by Erik Wheeler
January 27, 2022
1. Get specific about parent-child contact details
One issue that I see frequently as a mediator is disagreements about parent-child contact time (aka “visitation”). The disagreement usually arises because there is a lack of clarity in the parenting agreement. The most challenging situation is when the agreement specifies that all or some of the parenting time will be “as agreed”. In other words, “we’ll figure it out as we go”.
Well, unfortunately people often have trouble figuring it out later.
Other vague language creates problems, too. For example, one phrase I have seen written by a judge is, “The parties shall alternate holidays from holiday to holiday and from year to year by agreement of the parties.”
Which holidays are included? Is July 4th considered a holiday? What about President’s Day? On which holiday will the alternation start? What happens if they alternate each holiday for the first year, but that results in each person having all the same holidays the following year?
All these issues came up for some clients of mine with a court order that had the sentence above, and it created a significant amount of misunderstandings and conflict.
Specify more details than you think you need
I recommend that parents get very specific about their plan for the routine schedule, holidays, school vacations, summer vacations, and when the kids are home sick from school. I suggest that you specify times and even locations for transitions. This applies whether you are creating the parenting plan for the first time in divorce mediation, or updating an existing parenting plan.
If you specify details, you have a plan to follow if you can’t agree. And if you can agree on a change to that agreement, great! You can make whatever changes you like as long as you both agree.
For example, if you plan to “alternate Thanksgiving”, what does “Thanksgiving” mean? For some people, it’s just the day (maybe 9:00 am – 5:00 pm). For others, it would be the afternoon and evening (say, 12:00 – 8:00 pm). And for others, it would mean three or four days, because they always travel a distance to have Thanksgiving with family.
Christmas is often similarly complex. Will you split the day? Is Christmas Eve included with Christmas, or will the children be with the other parent on Christmas Eve?
I recommend that you think it through carefully, and specify a lot of detail — even if it seems unnecessary. You can always change the plan for a particular holiday later if you both agree. And if you disagree, you have a plan to follow. This will keep you out of court, and perhaps mediation too, reducing stress and saving money and time.
I suggest you think through specific details for sharing time for the following:
- Routine schedule
- School vacations
- Summer vacations
- Sick days (kids home from school)
- Snow days
When my divorce mediation clients are feeling quite amicable, it often seems silly to them to specify exactly what time the holiday will begin at a parent’s house, and when it will end. Sometimes a couple has been separated for a while, and they’ll say, “It’s never been a problem. We’ve always figured it out.”
I tell them that’s great, and hopefully it will continue. However, it’s not unusual for the relationship to change over the years, so I encourage people to get specific, even if it doesn’t seem necessary right now.
This detailed parenting plan will be a backup for you — if you can’t agree later, you can fall back on this plan, which will reduce conflict and stress.
Even with a specific plan in place, it’s inevitable that one of you will want to request a change. So it’s important to have a plan for how to handle those requests.
2. Make a plan for handling schedule changes
No matter how well you plan your parent-child contact time (also known as “visitation” or “custody”) in your parenting agreement, you will encounter situations in which you or the other parent requests a change to the plan.
Sometimes it’s because family is in town visiting; or there’s a unique opportunity for the kids involving travel that would require a change to the routine schedule.
Each time you deviate from the schedule, you’ll need to discuss it, and this is an area where a lot of people get into conflict after divorce. So it’s best to have a plan for how to handle those requests.
Mode of communication
First, consider what mode you’ll use for communication: phone call, email, text message, or in person.
It’s tempting to send off a quick text, saying “Hey I’d like to have the kids a few extra days through next weekend while my parents are here”.
Text messages are very convenient — and they are frequently problematic. Because texts are best suited to very short messages, it’s really easy for the recipient to misinterpret the message because of a lack of information. What seems like a simple question to you may trigger anger and resentment in the other person, and spark an argument.
In general, I recommend you never discuss schedule changes by text, and instead use phone or email. If you tend to get into arguments when talking on the phone, then use email. See #4 for more info.
How to ask
Propose make-up days: When requesting a change, be sure to ask the other parent when he/she would like to make up the time. Resentments are often created when the other parent fears that the request will result in lost parenting time. By addressing this as part of the request, you make clear that you are respecting their parenting time.
