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.

Telling the Children

Our experience working with over 600 parents finds that telling the children about the breaking up in a meaningful and purposeful way is rarely done. Parents find many excuses for NOT doing so:

  • they hate tough conversations
  • they worry it may lead to tears or fighting
  • they are feeling a sense of failure
  • they wish to avoid open parental conflict
  • they assume the children probably know
  • they feel ill prepared
  • etc., etc.

Stumbling about is not an effective parenting strategy, and not talking to your child(ren) is a serious misstep in the long term. As parents you want to mitigate their fears, insecurity and uncertainty as best as you can. To do this, you need to work together to  prepare a plan for how to inform your children while also anticipating their fears and questions.

The joint concepts of a no-fault divorce and family renewal are valuable tools as you enter the unfamiliar world of separation. Together, you can use these concepts to prepare a script to help you navigate the emotional and often unpredictable family conference with a common goal: helping your family to heal and grow through the changes to come.

Common Questions by Children:

  1. Where will we kids live?
  2. Where will mom live? Where will dad live?
  3. Who will keep me safe?
  4. Will we go to the same school?
  5. Who gets the dog?
  6. Will we see grandma and grandpa?
  7. Will we be poor?
  8. Who will take care of me when I am sick?
  9. Who will take me to piano lessons?
  10. When will I see mom or dad?
  11. Who will sign my permission slips and my report card?

Older children may be more pointed!

  1. Why?
  2. Why can’t you work it out?
  3. How could you just stop loving her/him?
  4. How am I going to be able to go to university?

Explaining the reason for separating is often very difficult.

There are so many possibilities and for the listener some may seem to be simply a lame excuse and for others perfectly acceptable. Perhaps the most difficult explanation could be infidelity. Do you ignore the question or rip the other parent? The following is offered by Judith Wallerstein: What About the Kids.

‘If you have the courage to do so simply tell them that their mom or dad loves another person more and they cannot live together anymore. Leave out details like, “they have been sleeping with someone else”.

Finding an acceptable framework for explaining the separating is helpful in the long-term. It allows you to confine your anger or guilt so that it doesn’t damage your day to day parenting. An explanation that I found helpful is that as intimate partners we stopped taking care of each other over a prolonged period of time. This is what I call the mutual no-fault explanation or the mutual both parties at fault explanation. Good people, good parents, who tried their best together; and hopefully will do their best as parents going forward. My experience is that my children appreciated my approach in the long-run.

Is it Ever Too Late to Tell the Children?

It is never too late to tell the children with the no-fault approach.

This is your opportunity to be the parent you wish to be at a time when you may feel like a failure as a parent. It is the first and most important step toward family renewal for your now changing family!