Making plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce

Section 6: Special issues

Family violence

Family violence happens when children or adults are abused in a family. The abuse can be physical, sexual, financial or psychological. Neglect can also be a form of family violence.

If you or your children are in immediate danger, call the police.

Physical abuse includes:

  • pushing or shoving
  • hitting, slapping or kicking
  • pinching or punching
  • strangling or choking
  • stabbing or cutting
  • shooting
  • throwing objects at someone
  • burning
  • holding someone down for someone else to assault
  • locking someone in a room or tying them down
  • killing someone

Financial abuse includes:

  • taking your money or pay cheques without your permission
  • not giving you money for things you or your children need, like food, shelter or medicine
  • making you sign documents to sell things you don't want to sell
  • forcing you to change your will

Psychological abuse includes:

  • threatening to hurt you or your children
  • threatening to destroy your property or your children's property
  • threatening to hurt your or your child's pet
  • stalking you or your children

Neglect includes:

  • not giving you or your children proper food, clothing or shelter
  • not giving you or your children appropriate medical care

Sexual abuse includes any unwanted sexual contact between a person and another adult or a child. There are special laws to protect children from sexual abuse and activities that exploit them and you can find information on these in "Child Abuse is Wrong."

All forms of physical and sexual abuse are crimes in Canada. Some forms of psychological abuse, financial abuse and neglect are crimes in Canada.

Although there are types of family violence that are not crimes, they're still harmful and can sometimes be signs that the behaviour will get worse. These include yelling at or humiliating a family member. It also includes controlling behaviour (for example, trying to keep a person from friends and family). Even if a particular form of violence is not criminal, it's still important to consider it when thinking about what's in your children's best interests.

Family violence can be serious, and sometimes fatal, for victims. Safety needs to be your priority and you may need a safety plan. The Directory of Resources at the end of this document has links to information about family justice services across Canada.

How family violence affects children

Children who live with family violence are at risk for both short and long-term harm.

Abused children can suffer physical and psychological harm. They can also have short and long-term emotional, behavioural and developmental problems. For example, they may:

  • feel anxious, scared or insecure
  • have problems at school
  • have fewer social skills than their peers

Children can also suffer emotional abuse from seeing or hearing violence between other family members. Even if they aren't hurt themselves, they can have emotional, behavioural and developmental problems. These problems can last a long time. They're also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Children can be deeply affected by seeing the results of violence (for example, seeing bruises on a family member, or knowing that one parent is scared of the other).

Research suggests that children have high levels of stress if they're victims of family violence themselves or if there is family violence in their home. This stress can shape their brain development and affect them for life.

Parenting arrangements when there is a history of family violence

Every family member needs to be safe. If you're worried about family violence, it's important to take it into account when you make parenting arrangements. Remember, your children may see or hear family violence even if you and the other parent don't live together. For example, if you put in place a parenting schedule where you and the other parent have to see each other, is there a risk for family violence? If so, you may want to consider a different parenting schedule which does not require face-to-face contact.

It's important to think about the nature and history of the family violence. Some types of family violence are more serious than others from the perspective of making a parenting arrangement. For example, in one case a parent may be physically violent to the other over a long period of time. They may also be emotionally abusive and try to control the other parent. In another case, there may be only one time where both parents pushed each other.

Consider your situation carefully before you decide what type parenting schedule is best for your children. If you are worried about your safety or your children's safety, here are some options for you to think about:

  • Supervised exchange, where parents pick up and drop off the child with a third person there. It's possible to stagger pick-up and drop-off times so the parents don't see each other.
  • Supervised parenting time, where a parent and child spend time together in the presence of a third person.
  • No contact between a parent and child.

Some communities offer supervised access or exchange programs. The Directory of Resources at the end of this document has links to information about family justice programs and services across Canada.

You should note that it's rare for a judge to order that a parent have no contact with a child. Judges will only make "no contact" orders in extreme cases. These are generally cases where the judge believes that a child or parent is in danger. Or, they are cases where the judge believes that a parent may try to abduct a child.

Where family violence has been an issue, you need to take it into account when considering who will make decisions about your children. For example, if one of you has been violent towards the other, and there are ongoing safety concerns, you may find it hard to make decisions jointly. This could give one parent a way to continue trying to control the other parent.

