Helping my children understand and cope with separation

Ending a relationship can be very stressful, particularly when children are involved. Seeking information, legal advice and support will help you make important decisions and parenting arrangements during a difficult time.

Myth: Children are irreparably damaged by family breakdown.

In reality:

Children are neither totally fragile nor absolutely resilient. You and your ex-partner can help your children feel more secure by not criticising each other or fighting in front of them.

Separation can be stressful for your children, and can affect them emotionally in different ways. Children may think that the separation is their fault or feel betrayed. Whatever they are feeling, they may struggle to discuss their emotions with you, and may express them through their behaviour. Community services can help you and your children adjust to separation and divorce.

What you can do to help:

  • If you are experiencing family violence, contact your family violence worker or safe steps about how to talk to your children.
  • Make it clear that the separation is not their fault, and it is between both you and your partner.
  • Ensure your children know you both still love them and that this will always be the case. Make it clear that it is good for your children to have ongoing relationships with both of their parents.
  • Keeping in mind your children’s age and level of development, talk openly with your children. Answer their questions honestly and, where appropriate, involve them in decisions that affect them.
  • Encourage your children to talk to friends who have also gone through a separation.
  • Try and limit the changes to your children’s environment and daily routines.
  • Maintain relationships with relatives and friends from both sides of the family.
  • Try and establish a good working relationship with the other parent. While disagreements may be unavoidable at this time, do not involve your children in disagreements or use them as a ‘messenger’ or ‘spy’ between you and your ex-partner. You might consider seeing a counsellor to help you better manage your ongoing relationship with your ex-partner. However, this may not be helpful if you are experiencing family violence.

You can read more in the Family Law Court’s online guide for parents on ‘Children and Separation’. For age-appropriate resources and publications for your children, visit the Family Relationships website.

Who should my children live with?

If you have children, you will have to work out with whom your children will stay with while you sort things out – with you, your partner or someone else. Practical considerations such as where you plan to live, your children’s schooling, your work and your financial situation, can help you decide on the best option for you and your children. Some separated couples take turns to live with their children in their family home, based on share care arrangement. It is also important that you get legal advice about where your children should live and what arrangements can be made.

Myth: Women who don’t live with their children after they end a relationship are bad mothers.

In reality:

Families are not all the same, and although most mothers remain the primary carers of their children, this might not be the best way to go for all families.

Where can I go for help?

If you need help to reach agreement with your ex-partner about future parenting arrangements or want to talk about your situation, you can contact WIRE.

Contact us here

My options regarding my children’s care and upbringing

If your relationship ends, you may share the care and support of your children between you and your ex-partner by:

  • agreement — a parenting plan (not legally enforceable) or consent order (legally enforceable)
  • using a family dispute resolution service to help reach agreement
  • going to court – applying for a parenting order, if parents cannot reach an agreement outside of court.

Even if you and your ex-partner are able to work out parenting arrangements without going to court, it may be helpful to seek advice from a lawyer or a Family Relationship Centre. If you feel compelled to agree to a parenting arrangement because you fear for your safety and your children’s safety, seek legal advice and contact safe steps Family Violence Response Centre or 1800 RESPECT for information on how you can best manage you and your children’s safety.

Same sex couples

Regardless of how children are conceived, the right of the child to know both biological parents is protected under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). This can get complicated where there are biological and non-biological mothers and fathers involved. For details and to find LGBTIQ-friendly legal professionals visit Switchboard Victoria or call 1800 184 527.

Sorting it out without going to court

If you are able to reach agreement with your ex-partner about future parenting arrangements either by making a parenting plan or obtaining a consent order, you do not need to go to court. This not only allows you to make your own decisions and improve future communications with your ex-partner, it can also greatly reduce the financial and emotional costs of legal proceedings.

Getting a parenting plan

A parenting plan is a written agreement that sets out parenting arrangements for children, and has to be dated and signed by both parents. Although a parenting plan is not legally enforceable, if you need to apply for parenting orders later on, the court will take the parenting plan into account when deciding what is in the children’s best interests.

Parenting plans cover such things as:

  • where your child will live
  • how your child will have contact with other people such as the parent they do not live with
  • allocation of parental responsibility
  • where your child will spend holidays, birthdays and other significant days
  • financial support
  • how to change the plan and how you will both resolve disputes that might arise
  • any aspect of the care, welfare and development of the child.

Parenting orders, unlike parenting plans, are binding, are made by the courts and can be legally enforced with penalties for any breach. You and your ex-partner can agree to change a parenting order (made by the court) by entering into a parenting plan (a joint written agreement between you, not made by the court). See our post on ‘Parenting orders’ for more information. .

You can seek assistance from a Family Relationship Centre or a family lawyer in drafting a parenting plan.

Getting a consent order

A consent order is a written agreement that is negotiated between you and your ex-partner regarding parenting arrangements for the children. An application for consent orders is filed at the Family Court of Australia; once approved by the court, consent orders are legally binding and enforceable just like any other court order. Before making the orders, the court must be satisfied that the proposed arrangements are in the best interests of the children.

You and your ex-partner can apply for consent orders to be made without going to court hearings. You can get an Application for Consent Orders Kit from the Family Court website or your nearest family law registry or call 1300 352 000.

Community services (not court-based) are available to help you to resolve family issues at different levels:

  • A family counsellor can help you (and your family) deal with personal and interpersonal issues arising from marriage, separation and divorce.
  • A family dispute resolution practitioner/mediator is independent of all parties and can help you resolve some or all of your disputes with each other during and after the separation/divorce process to make arrangements for property and children.
  • An arbitrator assesses arguments and evidence presented by the parties and then makes a determination to resolve the dispute.

This information sheet was last updated in 2015

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