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

Section 6: Special issues

Family violence

Family violence happens when a person abuses someone in their family. It can take many different forms, such as:

Family violence can also happen over the course of days, months and years. It can happen before, during, or after a couple separates.

Separation can be a particularly dangerous time for families with a history of family violence, as it may trigger someone to become abusive or to intensify existing abuse.

Family violence causes serious and long-lasting harm to everyone in the family, including those who only ever witness the abuse.

Under the Divorce Act, family violence is any behaviour by a family member towards another family member that:

  • is violent; or
  • is threatening; or
  • is a pattern of coercive and controlling behavior; or
  • causes a family member to fear for their safety or the safety of another person.

Some examples of behaviour that is considered family violence under the Divorce Act are:

Physical abuse
Punching, slapping, kicking, pushing, dragging, choking, hair-pulling, biting, stabbing, locking someone in a confined space, holding someone down, etc.
Sexual abuse
Forcing someone to have sex, forcing someone to perform a sexual act, forcing someone to watch pornography, touching a child sexually, forcing a child to touch another person sexually, forcing a child to watch someone perform a sexual act, etc.
Threats to kill or cause bodily harm to another person
Threatening to beat someone up, kill someone, hunt someone down, disable someone, etc.
Harassment and stalking
Following, calling, or texting someone repeatedly, setting up monitoring software on someone’s electronic device, setting up surveillance equipment in someone’s home, excessively tracking someone’s activities and whereabouts on social media, etc.
Failure to provide the necessities of life
Not providing children with food or appropriate clothing, keeping someone from receiving medical care, failure to seek medical attention for a child, etc.
Psychological abuse
Always yelling at, criticizing, insulting or calling someone names; controlling someone’s activities and personal choices, such as their hairstyle and clothing; not letting someone see their family or friends; threatening to share intimate pictures of someone with other people (for example, online).
Financial Abuse
Controlling how a partner spends money, not letting someone work, withholding money from a partner, etc.
Threats to kill or harm an animal or damage property
Threatening to harm the family’s pet, burning down the family home, vandalizing someone’s private property, etc.

While many of these behaviours are crimes, some non-criminal behaviour is still considered family violence under the Divorce Act.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or your local police.

Any type of family violence is serious and puts everyone’s safety at risk. If you or someone you know is a victim of family violence, seek help. Find information on how to address family violence on the Department of Justice Canada’s Family Violence page.

Coercive and controlling family violence

Coercive and controlling family violence is a pattern of abuse that some people use to control or dominate another family member. Someone who engages in this type of violence may use a combination of physical, psychological, sexual, financial, and other forms of abuse to assert power and control.

Coercive and controlling family violence is very dangerous. People who commit this type of abuse often continue or escalate the family violence after separation or divorce.

How family violence affects children

Children can experience family violence in many different ways. For example:

All of the above are considered family violence under the Divorce Act.

Children who live with family violence are at risk for both short- and long-term harm. They can suffer both physical and psychological harm. Family violence can change their brain development. They may develop emotional, cognitive, behavioural and social problems that can last a long time. For example, they may:

Children are also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 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 change a child’s brain in ways that can negatively impact them for life.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder triggered by a victim reliving a terrifying experience in which they were threatened with, or suffered, physical, psychological or emotional harm.

Symptoms of PTSD include:

More information on PTSD and on how to seek help can be found on the Government of Canada’s ” Mental Health and Wellness” webpage.

Parenting arrangements when there is a history of family violence

Every family member needs to be safe. It's important to take family violence into account when you make parenting arrangements. Remember that your children may be exposed to family violence even if you and the other parent don't live together.

If there has been family violence, it is helpful to think about what the Divorce Act says.

The Divorce Act requires judges who are making parenting orders to consider:

To consider family violence, judges will look at factors such as:

The most important factor the judge must consider is your children’s physical, emotional and psychological safety, security and well-being.

The Divorce Act lets judges include specific options in an order to protect family members:

Some communities offer supervised parenting time or supervised exchange programs.

If you go to court

If you want a judge to consider family violence in your case, you will need to have proof of what has happened. Some examples of evidence that you might already have or might be able to get are:

In cases of family violence, families can be involved with more than one part of the justice system at the same time. If you are divorcing and asking the court for a parenting order or support order, you will need to tell the court about any criminal or child protection cases or orders that involve you or the other parent or about any restraining or protection orders against either of you. 

More information on family violence and family law is available on the Department of Justice Canada’s website.

Family dispute resolution when there is a history of family violence

Some types of family dispute resolution processes may not be appropriate when there is or has been family violence. This is true when one person feels unsafe around the other or one person 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 such as shuttle mediation, which doesn’t involve direct contact between the parents.

For more information about family dispute resolution options, see Section 5: Options for developing a parenting arrangement.

If you have a legal adviser, you should share your concerns with them. In some cases, it may be necessary to go to court.

Sometimes people who are abusive will se the family law process—in and out of court—to control and harass the other parent. This is called “legal bullying” and can involve behaviour such as

If you experience legal bullying, it is important to tell your legal adviser, the person handling your family dispute resolution process, or the judge in your case.

