The Family Conference

The family conference—coming together and discussing the coming changes for the family—is a scary and unpredictable time. Every member of the family will bring their own particular vulnerabilities to the discussion, which makes it all the more important that you as parents feel as prepared as possible.

There is, in our view, a parenting obligation to do a script and for both parents to participate in talking to the children. The parties do not need to be together in the room. One can follow the other in talking to the children. The common script for ‘difficult’ situations can be done with the help of a family counsellor and they can provide additional support or context in the conference. Intimate partner abuse, child abuse allegations and mental health concerns are a few situations that may require additional support in this phase.

Preparing a script for navigating the family conference

  • Remember the no-fault approach
  • Each parent should assess the challenges facing each child prior to the conference. Consider their age, childhood stage, uniqueness of each child, relationship with each parent or sibling, etc. There is an impact on every child in every stage of life.
  • Parents can then compare their thoughts prior to a family conference. This will allow them to begin the process of creating an appropriate interim parenting plan and the groundwork for a long-term plan.
  • Decide on an interim parenting plan prior to the family conference. Practical questions need to be answered and explained. A parent that suddenly disappears does not support shared parenting. An interim parenting arrangement should maximize parent-child engagement in the now changing family. In some ways this is a trial agreement. Be flexible based on the feedback from the children.
  • The agreement should be initialed by each parent and witnessed. If this is too formal, it is perhaps a good idea to inform parents or good friends of your initial plan. You may need an outside support to help you live with the agreement in the short run.

The Family Conference Dynamics

  • If possible, do the conference together, and take as much time as necessary. You have developed a script using the no-fault plan and have anticipated possible questions. The key and most difficult question is why you are separating. There are of course many difficult explanations where one partner feels aggrieved by the other partner. There are ways to do an explanation that follow the no-fault concept.
  • If possible do the explanation conference at a minimum of 2-3 days ahead of either parent leaving the family home.
  • Children at different ages, stages, gender, special needs and attachments may have very different reactions. Your preparation may still fall short. Remember the framework that you and your child’s other parent developed.
  • Often your sense of personal unhappiness and damage to the family is not the child’s view of their world. Children only know their family’s dynamics i.e. they understand their family and have no real comparison. Children generally choose an intact family over separation.
  • Some children (usually over age 10) have a distorted view of one parent and have already entered this family conference with their own judgment of blame or blamelessness. The separating had begun months earlier by one parent and this had the consequence of isolating one parent from the children. Both parents have an important challenge in this situation. The blamed parent must not be thrown off and hurt; the favoured parent has a responsibility for the child’s sake to gently move the child to a healthier place.
  • At the conference it is possible to remind the children that the family continues on in a changed form. Both parents are going to continue to be part of the child’s activities and school life, etc. Don’t minimize the change but don’t exaggerate the complete separateness of the children from either parent or extended family.
  • The atmosphere that you create in the meeting hopefully allows the children to express their feelings of anger and sadness; anger and sadness are natural emotions here. It provides an opportunity to be reassuring. Be the best listener. It is a valuable skill going forward.
  • If the children are quiet (very possible) anticipate questions that are unasked.
  • Plan a second meeting with a specific time i.e. two weeks later. It is easy to let it go because it is so uncomfortable for you as parents. Some of this discussion will simply be a blur to children. It is likely that the on-ground changes will prompt more questions and a need to review and even adjust the original plan.
  • Take a moment to assess the meeting and don’t be afraid to compliment the other parent for the way they managed the meeting. This is laying the groundwork for future success as separated parents.
  • Do your own post meeting assessment- a parent feedback session. Keep it civil.
  • Small successes need to be recognized. This is very tough ‘stuff’. Your interactions are observed by your children. They see and hear everything in their changing world. They can become a caretaker for one or both parents or isolate themselves from both parents. Neither option is healthy. Many children have friends that are from two homes and may appear accepting of this dramatic change. There is likely much more going on inside the child.

No-Fault Divorce and Family Renewal

Even at the worst of times, each parent must keep in mind the twin concepts of no-fault divorce and family renewal. The first supports parents in achieving the goal to discover calm out of the chaos of emotions that are swirling inside each parent. Renewal is about optimism about what is achievable. Together, these concepts can help you to navigate the challenging conversations ahead—with each other, with the children, with friends and family—by uniting your efforts in a common vision. The alternative is simply to act in survival and to live life in and out of chaos for years or even a lifetime.

