When a family splits up and parents go their separate ways new families are formed. New adults come on the scene and stepfamilies are created. Which home, and with which parent, children should live may not be an easy decision to make.
As far as the adults are concerned, the feeling may be that the child has one base – usually, the home both parents shared before the break up – and a place they visit, which is the new home of the non-resident parent. One ‘home’, one ‘dwelling’. But as far as the child is concerned, they may see it as having two ‘homes’, even if the second is one they visit on a weekly, monthly or less regular basis. In making decisions about where a child lives, you need not only to take your own views on board but those of your ex and anyone else involved but most importantly your children.
Basic rule no 1
The bottom line is that children have the right to grow up in contact with both their birth parents, knowing that their mum and dad love them and are there for them.
Children thrive when they know both parents and feel they are loved by, accepted by and approved of. Children who feel a parent doesn't love them, has abandoned them, isn’t there for them tend to feel not only rejected and deserted by alienated and judged. It is possible to redress these feelings but, if there is an option to keep the contact, it is far better for the children and thus for the stepfamily.
What arrangements could you make?
Seeing the non-resident parent for the day - When children are very young or when the non-resident parent does not have a home where children can stay, contact may be for a day and not overnight.
Young children can find it frightening to spend a night away from home, separated from their familiar routine. Short, regular contact may be better than long stays, and if it can be arranged, having the non-resident parent visit where the child lives may be better than taking them out.
Day visits provide an opportunity for children to see their non-resident parent, even if there are still disagreements between the parents about contact.
If contact is difficult, meetings can take place at a Child Contact Centre, where children can be dropped off and collected safely without face-to-face contact between exes.
With older children, day visits can become like treats. Children do not have the opportunity to be part of their other parent’s day-to-day life or see and become familiar with their non-resident parent’s new partner or family.
Parents and children may take a day visit less seriously and be less committed to keeping arrangements than they might for a longer stay. One or two cancellations could add up and eventually visits may become irregular.
Staying for weekends and during school holidays - Perhaps the most traditional solution is that children live with one of their parents, seeing the other parent at weekends or alternate weekends and during school holidays.
This is a simple arrangement. Children keep their own rooms and homes – continuity is important for children, and allows them to retain a support network from neighbours, friends, school which stay the same as before the break up and before the stepfamily. Even when a new person moves in, there is still some familiarity.
Children know where they ‘live’, with their primary family, and ‘visit’ their other parent and family.
Seeing a non-resident parent each weekend means the resident parent and their partner gets all the work and none of the play, only seeing these children on work days except in holidays.
Infrequent visits can put pressure on children, who are reminded of the temporary nature of their lifestyle and the absence of separation.
Children may feel out of control around visits, especially if it means they miss out on something important to them – a friend’s birthday party, a sleepover, a school sporting event. They may feel guilty and act out their conflicted emotions in sulks and arguments.
It can lead to conflict between different sets of stepchildren when they are separated by visits.
If the non-resident parent has a new family with a new partner, children who visit infrequently may feel like outsiders and be resentful of any resident children. By not being able to fully join in and become part of the non-resident parents new life, it may seem remote and unreal.
Staying for weekends, holidays and an extra day a week - Children spend weekends (sometimes alternate weekends) time in the holidays and one day a week with the non-resident parent. This works especially well if the two families live nearby.
The more contact children have with both parents, the better they fare emotionally. Having an extra day somewhere mid week as well as weekends helps kids feel more settled and ‘at home’ with the parent who has left.
Likewise, more regular contact helps adults to spend some routine time with children rather than just ‘leisure time’ at weekends and holidays. This allows both parents, both families, to establish habits and routines – bed times, homework, chores – that are the stuff of every home life.
Children spending one night in the week away from their main residence can feel disrupted and distressed. It can lead to confusion and difficulties with school and with friends and family. They either need to have two sets of clothes in the two places or to be very organised in making sure they have everything they need each day.
Everyone needs to be on the ball as to where kids are, and how they may keep in touch with friends and family.
If the two households have different styles and rules, switching from one to the other can become confusing and demoralising.
Children living full time in the stepfamily may find it hard to have other children popping in and out at for such short times.
Spending equal time with both families - Children spend an equal amount of time in both families, either one week with each or in three or four day blocks.
Both families get to share the days off as well as the days at work and school equally. Children spend a longer stretch of time with each family, giving everyone the chance to develop relationships, ground rules and routines, and to live what feels to be a normal family life.
Each family gets an equal amount of time either to be on their own (weekends off without needing a babysitter!) or with the children.
Children get the chance to build their own friendship networks at both homes and to establish with friends that they do have two bases.
Children can negotiate with both parents that they need chances to see other people and attend events – something not possible when they only have a day or so a week to see a non-resident parent and their family.
Parents may find it stressful to have their children away with the other family for such long stretches.
Children may find it distressing to become accustomed to one family being ‘home’ only to have to move to the other for a few days or a week.
Children may organise events based at one home only to find they will be in the other home at that time. Parents may arrange something that they would like to share with their children only to find it falls in the middle of their time with the other family.
How to decide where children stay
Parents may assume that it is up to them to make the choices, and the parent ‘left holding the baby’ may feel they should have the major say. In most cases, this is the mother, although more and more men are taking on primary care for their children. That may not, however, be what the children actually want, or how it may be best for all concerned.