If you are registered or plan to register with a Maintenance Enforcement Program (MEP), which is a program that helps with enforcement of child support and spousal support, 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. Find more information on enforcement of child or spousal support on the Department of Justice Canada’s website.

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 approach for your situation.

Professionals can also help you deal with your children’s reaction. For instance, 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. Your children could also 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 about the details. You should do your best 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 put their safety first. Before you talk to your children about the family violence, ask yourself if they really need the information and how much they need to know. Make sure you are able to communicate the information 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 legal adviser, doctor, social worker, counsellor, or support group, or from the police or your local shelter or transition house. You can also ask for help from victim services, community organizations or help lines. In addition, child protection services are available in each province and territory, and they can help you meet the needs of your children in cases of family violence.

More information on family law and family violence can be found on the Department of Justice Canada’s website.

If you feel the need to develop a safety plan for you and your children to follow when needed, please consult the Government of Canada’s online guide on How to plan for your safety if you are in an abusive relationship.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 or your local police.

Magda's story

Magda had reached her breaking point. Things couldn’t 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, but blamed it on sleep deprivation.

But 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 legal adviser. Magda pretended she was visiting her mother and went to see the legal adviser. She told him what was happening and that she was afraid for herself and for Alicia. The legal adviser told her about her legal options and what they could do to help 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 legal adviser helped her apply for an order, and the court considered everyone's safety in deciding what was in Alicia's best interests. Afterward, when Eric had time with Alicia, the exchanges were supervised and Eric and Magda didn'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:

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 will you do if one parent wishes to move away, either alone or with the children? Even if you believe that it isn’t likely to happen, it's important to think about it and include it in your parenting plan.

Moving or relocating under the Divorce Act

When making parenting arrangements, it is important to know that the Divorce Act has rules about the process to follow when one parent proposes to move the child or move away from the child. These rules apply if you already have a custody or parenting order under the Divorce Act.

Notice requirements

If you have parenting responsibilities under the Divorce Act (custody, access, parenting time or decision-making responsibility), you have to give notice if you are:

You need to give notice of the move to:

The rules for notice are different depending on whether the move is just a change of residence or a relocation.

A change of residence is a move that is not expected to have a major impact on the child’s relationships. In most cases, this will be a move within the same city or town.

A relocation is a move that will have a significant impact on the child’s relationship with their parents and other important people in the child’s life. A move will generally be considered a relocation if it will have a big impact on one parent’s ability to follow the parenting time schedule.

For example, a child’s move away from a parent from Regina to Winnipeg would generally be considered a relocation. A parent’s move from Regina to Winnipeg without the child would also likely be considered a relocation because of the impact the move would have on the relationship between that parent and the child.

Note: Some local moves may be a relocation if the parenting time schedule will have to change. For example, moving to a neighbourhood that isn’t accessible by public transit may require a change in the parenting time schedule if one parent uses the bus for transportation.

If the move is just a change of residence (not a relocation), your notice needs to be in writing and must state:

If you are proposing a relocation, you must provide additional information to those concerned, including a plan for how you think the parenting arrangement could be changed. You can use the Notice of Relocation form. You have to give the notice to everyone else who has an order for parenting responsibilities or contact at least 60 days before your proposed move.

What happens after the Notice of Relocation has been given

The Divorce Act requires that parents try to resolve family law issues through family dispute resolution processes when appropriate. It is generally better for parents to come up with their own solution about a relocation rather than having a judge make the decision for them.

If the parents agree to the child’s relocation

If notice of a child’s relocation has been given and everyone with parenting responsibilities agrees to it, the relocation can take place as of the date set out in the notice. The only exception is if there is an existing court order that keeps either parent from moving away with the child.

If the other parent doesn’t agree to the child’s relocation

If the other person with parenting responsibilities doesn’t agree to the child’s relocation, they can formally object to the move. They can do this by objecting to the relocation within 30 days of receiving the notice by either:

If there is an objection, the child can’t move unless the court makes an order allowing the move.

Note: It is possible to object to the relocation of a child. It is not possible under the Divorce Act to object to a parent’s choice to move without a child.

How the court decides whether a relocation can take place

If parents can’t come to an agreement on the proposed relocation, the court will decide whether or not to allow it based on the best interests of the child.

The court will apply the following principles:

  1. If both parents have substantially equal parenting time with the child (have roughly equal responsibility for caring for the child), the parent who wants to relocate will have to convince the court that the move is in the child’s best interests.
  2. If a parent with the vast majority of parenting time wants to move with the child, the other parent who objects to the move has to convince the court that the move isn’t in the child’s best interests.

If neither of these applies, each parent will have to show what they believe to be in the best interests of the child.

In deciding whether the move is in the best interests of the child, the court will also look at factors such as:

More information on the Divorce Act relocation provisions is available on the Department of Justice Canada’s Family law pages.


If you are divorced or in the process of getting a divorce, you need to know what the Divorce Act says about relocation, including notice requirements and factors that a judge will consider in determining whether a relocation would be in the best interests of your child.