Be flexible with each other: you will need to request a change to the schedule in the future, so a lack of flexibility on your part may be met with the same response to your request.
See #3 for more tips on keeping your request brief, informative and forward-looking.
How long before acknowledging the request?
One source of conflict is when the requestor does not receive any reply to the request, and therefore doesn’t know whether the request was received. So it’s helpful if you can agree on a process for simply acknowledging the request.
For example, perhaps you’ll agree that an email is acknowledged within 12 or 24 hours, and if you can’t provide an answer immediately, provide an estimated time frame. A simple “Ok, I’ll get back to you by Friday” suffices.
You’ll also need to agree on what a reasonable amount of time is for providing an answer to the request, if the recipient needs some time.
How long before answering the request?
Another source of conflict regarding schedule changes is different ideas of what amount of time is reasonable for a decision about the request. If the requestor expects a response within hours, but the recipient prefers to have a few days to reply, it often creates conflict.
Agree on a timeline that works for both of you. For example, perhaps you agree that you’ll provide an answer within 3 days of the initial request.
3. Use business-like Communication
With a former spouse, it is easy to let resentments or tensions complicate your communication. We often want to remind them of past transgressions or place blame. When things get heated, we might use a criticism or insult, which of course makes everything worse.
One way to change the tone of discussions is to approach them as you would a colleague at work. In a work meeting, you wouldn’t insult the other person (at least I hope you wouldn’t!). You’d keep the tone professional, and when you get frustrated, you’d breathe deeply and try to find a way to reach your goal, while communicating politely.
Now, just to be clear: in this context, “business-like” doesn’t mean “cold” or “harsh” or “aggressive”. It means “professional” — the way you would behave at your job.
In a meeting at work, you’d be professional, patient, collaborative and polite as you work to achieve your goal. You’d also have reasonable boundaries.
So when you need to have a discussion or meeting with the other parent, make it as business-like as possible:
- Set an agenda ahead of time: Providing some structure will help the conversation stay on track.
- Make a request: Your request is most likely to be successful if it is brief, informative, and forward-looking.
- Don’t lean on the past to justify your request: If you start your request by listing your frustrations about the other parent’s past transgressions, you’re setting yourself up for failure — it will just put the other person on the defensive, making them less likely to agree to your request. They’ll be more focused on refuting your statements than listening to your request! It’s easy to fall into this trap. Don’t start with your frustrations about the past!
- Focus on the logistics, not on the feelings: Even if you’re angry about past events or the other person’s behavior, stay focused only on the logistics. Focus on the details of who, what, when and where.
4. Understand which mode of communication works best.
When communicating with the other parent, there are a variety of modes you can choose from: phone call, text message, email, meeting in person, or using a parenting application. Each mode has advantages and disadvantages. Text message and email are convenient, but the written word is prone to misinterpretation because it lacks the additional meaning that body language and tone of voice add to the message. Text messages are particularly problematic because we usually want to write our message quickly — rather than thoughtfully — and the messages often lack important detail.
Meeting in person adds the human element to your interaction, and adds valuable information from tone of voice and body language. However, meeting in person can be more likely to create conflict for some people. Or one person may not feel safe meeting with the other parent.
Phone calls offer some of the benefits of an in-person meeting, and avoid some of the disadvantages of written modes. But for some people, phone calls can also lead to escalation and conflict.
As you work with the other parent, think about which mode works best for you. If you have problems communicating in a particular mode, consider whether the disadvantages of that mode are getting in the way.
Also, if possible, choose the communication mode based on the content: use the written modes (text and email) for interactions that don’t require much discussion, and use more interactive modes for more complex topics. For example, if you just want to communicate that the child forgot a backpack at your house, text message is fine. If you want to talk about changing the schedule over the holidays, text message is probably not going to work well, and may cause more problems than it solves.
Keep in mind that which mode tends to work well for you may change over time. You may find that in-person meetings work well for a while, then aren’t working so well. Be ready to try a different mode for a while.
5. Use BIFF for making requests.
Attorney and mediator Bill Eddy coined the acronym “BIFF” for how to respond to high-conflict people in writing, which stands for “Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm”.
For making requests to the other parent, I suggest a slight modification of this acronym, to use “forward-looking”.
