Separating from a partner is stressful, but when the separation is less than amicable or the result of abuse, then it becomes even more challenging for everyone involved. Add kids into the mix, and it can be a minefield of emotion, resentment, and complex logistical planning.
In those early days of separation, while you iron out the creases of how to co-parent and stay present as parents for your kids, you might consider using a third party for changeover when it comes to the parenting of your children.
Why choose a third party for changeover?
Using a third party is a way of neutralising the experience of changeover, so that any conflict, trauma or stress might be minimised, particularly for your children. You can either opt to use an official independent third party, such as a neutral venue like Relationships Australia, or to ask a trusted friend or relative to be the third party present for the changeover.
Most commonly, a third party is used for changeover when the parents aren’t able to be in each other’s presence - whether that’s because it is unsafe for them, they feel overly emotional, hurt, scared, or even in denial that they should have to share their children with the other parent.
The truth is, if there’s a court order in place saying that the child or children are to spend time with the other parent, then changeover needs to happen, whether you’re happy about it or not.
In those early days of separation, or whether you’ve gone well past that, it’s especially important to abide by any legal requirements. Using a third party for changeover can help neutralise any animosity, avoid confrontation, and most importantly, make it less stressful and scary for the children involved.
A changeover may be non-court based, and the result of an agreement between the parents reached at a mediation or an informal agreement. Or it might be court based and imposed by a judicial officer, usually at the recommendation of an independent children’s lawyer.
Handover arrangements might also be the result of negotiations between the parties and their lawyers, as a way to avoid a full-blown interim hearing.
Where does a third party changeover happen?
Choosing the right location is a big factor in getting this kind of changeover to work properly. If you decide to use a contact centre, there’s usually a cost involved. Organisations like Relationships Australia charge less than private contact centres, but the wait times for a regular booking that fits in with when changeover is to occur, can be a lot longer.
If you choose to use a friend or a relative, then they might agree to host the changeover in their home, a park, or even somewhere like a McDonalds car park - a place with a play area and CCTV. Ideally, choose a place where your child will be comfortable and where there are welcome distractions.
How does a third party changeover work?
Usually one parent arrives first, around 10-15 minutes before the other parent is due to arrive, to ensure there’s enough time to settle the child and minimise any anxiety.
Once the child has settled, the first parent leaves, and the child will stay with the trusted third party until the other parent arrives. Again, there might be a bit of time required for the child to settle and be happy about leaving with the other parent.
The third party is effectively a safe person for the child, and someone who is trusted by both parents, whether it’s someone they know, or someone in a position of trust at a contact centre.
How to choose the right person for your changeover?
If you decide to use a friend or family member as your trusted third party, think carefully about who you choose. Ideally they’ll be someone who is known and trusted by your children, and who can be calm and impartial, despite what they might hear from either party.
Having someone trusted there, like a grandparent or aunty, can often diffuse the situation, and make it less likely for parents to say the wrong thing in front of children at handover time.
When it comes to confirming arrangements, use written communication like text messages and emails, and try to avoid phone calls between parents where things can get confrontational.
Make the changeover work
Most commonly these kinds of co-parenting changeover relationships are happening with young children, from infants up to upper primary school, so as a parent it helps to think ahead about how you can make things easy for the kids.
For example, make sure they have a backpack with clean clothes, their favourite toys and school work. Always be sure to return clothes after they’ve been laundered, rather than sending kids back with a bag full of dirty washing, and hopefully the other parent will do the same.
It’s also helpful to include snacks and a drink, especially if the other parent might be taking the child out for the day. It makes things as straightforward as possible for the child, and removes unnecessary points of friction.
Further reading: 7 Superb ideas for moving kids stuff during handover.
Third party changeover: A short-term solution
Ultimately, using a third party for changeover should only ever be a short-term solution.
Long-term, you need to work together to improve communication, and with the help of a family therapist or counsellor, or by participating in a co-parenting course, to get to the point where you can hand over the children in a safe and civil manner one-on-one, hopefully showing your child you are both a united front.
If in doubt, speak to your family lawyer about the long-term plan you’re working towards, and remember, it’s about making things as calm, safe and respectful as possible for your children.