Dispute resolution when there is a history of family violence

Some types of dispute resolution may not be appropriate when there has been family violence. This is true when one of you feels unsafe around the other, or if one of you tries to control the other. For example, you may not be able to meet face-to-face with the other parent in mediation, and will need to look at other options.

For more information about dispute resolution options, please see Section 5: Options for Developing a Parenting Arrangement. If you have a lawyer, you should tell your lawyer about your concerns. In some cases, it may be necessary to go to court.

If you're going before a family court judge, don't assume that they will know about other cases involving members of your family. It's important to let your family lawyer and family court judges know about any criminal or children protection cases. You should also let the Crown counsel in the criminal case, and the child protection agency know about the family law case.

If you are registered with a Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP) or plan to register with a MEP, you should also let them know if there are safety issues. They will take this into account when making decisions about how to enforce support.

What to tell the kids when there is a history of family violence

It can be hard to know what to say to your children when the other parent has been violent.

You may wish to speak with a social worker or psychologist to come up with the best response in your situation.

Your children may feel angry or be afraid of the other parent. Or, your children may still feel—or want to feel—connected to the other parent. In other cases, your children may feel angry with you and side with the parent who has been violent.

When you talk with your children about the other parent, it's important that you say only what you need to. Your children don't need to hear a lot of details. It's a good idea to remain as neutral as possible.

For example, if the other parent's time with your children is being supervised due to safety concerns, avoid saying things like:

Your mom is a bad person. She's a bully who beats people up to get her way. She's dangerous and you can't be alone with her.

You might try something like this instead:

Your mom is having problems controlling her temper and sometimes she hits people. That can be scary and it can hurt. To make sure everyone feels safe, Barbara is going to be there when you spend time together.

It's important to be as honest as possible with your children, and their safety must come first. But before you give your child information related to the family violence, ask yourself if your children really need the information. If so, is it possible to say it objectively?

Family violence resources

There are many people and organizations that can help you and your children. You may be able to get help from a lawyer, social worker, counsellor, support group or your local shelter or transition house. In addition, child protection services are available in each province and territory and can help you meet the needs of your children in cases of family violence. The Directory of Resources at the end of this document has links to resources for victims of abuse across Canada.

Magda's story

Magda had reached her breaking point. Things could not go on like this. It had started a couple of years ago, right after their daughter, Alicia, was born. Alicia wasn't a good sleeper, and Magda and Eric had been so tired. One night, when Alicia had kept them up until 3:00 a.m., Eric had called Magda names like "fat," "stupid" and "lazy." She was shocked by it, but put it down to sleep deprivation.

But it didn't stop. In fact, it got worse. Eric had begun pushing her, and throwing things when he was angry. Then he had started kicking Magda's dog. The worst part was that sometimes Alicia was in the room when he did those things. She was too young to understand what he was saying, but she could sense the conflict and would start crying. Her crying just seemed to make Eric even more upset.

One day Eric twisted Magda's wrist and broke it. When Magda went to the hospital, she was too scared and embarrassed to tell the doctor that Eric had hurt her. So she told her instead that she had fallen.

A few days later, Magda told a friend what had really happened. Her friend told her to speak with a family law lawyer. Magda pretended she was visiting her mother, and went to see the lawyer. She told him what was happening, and that she was afraid for herself and for Alicia. The lawyer told her about her legal options, and what they could do to try and protect her and Alicia. He told her to contact the police and that child protection services would also want to make sure that Alicia was safe. He also told her where she could find services in her community to help her.

Magda knew it would be hard to leave Eric, but she had to protect herself and Alicia.

Magda's lawyer helped her apply for an order and the court considered everyone's safety in deciding what was in Alicia's best interests. Now when Eric has time with Alicia, the exchanges are supervised and Eric and Magda don't see each other.

When one parent wants to move away

Sometimes one or both parents may want to move away from the area where they were living when they were together. Some of the most common reasons that people move are:

  • for a new job or to improve their financial situation
  • because of a new relationship (for example, a new partner lives somewhere else)
  • to be closer to family

A person may want to move away from their former partner where there are safety issues due to family violence.

Sometimes one parent wants to move very soon after separating. Other times, a parent doesn't think about moving until much later.

If you are working out your parenting arrangement

When you're working with the other parent to develop a parenting arrangement, it's a good idea to think about future moves. What you will do if one parent wishes to move away, either by themselves, or with the children? Even if you believe that it's not likely to happen, it's important to think about it.

