alberta (main), 780.427.2711, Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta (main), 780.422.2200
- Department of Justice Canada Child Support Look Up
- Child Support Services (provides help to individuals receiving Income Support, Alberta Adult Health Benefit, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, Albertans with low income) and Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP) – for managing child support payments: call 310.0000, then 403.297.6060
Courses Related to Separation and Divorce
- Parenting After Separation (PAS) — is a no cost, six hour workshop to help parents understand the effects and impact of separation or divorce on parents and their children. For information on the course, including how to register, call: 587.999.9242. There is also an online version of this course (3 hours): register online
- Parenting After Separation for Families in High Conflict (PASHC) - PASHC is a no cost three hour seminar available to all parents who have already completed the six hour Parenting After Separation (PAS) course. Course topics include: Separating Partner and Parental Roles, Parenting Plan for High Conflict Families, Anger, Abuse, Power and Control, Child Development and the Needs of Children, Renegotiating Boundaries. For more information or to register, please call: 587.999.9242.
Information adapted from: Parenting After Separation (PAS) Parent's Guide, Family Justice Services, 2012, Alberta Government