Updated: May 25, 2020
Wouldn't it be amazing if life was a good amount of predictable, and you just made your Parenting Plan - like the conscientious Co-Parents that you are - and then everything went along exactly as you expected, and everyone was happy with the arrangements, all of the time, and nothing ever came up that you hadn't written into your agreement in advance?
Yep, that would be sweet.
But life doesn't usually work that way.
Flat tyres, family emergencies, illness, an urgent call to fill a shift at work -- there's no avoiding life's little obstacles. And it's so important to remember that - when we write our initial Parenting Plan, and when those unexpected circumstances inevitably arise.
Setting our expectations, and realistically preparing ourselves for the odd anomaly in our parenting world will help us to respond more calmly, more resiliently.
And you know what? The bonus is that when we roll with these ups and downs, we build a sense of resilience into our children - which is also important because they can expect things to go awry in their little lives every now and then too.
So, today, let's look at these two BIG THINGS that will make life's little emergencies feel a lot more manageable when you're Co-Parenting:
Building "Changes" into your Parenting Plan when you create it, and
Managing Changes as they arise in your day to day Co-Parenting.
The difference between Emergency, Once-off, Short-Term and Long-Term changes.
Before we go too far, let's take a moment to define and distinguish between the different types of changes that you might come across.
Emergency: Usually you get no notice at all of emergencies, and it's no one's fault necessarily. It just pops up and you have to deal with it on the fly. This might include medical issues, a car break-down on the way to handover, or a call from your boss to cover an emergency shift. Usually this is something that you would need to advise your co-parent of straight away - where you might expect to communicate via an urgent phone call rather than a text message. In emergencies, you can expect that you will both have to change your plans in some way to meet the needs of your child.
Short-Term: These are usually less of a disruption than emergencies. You might realise that you're going to be 45 mins late to handover tomorrow because you're taking cousin Timmy to swimming class while his mum is having surgery; or you get a notice from the teacher that Talia's school concert is on in 3 weeks, and rehearsal is on the Wednesday evening when you would normally have dinner together. They are changes that you might even be able to discuss a few hours or a few days in advance, but probably not long enough to wait for your regular weekly chats, or email correspondence to re-arrange things.
Once-off: You might get a little more notice about these ones, and this can be a huge benefit as it gives you time to implement your Plan for "Changes". It's not unusual for a special occasion to present itself, that wasn't included in your Parenting Plan when you made it, but is important to your child nonetheless. An example might be Buddy's best friend's 6th birthday party, Aunt Emma's wedding, or a big job interview.
Long-Term: Long-term changes involve not just changing arrangements for a particular day or event, but making an ongoing change to your Parenting Plan. This might be something like changing Wednesday dinners to Saturday breakfast catchups, or your boss is making you work an extra day per week and you need to re-arrange child-care and parenting arrangements for that day. This type of change generally requires talking through needs, options and solutions, and nutting out a new arrangement that everyone can work with moving forward.
This post is particularly about dealing with emergencies, short-term changes, once-off arrangements, and small adjustments to your plan. (Long-term changes to your Parenting Arrangements require a different set of considerations, that I will go into in a separate post.)
Building Change into Your Parenting Plan
If you've been Co-Parenting for a while, you've probably already encountered all four of these situation-types! And how you work through them together is a good indication of your combined commitment to meeting the growing and changing needs of your child. That's really the foundation - because your child-focus will help guide your decisions. But if you're not ready for them, even your best intentions can still get derailed in the middle of unmet expectations and frustrated communications.
The reassuring thing is that if you know how to make a solid Parenting Plan, you don't have to worry when things pop up, because even though you haven't planned for that particular event, you have planned - in principle - for how you're going to manage Changes.
If you work through each of the items below, and make them part of your parenting agreement, you won't be starting from scratch! You'll have an action plan, and some simple steps that you can both follow, to ensure that your conflict-levels stay low, you both know what to expect, and your children stay out of the middle of any mess.
How much notice will you give?