Sometimes our communication goes awry with the other parent because we want to list the other parent’s transgressions or faults in our request. Whether our perspective is true or not doesn’t matter — this focus on the past completely sabotages the communication from the beginning.
To be successful in your request, craft your request along the following points:
- Brief: if your message is long, it’s likely that you are including information that will not be helpful or may create more conflict. If it’s long, it is frequently because the message lists the other parent’s faults or past transgressions. Keep it short: just 5 or 6 sentences.
- Informative: provide some useful information on the subject being discussed. Don’t include your opinion, or a defense — just facts, in neutral terms.
- Forward-looking: stay focused on the future, and make your request about what you’d like in the future, not about the things that made you angry that preceded your request. It’s tempting to include details on the other parent’s shortcomings and mistakes, as people think it makes their “case” stronger for the request. But it’s pretty unlikely the other parent will agree with your characterization of the past, and it’s very likely to create an argument and derail your discussion. Stay focused on the future, remember your goal, and ask for what you’d like in the future.
- Friendly: this can often be a challenge, but it’s important. Add a friendly tone with a simple phrase like “Thanks for your email”, or a closing phrase like, “Hope you have a good weekend”.
6. Facilitate visits with the other parent.
It’s important for your child to have as strong a relationship as possible with both parents, and the main way the child bonds with the parent is to spend time with him or her.
(Of course, if you have significant concerns about your child’s safety with the other parent, use your best judgment, and contact the Department of Children and Families as appropriate.)
It’s in your child’s best interest to spend the agreed-upon amount of time with the other parent, as part of the routine schedule and vacations and holidays (assuming there are no significant concerns about your child’s safety with the other parent).
Sometimes, out of resentment, separated parents try to control the amount of time the children spend with the other parent. Everybody loses in this situation: the children and the other parent lose time together and the controlling parent deepens the conflict, creating more problems in the future. Unfortunately this is a problem that mediators see frequently.
It’s important to remember that even if you have sole legal rights and responsibilities (often referred to as “full custody”), you do not have the authority to control the schedule. The Parent-Child Contact (“visitation”) schedule specified in your parenting agreement is not subject to the parent with sole legal rights.
If one parent is withholding the children or interfering in the parenting time of the other parent, the parent losing time can ask the court to enforce the parent-child contact time.
7. Don’t try to control what happens when the child is in the other home
Sometimes one parent wants certain practices followed in the other house: what the children do, what they eat, what time they go to bed. So the parent puts pressure on the other parent to do things a certain way. And they’ll ask the kids what happens at the other house.
Trying to control what happens in the other house will only lead to frustration and disappointment. When the children are with that parent, he/she can decide what the rules are and how to parent.
If you have concerns, or would like to have consistent rules about something, then bring up the topic with the other parent, and make a request. Remember that you cannot control what the other parent does.
8. Facilitate communication between child and other parent.
It’s important for the children to be able to connect with the other parent when they are at your house, because it helps the child feel connected and secure.
Sometimes people resent the other person making contact with the children. Remember that communication with the other parent is good for your children.
If your children are young and don’t have a cell phone, you will need to facilitate the communication.
- Don’t interfere with communication between the children and the other parent.
- Give children their own space and privacy for the conversation.
- For younger children, help them call the other parent, or receive calls from the other parent. Consider providing a tablet so the child can initiate or receive a video call with the other parent. This will reduce the number of interactions you need to have with the other parent.
- For older children, consider providing a cell phone so they can stay in touch with the other parent.
If your relationship is high conflict, you may want to specify certain times for the communications. Be sure to honor those, and have a plan in place for the occasional time when you cannot facilitate the communication.
9. Double-check with the other parent if you are concerned about something your child told you.
If your child tells you something that raises a concern, it’s really important to review the situation with the other parent before making any assumptions.
Your child may be leaving out important details, or describing it in a way that leads to misinterpretation. So if you get angry and talk to the other parent in a critical way, you may be causing unnecessary conflict.
For example, if your child says, “Mom said I don’t need to go to school if I don’t want to”, or “At Dad’s, I don’t have to wear my helmet when I’m biking”, there’s probably more to the story.
Don’t jump to conclusions. Get the full story by asking the other parent about it in a non-confrontational way.
