It is important to help divorcing parents develop an effective parenting plan that meets the needs of their child and upon which the parents can agree. A child specialist is available to provide appropriate developmental information and also assist the parents find a constructive and non adversarial way to reach a parenting plan agreement. One of the basic goals of this consultation process is to help parents become more focused on and better able to understand and respond to the needs of their children. There are three general ways to help parents better focus on the needs of their children.
Interest Based Negotiation
The first approach involves teaching and helping parents better understand the underlying developmental and special needs of their children. I have a handout that lists some common needs: relationship, emotional, social, physical, educational, medical, cultural, and religious needs. Some of these are developmental needs of children as they grow, while others may be related to more special problems children are experiencing.
A second way to help the parents better understand their children is the use of the McMillen Matrix (Todd McMillen, collaborative law attorney, Boulder, Colorado). This process encourages parents to look at the pros and cons of various Parenting Plans from three different points of view. I use a white board or some visual display and set up a matrix of pros and cons on the vertical axis and the mother/father/child’s point of view on the horizontal axis. Thus you will have 6 areas in which to make comments.
Each parent takes a particular Parenting Plan and lists pros and cons from 1) their point of view, 2) the other parent’s point of view and 3) the child’s point of view. This encourages the parents to consider different perspectives and to better understand their child’s needs. This certainly can lead to a discussion about how various parenting plans will meet the needs of their child.
Alternative Parenting Plans
A final approach is generally used in conjunction with either the first or second approaches discussed above. In this situation, the parents are asked to come up with a Parenting Plan that meets the needs of the child. They bring in their “first choice” plan and we discuss the pros and cons of each, using something like the McMillen Matrix. Then, I ask the parents to bring back three parenting plans, the first, any adjustment they would make from what they learned from the first exercise, plus two compromise parenting plans, wherein they incorporate preferences of the other parent.
Professionals who are knowledgeable in early child development and attachment theory/research can sometimes provide information to make parenting plans more responsive to developmental and special needs of the child. I do not typically suggest how many overnights the child might have with a particular parent. Instead, I give parents ballpark spans of time that the children are able to tolerate being away from their parent given their age, and special needs. We talk about the number of overnights the child is away from the parent and what it is like from the child’s point of view. We also talk about visits (not overnight) with the other parent and phone calls to maintain the continuity of the relationships. Sometimes parents need to think about how to vary a parenting plan as the children get older, how to deal with high conflict situations (less flexibility and more structure), and how to help their children with grief over the divorce. If the way the parents are structuring the overnights does not fit with the developmental needs of the child, then I give feedback. For example, if the parents what to alternate each week, this may not work well for young children. Instead, perhaps splitting the week so that the child is not separated from the other parent for so long a period of time would be more developmentally appropriate.