If you are separated but not yet divorced, or if you were never married, it's important to find out whether your provincial and territorial laws contain any specific rules about moving with children. Where provincial and territorial laws apply, you must follow those rules.

Including moves and relocation in your parenting plan

If you are looking to include the possibility of moves and relocation in your parenting plan, you may want to use the Divorce Act rules about moves as a starting point. Think about what would be most practical in your situation and would work best for your children.

Here are some things you may want to address in your plan:

Safety issues

In most situations, giving notice of a planned move to the other parent is in the best interests of your children. However, if there are safety issues due to family violence, it may not be appropriate to do so. The Divorce Act allows you to apply to court for an order that would allow you to not give notice to the other parent. If you are concerned about your safety or your children’s safety, you should speak with a legal adviser about your options.

Child abduction

Parental child abduction happens when a 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 your child has been abducted

Immediately contact your local police.

If you believe your child has been taken outside Canada, see "International Child Abduction: A Guidebook for Left-Behind Parents" for helpful resources.

If you believe there is a risk of your child being abducted

You should raise your concerns with your legal adviser and discuss various options. You may also want to alert your local police.

You can also contact Passport Canada to add the name of the child on the Passport System Lookout. This will allow Passport Canada’s system to create an alert if a passport application is received for your child. You can contact Passport Canada at 1-800-567-6868 (Canada and United States toll-free) or visit for more information.

If you are Indigenous and planning to move away from your community

If you are Indigenous and planning to move, you may wish to contact one of the local Indigenous Friendship Centres to learn about services that may be available to you. Friendship Centres can help all Indigenous people (First Nation, Métis and Inuit) relocating from rural, remote and reserve communities to towns and cities. For many, Friendship Centres are the first place to go for information about Indigenous programs, services and supports.

Following the terms of your agreement or order

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

What to do if a parent stops following an agreement or court order

Parenting arrangements should be made in the best interests of your children from the time the agreement is reached and going forward. Under the Divorce Act, the court makes an order based on the best interests of the child. Because parenting arrangements should always be in the child’s best interests, your parenting agreement or court order may need to be revised if circumstances change in the child’s life.

It can be harmful to the children when parents don't follow an order or agreement. There may also be legal consequences for parents who don’t follow the terms of their parenting agreement or court order.


The Divorce Act requires that you comply with your order until it is no longer in effect. If you have a court order, a judge has made a decision based on the best interests of the child. A court order cannot be changed without a new decision from the court.

If the other parent isn't following your agreement or order, you should always try talking to them first, if it is safe for you to do so. Try to find and understand the reason for the problem. There could be a misunderstanding, or the other parent could have an issue that you could address together.


Don't talk about parenting issues in front of your children. It's important to keep your children away 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, including family dispute resolution processes, which can help you. You can browse the Department of Justice Canada’s website or do a quick Internet search to find services in your area.

You could also seek help from a parenting coordinator.

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 will happen to the schedule when a child is sick. If you can’t reach an agreement, the parenting coordinator will decide for you. Take note that parenting coordination is usually a private service, meaning that parents must pay for it themselves.

You may also wish to speak with a legal adviser about what you can do to solve the problem.


You have a duty to try to resolve issues through a family dispute resolution process, such as negotiation or mediation, unless it would not be appropriate. If you can come to a solution and you have an agreement, it is best to update the agreement. If you have a court order, it is best to ask the court to update the order; this is a much simpler process when you both agree to the change.

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 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 have some one-on-one time later."

But it never happened. They never played basketball 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. After 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 counselling 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 tries to make Mom happy

Hassan feels guilty when he has to leave his mom. When his parents separated, the judge decided that he would spend every second week with his dad. 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, 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 go back to his mom’s house earlier than planned. That seemed to make his mom happy.

But deep down he missed his dad, and it really seemed like 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, as planned.

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 starting 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 starting a new relationship, you may want to consider the following:

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, your new relationship may be difficult for the other parent to cope with. For some people, a new relationship means the original relationship has really ended and the other parent is moving on. In reaction to this, the other parent may become less cooperative in the short term. 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 invite your new partner. Similarly, it sometimes causes conflict when a new partner is involved in picking up or dropping off children.

Over time, things will generally get easier.

Step-families and blended families

Combining two families 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.

A step-family is family in which at least one of the parents has a child from a previous relationship. In some step-families, the step-parent may not have children of their own. For this person, parenting will be a new role.

A blended family is a type of step family in which both parents already have children with previous partners. Blended families can also include children of the current relationship.

In blended families, each parent may have very different parenting styles. They may also have had very different experiences with 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 step-parent in a blended family, you may want to think about the following points:

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 and chores and to resolve problems that come up. You can also use them just to talk, spend time together, and plan family activities.

You could also seek help from step-parenting support groups. You can find these groups by contacting your community helpline or doing a quick Internet search. For example, you can search “step-family”, “support group” and “Montreal” to find services in your area.

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.

Juan and Julia met when Xavier was eight years old. That’s when things started to get rocky. Julia had been separated for two years and had a ten-year-old daughter, Mia.

At first, Juan and Julia 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.