There are different types of moves. For example, moving from one street to another in the same city will not likely affect the parenting schedule. Other moves, like moving to another community or province, could affect the children's relationship with a parent or other people who are important to the children.

You may want to agree that a parent who is planning a local move must tell the other parent in advance. There are practical reasons to do this. For example, the other parent must know where to pick up and drop off the children.

For other moves, like to another province, here are some examples of some issues you may want to address:

  • Should a parent who wants to move have to give notice? Or only if the parent wants to move with the children?
    • How much notice should a parent give? Should it be 60 or 90 days before the move?
    • Who should the parent give notice to? Should they give it to the other parent? Should they also give notice to other people who are important to the children, like grandparents?
    • What information should the parent include in the notice? Should they include the new address, new contact information, date of the move, and proposed new parenting arrangement?
  • Will a parent need the other parent or a judge to agree before they move? Or, will the parenting plan clearly say that one parent can move with the children?

Think about what would be most practical in your situation and would work best for your children.

If you or the other parent have plans to move

In most cases, a parent who wants to move away with the children will need to get the other parent to agree or will need to ask a judge for permission. If one parent takes or keeps a child without the other parent's permission or a court order allowing it, they might be abducting the child. Abduction is a crime in Canada. If you have questions about what your agreement or court order allows you or the other parent to do, you should speak with a family law lawyer.

If you have a court order or formal agreement, it might say how much notice you must give the other parent. If it does, you must give as much notice as it says. Even if your agreement or order does not specifically mention the issue of notice, you should tell the other parent well in advance about your plans to move. This will give you and the other parent a chance to discuss how the proposed move may affect your children and the parenting arrangement.


Parental child abduction occurs when one parent or a guardian takes or keeps a child without either the legal right to do so or the permission of the other parent. Child abduction is a crime in Canada. An exception may apply when a parent takes the child to protect them from immediate harm.

If you believe that your child has been abducted (whether taken somewhere else in Canada or outside the country) or may be abducted, see the Directory of Resources at the end of this document for helpful links and information.

If you or the other parent is thinking about moving away with your children, here are some things you will want to discuss:

  • How would the children maintain a relationship with the other parent?
    • Will the parent who isn't moving or the children travel so they can spend time together?
    • How much would the travel cost and who would pay for it?
    • Would the parent who isn't moving have extra contact by telephone, e-mail or video conferencing?
  • How would the move be good for your children? For example
    • Would your children get a better education?
    • Would the parent who is moving have a chance for a better job, a better education, or be closer to family for support?
  • How would the move be difficult for your children? For example, would it be hard for them to move away from friends, family, school or daycare?

Talking to the other parent may allow you to come to an agreement about the issues. If you and the other parent agree on the move, it's a good idea to update your agreement or court order.

These can be very complex situations. You should speak with a family law lawyer to get advice on your situation. This is particularly true if there has been family violence and there are ongoing safety concerns.

It's important to check your provincial and territorial legislation to see if it contains any specific rules about moving away with children. Where the provincial and territorial legislation applies, you will want to follow these rules and to make sure that your parenting plan complies with them. For example, if you live in British Columbia, you should know that the Family Law Act requires parents to meet certain conditions.

If you're moving off-reserve

If you're living on-reserve and moving off-reserve, you may wish to contact the local Friendship Centre for services that may be available to you. Friendship Centres can help Aboriginal people move from rural, remote and reserve communities to towns and cities. For many, Friendship Centres are the first place to go for information about Aboriginal programs and services. The Directory of Resources at the end of this document has links to information for Aboriginal Canadians.

Following the terms of your agreement or order

Sometimes, one or both parents don't follow the terms of an agreement or court order. For example, one parent may:

  • prevent the other parent from having time with the children
  • fail to honour the schedule for their time with the children
  • make it hard for the other parent to spend time with the children by doing things like
    • not having the children ready on time
    • claiming the children are sick when this isn't the case
    • scheduling the children for extracurricular activities during the other parent's scheduled time with the children without the other parent's consent
  • reduce the time they're supposed to spend with the children by doing things like showing up late for pick up or dropping the children off early

What can I do?

It can be harmful to the children's best interests when parents don't follow an order or agreement. The law requires you and the other parent to follow the terms of your legal agreement or order.

