Summertime for children means time off from school and time to have fun. For their separated or divorced parents, it means spending as much of this time with their children. However, coordinating schedules can be hard inevitably putting a damper on things.
If you have a Separation Agreement or Court Order dealing with custody and access, summer holidays are likely addressed. However, the parameters may be vague, saying the summer is split equally or time will be decided upon at a later date. If there is little guidance or there is no agreement or Order, parents should try to negotiate on their own before going to Court.
To deal with summer access, here are some tips to help things run more smoothly:
1. What’s Best for Them
Put your children first. You don’t want to make the summer about your time, your rights, your wants. A child isn’t going to benefit from a tug-of-war between parents. Try to come to decisions in a way that is best for them.
Listen to your children, what do they want to do? If your child wants to see dad’s family at the annual reunion weekend, try to make it happen. If your children want to go to summer camp on your access week, don’t make them feel as though they can’t go because of this. Try to work something out with the other parent instead of putting up unnecessary stop signs.
2. Plan, Plan, Plan
This cannot be emphasized enough. Planning helps prevent conflict and defuses stress. If you know when you have holidays from work or the date of a special event, let the other parent know. The earlier you can start setting down plans, the better.
A joint calendar is a great tool. Easy to use, they let each parent to see, at a glance, what is going on. Many online platforms provide these and allow them to be shared between parties. No more sifting through emails or trying to remember what was verbally decided on.
Try to set a yearly deadline by which you will exchange summer access proposals. Many people aim for the month of May, before the end of the school year. Some summer camps require registrations to be completed in March. Give yourself time to work out any issues and to sign any travel consent forms, if needed.
Lastly, commit. Your marked off days are likely set. Last minute changes are not likely easy to fix or adjust. It’s not fair to anyone involved to keep switching dates.
3. Notice: For Your Information
This goes hand-in-hand with planning. Telling the other parent that you are taking your child to a barbeque the upcoming Saturday or that you have booked a trip may interfere with already-made plans. This behaviour infringes on the other parent’s access and leads to conflict. The parent on the receiving end will likely not communicate in the future because he or she will feel it won’t be reciprocated.
Instead, let the other parent know your intentions. Do this well in advance to allow discussion. It’s not “I am doing, I am taking”, it’s “I would like to do, I would like to take”. Demands won’t make for easy going.
Ongoing notice is also important. If you are going on a trip, provide contact information or an itinerary. This does not mean that the other parent can impose whenever they would like, but it keeps them in the know – something they will appreciate and hopefully give in return.
4. See Reason!
Parents learn quickly that making access work requires one to be reasonable. Do your best to accommodate. If dad’s only vacation week falls on your access week, try to find a way that allows dad to see the children, but also a way to give you alternate time.
Put yourself in the other parent’s shoes. Look at your proposals and ask yourself, if I got this from the other parent, would I think it’s reasonable? Be prepared to be flexible and compromise. This has to go both ways.
Be realistic. Don’t put blinders on to convince yourself that you are being fair. Frequently contacting your child or disregarding schedules is disrespectful to the other parent. Try to take a balanced approach towards your summer with your children.
5. Support Contact with Other Parent
Summer can change a child’s access to a point where he or she won’t see the other parent for an extended time. This can be hard on children, even if they don’t voice it.
Try to support your children in this. Let them know that it’s okay for them to talk to the other parent while they are with you. It is in your child’s best interest to have contact with you both. You can schedule times for talks on the phone or via chat. Remember to discuss parameters with the other parent though, to prevent conflicts.
On the flip side, if your child is off for a vacation with the other parent, let him or her know you will be okay while they are gone. Try not to say you will be lonely because they are leaving you. This can be a source of stress for your child. Remember, what you say (and what you don’t say) to your child impacts them more than you think.
6. Communication is Key
Realistically, this is not always possible, but trying to communicate directly with the other parent is important. If face-to-face discussions are difficult, emails, text, and other forms of communication can be used.
Be respectful of the other parent. Make propositions politely and do not demand. Try to respond in a timely manner. Communication also requires listening. You can’t expect to get without some give.
Most importantly, don’t make your children the messenger. This puts them in the middle of two debating parents. Further, they can feel guilty or distressed by upsetting or disappointing the parent they deliver the news to.
7. Do Unto Others
When you plan for the summer, remember to treat the other parent as you want to be treated. Don’t make all or nothing proposals – they don’t leave room to negotiate. Do not ambush a parent in front of your children about vacation plans – there is nothing worse than making a parent feel as though their saying no makes them the “bad guy”.
To help with this, change “you” statements to “we” statements. This moves away from hostility and fosters joint decision making. This language is also important when talking with your child. Rather than saying, “It’s up to your mom/dad” or “your mom/dad is why you can’t come”, tailor your words. “Mom and I have to discuss your going to the cottage” or “we weren’t able to work it out this time.” Though you may not get your desired outcome, it’s a healthier way to deal with these situations.
8. Know the Limits
Realistically, there are limits as to how much can be decided about summer access; you and the other parent may already struggle with access. If you have no pre-existing agreement, court order or arrangement in place, consider making one.
Agreements include as much detail as suits you. You can outline travel parameters, whether there will be consecutive weeks of access over the summer, how camps will be chosen, and whether consent forms are needed. Remember to also discuss how future changes will be made, such as when the children get older.
If it becomes difficult to make this agreement on your own, see if a trusted third party can help you. This can be a friend or a family member. However, remember they are there to help and are not to get caught in the crossfire. If this isn’t an option, lawyers or a mediator can help. Notwithstanding if you intend to retain a lawyer or mediator to help, it is always recommended to at least have a consultation with a family law lawyer to be aware of your rights and obligations.