Even though some of us are "planners" and some are more spontaneous, I think what we can agree on is that generally things tend to go more smoothly the more prepared we are for things. With this in mind, the rule-of-thumb in Co-Parenting is to give each other as much notice as possible. How much notice you are able to provide is obviously going to vary, depending on the nature of the event, but it's worth starting with this basic intention, and then working out what situations demand what level of departure from this. Under "Changes", your Parenting Plan might say:
We agree that when changes to our arrangements are required, we will give each other as much notice as possible.
The amount of notice you are giving, is also likely to determine the method of communication that you use.
Usually, the more urgent the change, the more direct the method of communication required.
For example, if you only have three days to work out a change to a normal overnight stay, you probably don't have time to wait for a Communication Book to go back and forth, so you might need to send an email.
And if you're letting your Co-Parent know that you're running late for handover this afternoon, you probably need to make a quick phone call (or send a text, if you know that works for you both).
If you're reading this and thinking "But Shona, the Communication Book is there because every other method of communication leads to us arguing and the children getting caught in the middle!" ... then this is going to affect the freedom that you have to make these smaller, more urgent changes to your arrangements.
Generally, the better your communication (and relationship in general) with your Co-Parent, the more flexibility your relationship can bear. The lower your levels of trust and communication, the more you will need to stick to your Plan, in order to minimise conflict.
(Keep reading, we'll talk a little more about this Consistency vs. Flexibility issue later, and I'll help you to work out if you should be leaning towards consistency or flexibility in your situation.)
How and When will you have conversations about changes?
This is about setting out an expected series of actions that you will both take in the event that you need to make a change to your plan. I recommend that when you write this into your Parenting Plan, you break it down into the four types of changes that we mentioned before (emergency, short-term, once-off, and long-term), so that you can easily remember them and refer to them when you need to.
You will want to address questions such as:
How much notice do you need?
What is the best way to communicate about changes? (Do text messages work okay for you, or do you prefer phone calls? Are you okay discussing these things face-to-face, or do you need to use a Communication Book? Any of these things can be successful, the question is - What is going to work best for you?)
What is reasonable for each of you?
How often do you expect changes to occur, and what is a reasonable amount of flexibility or consistency to expect?
Will you talk about changes at handovers, or is there another time and place for this?
Are there any big changes, or special occasions, coming up - that we can already foresee if we put a bit of thought into it - that we could factor into our plan under "Special Occasions" or "Up-coming Events" rather than relying on making changes later on?
Following are a few examples of ways that you could write these things into your Parenting Plans:
We agree that if an emergency arises for us or for one of the children, we will notify each other immediately (or as soon as practically possible) via phone call.
*Think: Your 10yo son has fallen off his bike and needs an urgent trip to the dentist to fix a broken tooth. How will you communicate this information? Does it impact your next handover? Does he need any belongings from the other house? Are there siblings that need to be cared for while a parent stays with the injured child?
We will discuss together any changes that are required to our normal arrangements.
We will work together to make sure that the children's needs are met first and foremost.
We agree that we will give each other at least 24 hours notice of short-term and once-off changes (not including emergencies).
We agree that if something comes up and we need to discuss a short-term change to our Parenting Plan within the same week, we will communicate this via text message as soon as we become aware of the need for a change.
We agree that if we have enough notice of a once-off change, we will write the details of the request for a change in the Communication Book, which will be read by the other parent the next time Timmy spends time with them.
If required, either parent can also request a separate parenting conversation via phone (at our agreed time, Saturdays at 7pm) so that details can be worked out in a space other than handover.
So that gives you a few ways to start writing into your Parenting Plan exactly how you plan to work through unexpected circumstances. (Of course, you will need to discuss each of your expectations about these different scenarios, and work out what will work best for you.)
Managing Changes As They Arise
The second part of the equation is following through with good decisions in the actual moment, and managing the Changes as they arise in your day to day Co-Parenting. Obviously there are a gazillion different situations that could arise, each with their own unique set of challenges and responses - so I can't go through every eventuality and tell you what to do (I wouldn't do that anyway, it's very un-mediator-ish!).