If the other parent isn't following your agreement or order, you should always try talking with the other parent first. Try to find the reason for the problem. Maybe there is a misunderstanding, or maybe the other parent has a concern that you can work out together.

Remember … Don't talk about these issues in front of your children. It's important to keep your children from the conflict. Don't let them feel like they're stuck in the middle.

If you can't work out the problem by talking to the other parent, there may be family justice services that can help you. For example, you may want to look for parent information sessions or mediation. You will find links to resources in the Directory of Resources.

Another service you may find helpful is parenting coordination. A parenting coordinator helps parents follow their parenting plan. If a problem comes up once a parenting plan is in place, the parenting coordinator will first try to help the parents agree on a solution. For example, they can help you decide what happens to the schedule when a child is sick. If you can't agree, the parenting coordinator will decide for you. Parenting coordination is a private service, and you would have to pay for it.

You may also wish to speak with a family law lawyer about what you can do to solve the problem.

Sandra misses her Dad

Sandra started to cry as soon as she put down the phone. Another month would go by without seeing her dad.

"This weekend just doesn't work for me—next time, I promise." He was stuck at work. He was busy with his new wife and child. He was meeting an important client. There was always an excuse.

When her parents had told her they were getting divorced, Sandra's father had moved out the same week. The whole family had gone to court. There were lawyers and a judge. Sandra had even had the chance to tell the judge how much she wanted to keep seeing both her parents. She couldn't imagine living without them both. The judge had decided that Sandra would live with her mother, and that she would see her father one night a week and every Saturday.

But that was years ago, and every Saturday had turned into every second Saturday and then once a month, if she was lucky. When she did go to her Dad's house, he was focused on his new wife and baby. He would tell her, "We'll spend some one-on-one time later."

But it never happened. They never read the Sunday comics together, like they used to. He no longer helped her with her math homework. They didn't go to the market to buy ingredients for Saturday night dinner anymore. In fact, they didn't even eat dinner together because he was always out with her stepmom. When she complained to him about it, he called even less.

She tried to convince herself that she didn't care. But she did. She loved her dad and she missed him.

Then one Saturday when her dad had cancelled their visit, her mom found her crying in her room and asked what was wrong. When Sandra told her how she felt, her mom was surprised that Sandra was so upset. She had assumed that since Sandra had never said anything to her, she didn't care. On Monday morning, her mom called a family counsellor and explained the situation. Sandra met with the counsellor and told him that she really loved her dad and missed him. Sandra asked her mom to call her dad and to tell him that Sandra wanted him to attend counseling with her. This was a difficult call for both Sandra's mom and dad. Her dad felt bad that Sandra was upset, but he was happy that she still wanted to spend time with him. He agreed to meet with the counsellor to come up with a plan they could stick to.

Hassan—Making Mom Happy

Hassan felt guilty leaving his mom. When his parents had separated, the judge had decided that he would spend every second week with his dad. But his mom always got so upset when it was time for him to go.

"He doesn't miss you like I do—he wouldn't have moved out if he did!" his mother said. "He barely even calls when you're here!" Hassan felt bad for leaving, like he was abandoning her. She would be all alone without him, and he knew she really missed him. And what if what she said was true? What if his dad really didn't want him there? Is that why he had moved out? How could it be true? He and his dad always had a great time together.

"If your father hadn't gotten lawyers and judges involved then we wouldn't have this stupid court order that takes you away from me half the time!" she said.

Hassan felt sad and confused. He began making excuses about why he couldn't go to his dad's place, or why he should come home early. That seemed to make his mom happy.

But deep down he missed his dad, and it really seemed that his dad missed him too. His dad started talking about going back to court to make Hassan's mother follow the court order. That didn't seem like such a great idea to Hassan—how was a judge going to make this better? He felt stuck.

Then his mom's friend told her about an information session for divorcing parents. She went to the session and got lots of helpful information. It helped her see how it was best for Hassan to have a relationship with both parents.

After that—even though it was hard for her—she encouraged Hassan to see his father. She told Hassan it was important for him to spend time with his dad. It took some time and convincing, but Hassan started spending every second week with his dad again.

New relationships and blended families

New relationships

At the early stage of a separation or divorce, you may not be thinking about a new relationship. But, it may happen in the future. Entering into a new romantic relationship can make parenting more complicated.