The No-Fault Approach

The reason for a separation for most parties is normally irrelevant to the legal process. Almost every former partner eventually gains perspective for the reason for their failed intimate relationship. Research indicates that women/mothers are more likely to trigger the actual separation. This doesn’t mean they were the cause—only the eventual decision-maker. Dads are more likely to be out of the home (at least without the children) than mothers when the separation begins.

The legal concept of no-fault divorce is an effort to end drawn out litigation over the cause of a separation. Unfortunately the good intention of no-fault divorce often is lost to conflicts over parenting access and a legal process that is adversarial and combative. It is, however, a worthy concept.

Collaborative law has become an alternative legal approach that has recent favour. The collaborative process is endorsed by this project and you are encouraged to access the Legal section. We are not necessarily proponents for the legal system’s version of collaborative law.

The question for every professional from you:

“Do you (professional) have the tools to help our family make it through the chaos and anger so that our children have the best opportunity to have the love and support of both parents and extended families forever?”

Family Renewal

Renewal is possible if each parent truly takes ownership of their most important focus as separating parents—namely, that each parent loves their children more than they are angry with the other parent.

If either parent is unable to affirm that statement then they need to find support that helps them to meet their parenting responsibility.

Open Letter: Personal Recovery


Where are you on road to recovery? What does the choice to separate feel like? Does it feel like a necessary, but difficult choice? Does it feel like a weight has been taken off your shoulders now that your unhappiness is in the open? Are you feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed by the decisions that have to be made? Do you feel like a failure as a parent, intimate partner and provider? Are you surprised by your partner’s reaction? How did the children react to the news? Did each child react very differently and as such display different parenting issues? Are your extended family and friends supportive or judgmental? The questions about personal recovery are never-ending, but important.

A Personal Story

I thought that I was prepared for the separation. My children’s mother and I had a civil conversation about the separating process and how we would tell our parents and friends in a no-fault explanation. I had agreed (for no reason other than caretaking) to leave the matrimonial home for a room in a friend’s parents’ home.

As soon as I started the 30-minute drive to my new place, I became desperate, lonely and overwhelmed with grief and loss.

I would describe myself normally as a rock, but the next day as I drove past a swamp on my left it took everything not to swerve off the road. It was the first time in my life that I had such dark thoughts. That troubled moment has remained in my memory for 30 years.

Separating and separating by leaving your children and family home is an experience that we are ill prepared for no matter our gender or our position on separating.

I offer this anecdote because it is a common experience.

It is important that a plan is in place for future, sharing/spending time with your children before leaving the home. DO NOT ASSUME that it will all be worked out . . . eventually. Recovery is more difficult for a parent who is not seeing or assured that they will be with their children on a predictable, regular schedule, sooner than later. Consider a mediator or another suitable professional to work out an interim parenting plan prior to anyone leaving the family home, if possible.

In this site’s resources there are readings that may meet where you are in the separating process. Dealing with the different stages of grief—similar to the death of a loved one—may be the best starting point. Many authors focus on the journey that most separated parents go through in some way.


Your resilience is perhaps the most important gift that you can showcase to your children. Resilience will serve you well. Included in the readings are research on the prevalence of depression for fathers and mothers going through a separation. Remember, for many parents the separation often follows many months, even years, of feeling low or worse. Many parents experience what is called situational depression depression directly triggered by the separation and the many negative outcomes that are directly related.

The most significant of these outcomes are almost always connected to the challenges faced in every important relationship.

Going Forward

Included among our resources are book recommendations and personal stories that our 600+ clients found to be supportive in their journey to personal survival and even family renewal. Please take time to consider the resources on mental health and depression, as these things can have direct consequences upon your children and your workplace. Many of the resources available on this site are intended to inspire or to awaken us to the changes taking place in every intimate, family relationship. There is going to be a great deal on your plate for some time, and many will be parenting or relationship problems you have never before encountered. Support groups or educational seminars may provide similar understanding and a sense of comradery with fellow travelers on this journey of separation.

Books and resources can provide an understanding of what was going on in the chaos of your family’s life. I considered those books I encountered in my own journey to be lifesaving, for they provided insight that cut through the chaos and restored some form of equilibrium. I found comfort in learning that those things that were happening in my life had happened to many others. It didn’t always solve the specific issues, but it removed doubt about my own sanity and what I was facing going forward. That was very important!