10. Don’t discuss adult issues with, or around, your child.
It’s very important that your child not be exposed to adult topics or significant conflict between you and the other parent, because it is stressful for the child. The information may be frightening for them (such as hearing about court battles), or stressful and confusing if they are hearing the conflict.
Your child does not need to hear about adult topics such as court hearings, child support, the other parent’s poor behavior, or conflict with the other parent.
Sometimes a parent will say, “I just want my kids to know the truth”. Don’t be tempted to expose them to these topics out of your desire to tell them “the truth”.
First of all, the “truth” won’t necessarily be helpful for them — and very likely will be stressful, scary or depressing for them. Second, each person’s version of the “truth” is different, and each one usually lacks important details.
In addition to not discussing these topics with your children, be sure to not discuss these with others when your child can overhear. Discussing these topics with a friend when your child is listening, even in the next room, creates all the same stresses as discussing with the child directly.
When you need to discuss these topics with someone else, be sure to do it when they are out of the house or in a place where they definitely can’t hear any of it.
11. Don’t disparage the other parent.
When going through divorce or separation, we often have anger, frustration or resentment toward the other parent. People often want to criticize the other parent, either directly with the kids, or with friends and family.
Don’t talk negatively about the other parent — especially in front of your children.
If you are able to say something positive about the other parent, it can go a long way to make your children feel less stressed about the separation or divorce. But if you can’t bring yourself to say anything positive, at least keep things neutral when talking about the other parent.
Criticizing the other parent in front of your children only makes things more difficult for your children.
If you need to discuss your situation with another adult, do so, but be sure that your children cannot overhear you. It’s best to do this when they are out of the house.
Talking negatively about the other parent in public, on social media, or with mutual friends and family, is also very damaging and creates lots of hard feelings and conflict. People usually do this to hurt the other person, but it really makes things difficult for both of you.
And if the relationship with your ex gets worse, it just makes things harder for your children.
12. Listen to your kids.
Regardless of the age of your children, just listening can help them in a big way.
Focus on hearing them and listening, not giving advice. As parents, we are used to solving our kids’ problems from an early age, so when we listen to them, we are tempted to offer advice and tell them what to do.
Most of the time when we try to solve the problem instead of listening, our children will withhold more.
Use reflective listening as much as possible when your kids are sharing: simply reflect (restate) what you heard your child say. Your child will correct you if you don’t quite get it right.
And be patient. Don’t try to fill the silence. Give them time to think, and to speak. The more patient you are, the more your child will share.
13. Practice Self care.
Taking care of yourself is essential for having enough energy and patience to meet your children’s needs.
It’s easy for parents to ignore their own self-care needs. We’re used to putting the children first, and we can feel that taking care of ourselves is selfish, or too time consuming.
But if you take care of yourself, you’ll be a better parent, and meet their needs more consistently. So be sure to practice self care. This can mean many different things, so do what works best for you. Here are a few ideas of self care: exercise, talking with friends, meditation, sports, reading, hobbies, therapy, time with family.
When we practice self care, there’s also another benefit: we model self care for our children. This is a wonderful gift we can give them.
14. Teach children coping strategies.
Going through separation and/or divorce will present challenges to both parents and children. As your children go through some of the challenges, listening goes a long way (see #12).
It can also be helpful to remind your children that they can get through the challenges that they’ll experience. Reminding them that “We can do hard things” acknowledges that it won’t be easy, and it also gives them confidence that they have the strength to get through it.
You can also teach your children coping strategies, such as self care. And they’re much more likely to do self care if they see you modeling it.
If your children are having a hard time, don’t hesitate to find a therapist, or talk to a school counselor. It may be easier for your child to talk to the therapist or counselor in some cases, and they are trained in helping children through those challenges.
15. Wait before introducing a new partner to your children.
At some point after your separation, you’ll likely be in a new relationship. It can be tempting to introduce your new partner to the children.
However, keep in mind what the children have been through: they’ve seen the end of the relationship of their parents, which is challenging. And if they meet your new partner right away, but things don’t work out with your new partner, they can lose yet another relationship in their lives in a short period of time.
It’s hard to know in the first several months whether your new relationship will last. It takes time to get to know someone, and see how the relationship evolves.
So it’s best to wait before introducing your partner to your children. It’s commonly advised that you wait about one year before introducing them. After a year together, you’ll have a better sense of whether the relationship will last.