If you are considering entering into a new relationship, it's a good idea to reflect on where you are in terms of dealing with your separation or divorce. You will also want to consider how your children are dealing with the separation or divorce.

It's important to think about the new relationship from your children's perspective. If you are entering into a new relationship, you may want to consider the following:

  • It may be best to introduce your children to a new partner only when the relationship is serious. Stability is really important for children, and it can be confusing and difficult for them to get close to a new partner who then quickly disappears from their life.
  • Slowly introduce your new partner. Shorter meetings at first may be best.
  • Don't be surprised if your children don't warm up to your new partner right away. Give your children the opportunity to let you know how they're feeling. They need to feel that you're listening to them.
  • Children may be worried that your new partner will replace them. Reassure them that you'll always love them and that they're an important part of your life. It can help to schedule one-on-one time with your children, without your partner.

Your new relationships and the other parent

Depending on how long you have been separated and how each of you is dealing with the separation, a new relationship may initially be difficult for the other parent. A new relationship sometimes signals the "real end" of a relationship, since it shows that one parent is moving on. As a reaction to this, it is possible that in the short term, the other parent may become less cooperative. Listen to their concerns and try to be respectful of how they are feeling.

For example, if you are doing a joint birthday party soon after the separation, it may be best not to bring a new boyfriend/girlfriend. Similarly, it sometimes causes conflict when a new partner is involved with picking up or dropping off children.

Over time, things will generally get easier.

Step-families and blended families

Combining two families (two parents and sometimes two sets of children), into a new step-family is becoming more common. Creating a successful step-family can be complicated. It requires the "buy-in" of each family member and takes time.

In some stepfamilies, the step-parent may not have been a parent before. For this person, parenting will be a new role. In blended families, where there are two sets of children, each parent may have very different parenting styles. They may also have had very different experiences and approaches to parenting in their previous family. In addition, there may be step-siblings. No matter how the step-family is made up, it will involve changes for everyone:

If you are a parent or stepparent in a blended family, you may want to think about the following points:

  • As a parent, you need to remind your children of their special place in your family and that you still love them. One-on-one time is important.
  • New partners can become a very important part of a child's life, but they do not replace your child's mom or dad.
  • Step-parent and child relationships take time to develop. Everyone needs to be patient and realistic.
  • Both parents and step-parents should decide family rules, with input from your children as appropriate. Tell your children that they're providing input, not making the decisions. Your children may have trouble accepting rules they believe are coming from the step-parent—"he's coming in here and changing everything." At least in the beginning, step-parents should let parents decide on bigger issues like discipline.
  • Step-sibling relationships take time to develop. Not all step-sibling relationships will be the same. Children need time to be alone with each other to work out what their relationship will be.
  • Treat all children fairly, and make sure that the same rules apply to everyone.
  • Encourage your children to be open about how they're feeling.

Family meetings are one way to encourage discussion and to involve all family members in decision-making. You can use family meetings to talk about rules, chores and to resolve problems that come up. You can also use them just to talk, spend time together and to plan family activities.

Juan meets Julia

Juan and Maria separated when their only child, Xavier, was four. Although they couldn't live together anymore, they were able to maintain a good co-parenting relationship for Xavier's sake.

Things went smoothly until Xavier was eight years old. Then Juan met Julia. Julia had been separated for two years and had a ten-year old daughter, Mia. Julia and Juan started spending time together.

At first they only met for coffee every couple of weeks. After a few months, they knew they were starting to have deep feelings for one another. They started to meet for dinner and then began spending quite a bit of time together. They talked and decided things were getting serious enough that they should meet each other's children.

Before introducing Xavier to Julia, Juan spoke to Maria about it. He was really surprised at her reaction. Maria was angry and said that it wasn't fair to do this to Xavier; he really needed all of his father's attention. Juan wondered if this was really about Xavier, but he agreed to wait a couple more months before introducing Julia to Xavier. To keep the peace, he also promised that the first few meetings would be short.

Two months later, Maria had gotten used to the idea. Xavier really liked Julia and was happy that she liked sports as much as he did. He had more trouble getting along with Mia though. Mia was still angry about her parent's separation and saw this as just one more imposition on her life. At times, she wasn't very nice to Xavier.

Julia and Juan realized that this was going to be harder than they thought. They started looking for a step-parent support group and encouraged the kids to talk to them about how they were feeling. They decided to keep taking things slowly.

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