Sometimes we make decisions for reasons other than what might be best, not only for children but also ourselves. As separated parents, especially when there is a new partnership or stepfamily involved, we sometimes fight for sole control over our children and against contact as a way of punishing or getting back at the ex partner, with whom we may still be angry. Reasoned arguments why a child should stay in one place and have limited contact with the other parent may actually have roots in our own feelings of rage, loss and pain, of being rejected and abandoned, not in the best interests of the child.
How to give children a say in their living arrangements
When it comes to making decisions about where children should live and how much contact they should have, the children should have a say too. If they are too young to do so, or may be swayed by their need to please a parent, it’s up to adults to do the grown up thing and put themselves in their child’s shoes, and answer for them. When making these decisions, it helps to consider;
- Your or your partner’s need to have a continuing, healthy and loving relationship with children
- Your or your partner’s need to ‘finish business’ with an ex and move on from being partners to co-parents
- Your need to feel loved and secure in the relationship with a new partner and in your new family
- Your need for contact to be as easy and streamlined as possible
- Your children’s and stepchildren’s need to be in contact with both their parents
- Your children’s and stepchildren’s need to make good relationships with new family members
- Your children’s and stepchildren’s need to keep their social networks going with friends, neighbours and other family members such as grandparents
- Your children’s and stepchildren’s school needs
- Your children’s and stepchildren’s need for contact to be as easy and streamlined as possible
50% of fathers lose touch with children within 2 years of separating from their ex. Most are overwhelmed with the difficulties and the pain of keeping contact. Making it easier can only benefit children. Second marriages are more likely to split up than first-time marriages, and the reasons for that are many and complex. One reason is the stress and strain of managing everyone’s emotions, needs and anguish around the fact that children have two parents who live apart, whom they may only see for short periods or irregularly and who and may still be at war with each other. The solution is not to try to win the war, but to negotiate a settlement that satisfies everyone – adults and children too.
Issues to consider may be the best way for you, and the children involved, to live with and manage this dual living. It can get entirely complicated if you have a stepfamily as well as your own children, and so too does your ex. You may be trying to co-ordinate living arrangements with your children and your ex as well as your new partner’s children and their ex. It becomes so much more complex if your partner’s ex also has a stepfamily to schedule, as does yours. That’s when you might benefit from some outside help.
Who can help?
If you do want to use legal advice, find a solicitor or mediator through Resolution - First For Family Law (the Solicitors Family Law Association) who can give advice on any family dispute and with separation, divorce and new families, but whose members encourage mediation and agreement rather than confrontation.
The courts would far rather you discussed and agreed arrangements between you instead of bringing this to what can become an angry confrontation. If you’re finding it hard to get over your own angry feelings, consider talking to a counsellor.
If you have arrangements that need to be settled between you and an ex partner, or any other family members, mediation may help. Mediation is a way of taking the sting out of those difficult yet very important discussion.
Whatever the reason for your dispute, when there are children involved it’s really important for the adults concerned to put their own arguments aside. If your dispute is with an ex-partner, you may no longer be partners but you will always be co-parents and your children really need you to work together.
Would mediation or counselling help?
Mediation is not the same as counselling. Counselling is about looking at yourself, your emotions and reactions. It helps you understand why and how you feel and why and how relationships break down. Your own GP may have counselling available in the surgery or you may need to find a counsellor through Relate or privately through The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. The costs may vary from a token few pounds to £25 to £65 a session depending on income and area.
Counsellors are objective and do not take sides, supporting both parties to communicate and come to an agreed conclusion.
Children also often need support and help in the aftermath of a family break up, and when a new family comes together. The stepfamily may be a positive move for them and seen by them as such but it still may raise issues from the past they’d welcome getting sorted out. You can ask for specific help for them through your own GP or through some schools. Or you could consider family therapy so all of you could get some help together.
A mediator can help all of you see eye to eye over contact arrangements, money and any other disputes involved in your situation. A mediator may suggest you go on to see a counsellor, if they think you might benefit from talking through your feelings. And a counsellor may suggest you go to mediation to hammer out the practical arrangements once you have come to terms with the emotional issues.
The mediator will help you listen to each other, over a few sessions, understand each other’s concerns and needs and help you find a solution that suits everyone. Mediators do not take sides and do not push their own solutions. Their aim is to support you to find a resolution that is acceptable to and workable by you.
Mediation can help you agree issues such as;
- Where children will live
- Contact and holiday arrangements
- How you will communicate
- Maintenance and money
- Parenting styles and family rules
At the end of mediation, you’ll usually write down the main points you’ve agreed so you can check it’s working for you and return to this if there are any later problems. If your dispute is with an ex-partner you may find a Parenting Plan helpful.
Mediation is free if you are on a low income or is charged on a sliding scale, depending on how much you can afford. Find a mediator through the Family Mediators Association, National Family Mediation or UK College of Family Mediators.
Essential points to consider when deciding child contact
- Children have a right to see both parents
- There is a range of ways children can be in contact with their parent. You need to find the one that suits you, the child and the other family
- What works for one child may not suit another. You may need to let children in your family have different contact arrangements
- What works now may not next week. Be prepared to be flexible
- There’s no shame in asking for help. Mediation or counselling may help you and your family manage the situation in the best possible way
We are here for you
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.