What I will do is answer the most common questions that parents ask in these situations, and trust that this will give you some guidance for your own particular decision-making in the moment.
This will include:
How much input should our child have about changes that affect them?
Should I get make-up time, if I'm giving up time with my child?
How should we communicate our decision to our child?
What's more important - Consistency or Flexibility?
What should we do if we can't agree on a change?
*If you and your Co-Parent are feeling stuck trying to work through these difficult situations, talking through the real-life scenario, in real-time, with someone might be just what you need. A mediator or divorce/conflict coach can help you to come up with different options, weigh up the possible outcomes/risks, and learn new skills for approaching these conversations in the future.
How much input should our child have about changes that affect them?
The short answer is always "It depends."
The full answer is a lengthy discussion of the following variables:
Your child's age
Your child's level of maturity (including any individual learning or developmental challenges)
Any long-term ramifications that you can foresee, and your child's ability to understand the consequences of a particular decision (both short- and long-term)
Your child's ability to separate their own wishes about the event from their desire to keep the peace, or avoid negative consequences from one or both parents, etc.
Your ability, as parents, to take on board your child's views without any negative repercussions (or punishment) for them
As an example, I would probably suggest that for children under 5 years old, it is appropriate for their parents to be making the vast majority of decisions on their behalf. Their understanding of their own needs and wants, and their concept of time and consequences, is very limited, and parents need to be the big, wise, strong, and kind ones for them.
For a 9 year old, on the other hand, it might be appropriate to ask about their preferences, and empathise with their feelings about the possible outcomes, but also place a strong emphasis on the fact that the final decision is up to Mum and Dad. This respects their views, but also releases them from the pressure of decision-making.
Should I get make-up time, if I'm giving up time with my child?
You might be surprised to learn that different parents can have very different views about how changes to time with their children should be managed.
What would you do ... if your Co-Parent asks to have the children for an extra weekend next month, so that they can go to their cousin's wedding in the country? Would you:
(a) Agree to the weekend with your Co-Parent, and ask for "make-up time" - perhaps, the Monday and Tuesday night of that week, or an extra Friday night during the holidays, in return?
(b) Agree to the weekend with your Co-Parent and make a direct swap - the children stay with you on a different weekend next month, instead of making their normal visit to the other parent?
(c) Agree to the weekend with your Co-Parent and remember it so that later on when you want to ask for extra time with the children, you will have some time "stored up"?
(d) Just go ahead with the extra weekend on this occasion, and figure that "it will all even out in the end"?
Can you imagine if you and your Co-Parent have different ideas about this, but you have never discussed it, how much room there is for frustration and misunderstanding when something eventually pops up and one parent does need to ask for a change?
It's worth discussing your individual perspectives in advance, so that you have an idea of what your preferences are, and writing your agreed process into your Parenting Plan. But then also remember that different changes and situations might demand more or less flexibility in the moment.
When it comes down to it, keep your child's needs at the centre, and work together as much as possible to meet them.
(Keep reading, and I will also go into what to do if you just can't agree!)
What's more important - Consistency or Flexibility?
Your Child Needs Both.
All routine, and no flexibility, makes for a boring existence without any opportunity to learn coping skills or build resilience. Changes are a part of life and children should naturally be exposed to surprises and disappointments - in an age-appropriate way, of course.
At the same time, all spontaneity and no predictability makes for a nervous, insecure little person, who doesn't know what to expect, has trouble trusting others to come through for them, and struggles with the constant barrage of change where their routine should be.
When you're figuring out whether to make a change to your Parenting Arrangements, the answer lies in exploring each of the following factors as they relate to your particular situation, and your unique and precious child:
The age and developmental stage of your child - in general, the younger the child, the more important consistency and routine are.
How long you have been following the current arrangement - have you laid a foundation of consistency so that a small change will be couched in a larger sense of order and security?
