When families separate, the time that a child spends with a parent they no longer live with is referred to as contact. Child contact is often a sensitive issue for parents. Discussions about it often take place at a time when emotions are running high, which sometimes leads to conflict.
There are different types of contact between children and family members, but they all fall into one of two categories. Indirect contact, through methods such as internet, mail and phone – or direct contact, the time actually spent together.
If you’re separated or divorced, you may need to make arrangements for child contact. Ideally you will want to come to an amicable agreement with your ex-partner, but you might be finding it difficult. So, if this is a problem you face, or if talks have broken down completely, what can you do?
Arranging Child Contact
How you go about resolving any disagreements about contact depends on your circumstances, but there are several things that might help you both move forward in a way that’s in your child’s best interest.
Child Contact Services
Every child has a right to spend time with both parents following divorce or separation. Contact services can facilitate child contact under a number of different circumstances.
You could look at the possibility of using a child contact centre near to where your child lives. Supported contact (at a centre) is a relatively inexpensive way for non-resident parents to spend time with their child in a safe environment.
Both parents are usually encouraged to visit a contact centre before sessions take place. This would give you a chance to be involved with the planning of contact sessions and could help to address any concerns you or your ex-partner may have about how, where and when contact takes place.
You shouldn’t see this as a negative step either. The use of a contact centre can be a stepping stone towards a more relaxed long-term arrangement for parents and their children to spend beneficial time together.
Mediation is an effective way of resolving disputes about child contact without the need to go to court. It’s a flexible process and involves an independent third party (a mediator) who can help you and your ex-partner come to an agreement.
Mediators don’t take sides or give advice, but they can help you negotiate with each other in a constructive way so that you can find a long-term solution that’s in your family’s best interests.
In most cases you would be expected to meet with a mediator before you could go to court to gain a court order. This may not be the case if you or your ex-partner had experienced something such as domestic abuse.
Applying for a Court Order
Either parent or anyone with parental responsibility can apply for a court order. There are different types of court order depending on what you and your ex-partner have been unable to agree on. Going to court can be costly and stressful, so it’s often a step that’s taken as a last resort.
From April 2014 ‘child arrangements orders’ replaced ‘residence orders’ and ‘contact orders’. This type of court order is probably the most relevant to child contact and decides:
- where your child lives
- when your child spends time with each parent
- when and what other types of contact, like phone calls, take place
What Children Want
Most children are resilient and can deal with change in their lives, as long as it’s managed well. They are likely to still see a parent who’s left home as an important part of their family – and will at least want to feel that their views about contact are taken into account.
The Successful Co-Parenting program was created by Ohio State University Extension for parents going through divorce. It aims to teach parents how to co-parent together cooperatively for the benefit of their child.
This poignant video was created to use with the program to help show parents some of the feelings their child may be going through during this time.
Every child’s experience of family breakdown is different, but there’s widespread agreement about what matters to them when their parents separate. They generally want to know what’s happening, and some want to be involved in decisions about things like where they live, or what child contact arrangements are made.
Adult relationships can often be difficult after parents separate, but most children want to maintain a relationship with both parents (and other close relatives). They need to feel loved and cared for by both parents.
Difficulties with Child Contact
One of the more common and distressful problems with contact is when parents don’t turn up as arranged. Other problems include; witnessing any kind of conflict between parents, children feeling torn between parents, boredom during contact and difficulties a child has forming a relationship with a parent’s new partner.
Whether parents live together or are separated, parental conflict is a key factor associated with negative outcomes for children. Research in this area shows that family functioning has a much bigger impact on outcomes than the family structure itself.
Research shows that children who adjust best to life after family separation are those who have the ongoing input of both parents. Your child’s relationship with you and their other parent will influence how they define themselves, how they learn to develop meaningful relationships and much more.
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to making child contact a positive experience, but younger children often benefit from regular contact whereas older children may need to fit contact around their own social activities.
The best contact arrangements are usually those planned with the child’s needs in mind. Consistency and routine help to reassure children, but contact arrangements also need to take into account practicalities for relatives and carers – so there’s a need for flexibility.