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.