2nd April 2014

“We are Parents First” – Yes but Actions Speak Louder than Words

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images Entertainment
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images Entertainment

“We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children and we ask for their and our space and privacy to be respected at this difficult time.”

This statement is taken from the announcement made by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin of their separation after 11 years of marriage (for those who live on another planet one is a famous actress the other a famous band member).

When a marriage ends for whatever reason big-name entertainers share the same issue with more ‘ordinary’ couples, i.e. working out arrangements for the care of their children. The way  parents handle this and relate to one another can either render the process of “conscious uncoupling”, to use Paltrow’s euphemism, a negative or positive experience for the children.

By constantly reminding themselves that they are parents first and foremost and acting together in that respect, separating couples – no matter their personal circumstances – can make the whole process of splitting up that bit easier for the children to cope with.

It is crucial for children to know that each parent wants them to continue having a relationship with the other and to stress the importance of enjoying time spent with both, even if not together. Equally, running each other down in front of the children and seeking emotional support from them is something to be avoided. It also helps if children see their parents talking to one another politely and respectfully.

When parents do not communicate, children will often seize the opportunity to play one off one against the other so it should be made clear that such behaviour  is not acceptable and for the parents to take a consistent approach to discipline and setting boundaries.

While there is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy, the following process should be seen as a benchmark for child arrangements on separation:

  • At the initial stages bear in mind that uncertainty breeds anxiety so explain to your children what is happening and provide reassurance that they are not responsible for the separation. Explain also (together if possible) the residential arrangements and how these will be shared. By starting off on reasonable terms, parents can set the groundwork for the future, thus easing any changes if initial plans do not work well.
  • Bear in mind that you may have to test a few different child care arrangements before finding one that works best. Discuss any changes in advance and try to keep a degree of flexibility. If a time for a collection or drop-off needs to change, discuss it and agree an alternative in advance rather than make unilateral, last minute changes of plan and expect the other parent and the child to fall in. If an emergency means bringing a child home late, telephone or text the other parent to let her/him know.
  • Avoid discussing anything contentious with your partner at the collection or return of the child or, indeed, at any time when the child is within your joint presence. Try to show the child positive, respectful interactions with one another.
  • Avoid detailed questioning of the child after contact with your former spouse or partner. Let your child freely go between both households and enjoy their time with each parent. Quizzing afterwards will only add to the feeling of insecurity and stress within the child.
  • Give your child time to cope and adjust to the new arrangements but avoid putting him or her under pressure to dictate or decide terms relating to time spent with the other parent – and never attempt to make your child take sides.
  • Try to maintain consistency across both households in discipline and setting boundaries.

For parents who do not feel able to talk to one another without third party support, child-focussed mediation is a good way to open up lines of communication and resolve relevant issues. Acting as an independent buffer, the mediator will make sure both parties are heard and ensure communication is done openly, constructively and respectfully.

Jennifer Gallagher 
Partner – Family Law



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