Divorce and separation – putting children first and how to support them

26 November 2015

This week is Resolution’s Family Dispute Resolution Week and the focus is on “putting children first.” Resolution is a national organisation to which many family lawyers belong.  Members of Resolution are committed to helping parties deal with their divorce and separation in a non-confrontational way.

As solicitors in the family team at Kingsley Napley, we experience first-hand on a daily basis the need for children to be placed at the centre of all decisions made following separation. Ensuring a child is put first is also well reflected in the law and the court’s first consideration is always given to the welfare of the child.

So while the legal and professional structures are in place for a “child-friendly” separation – how can this be put into practice? How can we and parents put children first?

Usually, the first and most important question parents ask us when they come to talk to us about their separation or divorce is what will happen to their children, which is often their biggest concern. While we can explain the possible legal solutions and options available to them, what may work for one family is not necessarily appropriate for another. We speak with our clients about their particular circumstances and what they think might be the best outcome and what they would like to achieve.

Effects of separation on children

As all parents will know, every child is different and therefore every child will experience different reactions when their parents separate – there is and often will be a range of emotions demonstrated. Separating parents can rarely predict how a child will react to news of their separation. A child’s reaction may also be worlds apart from how a parent is feeling.

Children may feel that their entire world is changing and they are usually apprehensive about what will happen next. As most family lawyers will advise, the role as a parent never changes, even on separation, and it is important that this is emphasised to a child.

Resolution recently commissioned polling among 500 children and young people about their experience of parental divorce. The results showed that children want greater involvement in decisions made during the divorce process. Half of children and young people interviewed indicated that they did not have any say as to which parent they would live with or where they should live. Again, half stated that they did not understand what was happening during their parents’ separation or divorce.

When asked what they would most like to have changed about a divorce, 31% of young people said they would have liked their parents not to criticise each other in front of them; 30% said they would have liked their parents to understand what it felt like to be in the middle of the process.

What parents can do

As a result of the findings in the study, and as part of Resolution’s #ChildrenFirst campaign, they have suggested three actions that a parent can do to ensure that their child’s welfare is put first:

  • Explain to their child what is happening
  • Involve them in decision making; and
  • Be honest about what is happening in the divorce process.

Sheltering a child from any conflict that ensues from a divorce is often the most important factor to consider when separating, as research shows that this has the most damaging effect on a child.

Ensuring that a child can still continue to do what they enjoy, for example hobbies and spending time with friends, despite their parents’ separation and retaining consistency and routine is extremely important.

However, in some cases a parent may feel that they cannot provide the right support for their child in dealing with their feelings following a separation. Some parents may need additional external support and resources to explain the divorce process and involve them in any decision making. A child may also benefit from speaking with someone who is separate from the situation and objective.

Seeking additional help for children

Children always need to talk to someone who is supportive and understanding, so long as it is a person they trust. In some cases, children may find it difficult to identify how they feel and professional help from a child therapist or counsellor can assist. This can also help parents with trying to understand and manage their child’s feelings. Often a teacher, head of year or school counsellor can be the first port of call for a child who wants to talk to someone they trust who is objective to their situation.

We regularly refer clients to counsellors or family therapists who can help with the practical and emotional aspects of their separation, in particular when it comes to deciding where the children may live and how often they would see each parent.

Therapeutic support can have a positive and healing impact on the whole family and often makes the rest of the process easier, for example organising the financial arrangements.  If, with support, you have been able to reach an agreement about the children arrangements, this inevitably removes some of the friction and helps minimise the impact this huge change will have on the family, and most importantly your children. 

Diana Sharp, one of the psychotherapists we work with, has provided a set of straight forward and practical tips for parents when faced with separation or divorce, including what to tell the children, which can often be an emotional and challenging hurdle to face.

Tips for parents:

  • This is not your child(ren)’s choice (mostly)
  • Put aside personal feelings and focus on what is best for the child(ren)
  • Listen to your child(ren) and what they would like
  • Treat each child differently as they will have different feelings
  • Allow your child a safe place to talk about how they feel about what is happening, perhaps with an experienced counsellor or therapist
  • Parents should talk to the children separately
  • Be honest with them (age appropriate)
  • Reassure them it’s not their fault
  • Be respectful of each other in front of the children
  • Do not argue or be aggressive in front of the children
  • Consider mediation if you cannot agree
  • Allow each child a voice
  • Explain to children who they are going to live with, where they are going to live and what changes may occur

What to tell the children:

  • This is not your fault
  • It is scary and sad
  • It is OK to talk about how you feel
  • Talk to both of your parents separately (or a grandparent if you feel more comfortable)
  • It is OK to be angry and upset
  • Ask the questions you would like answers to.  If not, write them down and give them to your parents separately
  • Talk to someone independent and in private
  • Write down every day how you feel
  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions about who you are going to live with, where you are going to live and what changes may occur
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your parents if they could arrange for you to talk to someone privately

Further information

Resolution has published some useful guidance for separating parents, “Helping parents to help children”, which can be found HERE. In this guide, they also include suggested reading and online resources available for children, who are affected by separation and divorce.

If you should be affected by any of the issues covered in this blog, please feel free to contact Connie Atkinson, Alexandra Bishop or a member of our family team.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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