Judge in the Family Court of England and Wales endorses parenting coordination as a positive process that can support parents following separation

In the recent court judgment of XF v XM (see here), which was published online though anonymised to protect the family’s identity, the judge, Mrs Justice Roberts, acknowledges that parenting coordination can be helpful for parents who have been through a difficult and challenging separation. Whilst parenting coordination is a well and long established form of dispute resolution that families have been able to call upon sometimes for decades in other jurisdictions, it is relatively newly available in England and Wales.

For the subject parents in this court judgment, their separation left a legacy of inter-parental conflict.  It is clear from the judge’s descriptions that both young children were affected by their parents’ conflict and this presented in regressions of various types developmentally, a deterioration in their usual resilience and emotional well-being, as well as the elder sibling taking too much responsibility for her younger sister.  Much to the parents’ credit, they indicated they were willing to seek help to improve their co-parenting relationship, motivated, no doubt, to benefit their children.

The family was based in Dubai. In the midst of Covid, when Dubai was in lock-down, a number of unfortunate events led to the parents’ separation.  On the face of the court judgment, this appears to have occurred somewhat unexpectedly, in particular for the father, who could be perceived as being entirely unprepared emotionally.

With her characteristically sympathetic, impartial but not neutral as to the issues approach, Mrs Justice Roberts pointed out to the parents that, in spite of the hurt caused between them and the visible effects on their daughters, they were more than capable of jointly exercising their parental responsibility in a way that could help their daughters thrive in two homes.  She recognised that parenting coordination or other forms of dispute resolution could assist them to move forward constructively and cooperatively, with their daughters’ best interests at the heart of their decision making.

So what had happened for this family? Quite unexpectedly, they separated. For one parent at least, but probably both, emotions were raw as each began their journey to facing an unanticipated future in two homes.  Such journeys don’t take place in sync. Most commonly, one parent has been thinking about a separation before the other and even if this isn’t the case, their respective journeys through the transition are completely individual, taking different amounts of time, with different emotional twists and turns.

Most parents have good instincts for parenting their children. What is understandably more challenging following separation is managing a relationship with a former partner who needs to become a co-parent – and doing so without it impacting on the children. One situation shown to create a particular challenge to successful transitioning is if the separation occurred suddenly and unexpectedly.  If things didn’t work in the relationship, it can feel inconceivable that they could possibly improve once living apart.

As with anything, mindful planning goes a long way towards enabling parents to consciously develop how they want their co-parenting relationship to be, which in turn informs their child’s experience of the co-parenting partnership.  Considering how a relationship actually differs as co-parents, what it should look like and then experimenting/stress-testing and tweaking the reality counts for a great deal.

For the family in this judgment, it was clear that trust had broken down and that each felt threatened by the other’s perceived underlying intentions.  In addition, the judge felt the parents’ insecurities were, certainly on the part of the father and even if quite unintentionally, being projected onto the children.  When this happens, a challenging cycle of blame develops in which the children start to respond negatively, in response to which each parent questions why and often concludes the actions of the other must be the cause. With the right support, parents can overcome misunderstandings, work to understand one another and avoid negative and detrimental cycles of this nature.

If these parents expressed an interest in parenting coordination, they would be invited to sign into the process for at least a year.  Why? Because this time period offers them a chance to create a parenting relationship that will benefit them, their children, their future partners, and their wider families, but also to practise their newly established way of being and skill-set over a long enough period of time to effect real and long-lasting change.  Habits take time to form and parenting coordinators are there to provide – among others – understanding, prompts, a framework, encouragement, challenges and where necessary a firm and guiding hand along the way.

The types of work the parents could cover with a parenting coordinator are broad ranging, and can include:

  • helping to implement the terms of the court order or parenting agreement
  • having got clear parents’ respective concerns in the engagement phase of the process and having observed their interactions, identifying and reviewing with parents their current communication style, and implementing a new approach
  • considering the hallmarks of a healthy co-parenting relationship
  • putting co-parenting values into a shared parenting charter
  • looking in detail about how conflict affects children
  • looking at how best to support children, from the child’s perspective – what do children need and deserve in order to thrive
  • working on the components of handovers, for example, to ensure they can be a positive experience, and much more.

A parenting coordinator can also make decisions about something parents haven’t been able to agree on that relates to the terms of the court order, for example, how the children would divide their time in a half term if it is to be shared and parents can’t agree the dates.

In helping parents to effect positive change, the parenting coordinator hopes to improve the functioning of everyone in the family and work themselves out of the job!

On the site, we have lots of information about parenting coordination, and various blogs covering topics that relate to successful co-parenting and strategies. Do please have a browse and contact any of us with questions you may have.  If we cannot help, we will do our best to point you in the direction of other professionals who can assist you to improve the healthy functioning of your family unit.