Level of communication between parents - if you are able to acknowledge their views and still keep their needs at the centre, your child will be better able to cope with changes.
Level of conflict between parents - the more you can trust each other to do what is best for your child, and the more you can present this unified protection to your child, the more resilient they will be, and the more examples they will see of good conflict resolution, which will add to their level of security.
Your child's relationship with each parent - signs of attachment, security, safety, warmth, and soothing with each.
Your child's personality and individual responses to stress (just like adults, some children thrive on greater levels of spontaneity, and some need a detailed run-down of everything they could possibly encounter when they get to the park).
How important the particular event is to them (what long-term impact will this have if they do/don't attend, and do they have the resources to cope with that impact?)
Let me just round that out ...
If you have decided that you should swap a weekend so that Jimmy can go to the movies with his cousin (that sounds good, at face value, right?) ... but you haven't considered the fact that his weekends have been changed around the last 4 weeks in a row, and the conflict between you is mounting with every conversation, and Jimmy has started showing signs of anxiety - having trouble sleeping, and hiding whenever Mum and Dad get within 5 feet of each other ... then you may not be seeing the whole picture ...
You could consider: postponing the movies until the following month during a normal visit, and putting a halt on any further changes until things have settled back into a bit of a routine again, and having a little sit-down-parenting-chat (or a talk with a mediator/coach) to get on the same page about what Jimmy really needs right now.
How should we communicate our decision (whether to change or not change an arrangement) to our child?
Regardless of the outcome that you settle on, the healthiest outcome for your child is that both parents are on the same page about what is best for them. Honestly, if the two most important people in your little one's world agree on something, even if there is a level of disappointment, they will most times take from the situation a feeling of safety and security.
The other thing that you can do to help your child through the situation is to let them know that you have taken their opinion into consideration, but the final choice was out of their hands. There are two vital aspects to be aware of: both allowing your child a voice, and relieving them of responsibility.
So, whether you are going ahead with a change, or whether you are reverting to your original Parenting Plan arrangement - and no matter who is passing on the news - the important things are to (a) acknowledge your child's wishes, and (b) present the final decision as one made by both parents, with their child's best interests as their first priority.
What should we do if we can't agree on a change?
I can almost hear you wondering ...
"Okay, Shona, that's sweet - but what if one of us wants to make a change, and the other one doesn't want to ... or just can't? What do we do then?"
Let me start by acknowledging that this is a totally reasonable question. There absolutely will be times when a request for a change doesn't suit both parents - and/or your child. I'm certainly not saying that you should always say 'Yes' to making changes, and you need to have a way of working through this No-Agreement scenario together.
So here are my 6 tips for what to do when you can't agree on a proposed change:
Ask questions. Either during the initial conversation, or after you've had a chance to think it over, ask some good questions to keep the lines of communication open, ensure that you're not making any assumptions, and hopefully make the best decision for everyone ... Try starting with, "What are your thoughts about how we could make this work?" ... "How would you like to arrange for make-up time?" ... "Can you help me weigh up the importance of the event to Sally with the need for consistency in her routine? What are your thoughts about these two things?" ... "I'm concerned about ... Are there any details that you feel I'm missing?".
Take a time-out. Let the other parent know that you're unsure about how that would work, and that you'd like to think it over. Especially if the conversation is getting heated, making some space to think clearly about the options and to focus on your child's needs is always a good idea. Check how much time is on the clock for the decision and make a plan to reconvene.
Get more information. If you need to check your calendar, or call the babysitter, or let your boss know that you need to change your work roster, do that as soon as you find out about the change, and come back to your Co-Parent with the additional information as soon as possible.
Talk again later (if there's time). When you take a time-out to cool off or get more information, try to also make a plan to talk again in 24-48 hours (or however long you both agree that you need to take). Be aware of how much time you have to make your decision, including preparing your child for any flow-on effects to them, and come back together at an appropriate time and place to work out any difficulties.
Defer to your Plan. This is why it's so important to build "Changes" into your Parenting Plan to begin with. I recommend that you include in your plan that if one of you requests a change that the other can't agree to, for whatever reason, then you will go back to the arrangement that you would normally have according to your Parenting Plan (or something similar that works for you). This means that you always know what your alternative is, and you can each make your decisions without stressing about one parent withholding the child, or something equally worrisome.
The Golden Rule. Remember that each of you will have to request a level of flexibility from the other at some point. Sorry (not sorry!) to invoke the Golden Rule - it's a good one! Try really hard to think about how you would want your Co-Parent to respond to you in a given situation, and respond to them with the same understanding, empathy, and grace.
Quick Psychology 101 lesson: Have you ever heard of the Fundamental Attribution Error?
It refers to our tendency to think that when other people behave poorly (perhaps they are 'careless' or 'disorganised', in our judgement) it is due to who they are on the inside, underestimating the role of situational factors.
At the same time, when we behave poorly ourselves, we focus on the demands of the situation, rather than what our behaviour might say about our own character.
What I'm saying is ... Try and think about what external pressures your Co-Parent might be dealing with when you're considering any requests. Start from a place of empathy, approach each other with kindness, and watch your child flourish in an environment of mutual respect 💗
Legal Considerations and Final Thoughts
In addition to considering the impact on yourselves and your child, here are a few final things to keep in mind when you're negotiating any proposed Parenting Plan Changes.
Is your agreement legally binding?
Do you know if, and how, you can make variations to your agreement?
In general, Verbal Agreements, Written Agreements (not signed or dated), and Parenting Plans (signed and dated) are not "Legally Binding", so parents are able to vary these under whatever circumstances they choose. Obviously, the best process for your child and for your Co-Parenting relationship is for you to agree on any changes, but this is not required by the law.
-- Bear in mind that a Parenting Plan, while it is not binding, is considered "Legally Significant" in Australia, and may be taken into consideration by a Family Court when making Orders.
Consent Orders and Court Orders are both Legally Binding, and they need to be followed strictly - except if both parents are completely in agreement about a change. This is called "Varying an Order by Consent". As long as both parents agree on a minor or temporary change, the Court has no reason to contest this.
I recommend that if you have binding orders and you agree about a change, you put the change clearly into writing and sign and date it - then you are essentially overriding that part of your Order with a Parenting Plan.
You should assume that as soon as there ceases to be agreement about a particular change, the Orders come back into effect, and you should revert to your strict adherence to the binding Orders.
*I am not a legal professional and this information should not be construed as legal advice. If you're unsure about your Agreement or the legal ramifications of making changes, you should definitely get independent Legal Advice.
Is this likely to happen again?
If you notice that a particular change is happening on a regular basis, or it seems like your circumstances are changing in a more long-term way, consider making a change or adding a clause into your existing Parenting Plan, rather than making multiple, ad-hoc changes.
The benefit of doing this is that you are building consistency back into your Plan - and this builds confidence in your child, and trust in your Co-Parenting relationship.
Another option is adding a temporary/interim agreement to your Parenting Plan, that covers a particular situation for a specific period of time. For example:
We agree that from February 1st, 2020 until May 24th, 2020, due to James' temporary shift change, the children will spend Thursday afternoons with James, from 2pm until 7pm, instead of Wednesday mornings.
Remember that you can agree on a course of action, and reassess at a certain time, so that you can make changes to your approach, depending on the response of your child. For example:
We agree that starting on February 1st, 2020, we will swap Thursday nights with Jenny to Friday nights. We also agree that after the first three Friday nights, we will discuss how Sally is coping with the change, and whether this will continue indefinitely.
(This is getting more into Interim Agreements, which I will definitely cover in more detail another time. If you're keen to delve into this straight away, you can find more information about this in my book: The Family Mediation Roadmap.)
Okay! I think I've given you plenty to work on for today!! :0)
I hope you have jotted down some ideas that will help you successfully write Change into your Parenting Plan, and Manage future Parenting Plan Changes as they arise! xx