Family Law

Parenting children through separation

An article by Helen Wilby, Partner

Parenting children through separation

Parental separation can have a detrimental impact on children, often changing the entire trajectory of their lives.   External stressors often result from a separation – such as a change of home and a change of schooling.  

Research shows an association between parental separation and stress, ill-health, depression and academic underachievement in children.  Children may also experience more conflict with their peers.

From a child’s perspective, divorce represents a loss of stability and importantly a loss of their nuclear family.  It isn’t surprising that divorce or separation can trigger a range of emotional and behavioural responses - from anger, frustration, anxiety and disbelief.   Children can also experience sleep problems, difficulty concentrating on schoolwork and lack of engagement with their extra-curricular activities.

Older children sometimes seek to blame themselves for their parent’s parting.  They may also align more closely with one parent, blaming the other which can create feelings of anger and frustration.  Younger children sometimes fear that their parents might stop loving them one day.  

It isn’t surprising therefore that family lawyers are often asked how best to inform children of their parent’s separation and how they can protect/shelter the children from the changes this will bring.

Telling a child/children about your divorce or separation isn’t an easy task.  It is essential to prepare what you are going to say in advance and choose a time that doesn’t conflict with significant events in a child’s life such as important examinations.  The explanation should be honest but avoid blame and criticism.  This can be especially hard where there have been hurtful events, such as infidelity, but neutrality and adopting a diplomatic stance is best.  Importantly, the child/ children must not feel at fault and they must be reassured.  It is almost always better to present a united front and to try and agree in advance what the children are going to be told.   Children need to be aware that both their parents continue to love them and will both be there to support and care for them in the future.

There are also a number of parental strategies to help reduce the psychological effects of a divorce on children, which can go a long way to help them adjust to the changes brought about.  Parents should work hard to provide solid, consistent support for their children not only during the process but in the years after.  Consistency and routine can go a long way towards providing familiarity that can help during turbulent times.  Maintaining a working relationship with your former partner indisputably helps the children avoid the stress and anguish that comes with watching parents in conflict.  

With the aim of reducing parental conflict, parents can engage in a parenting course(s) which can be attended outside of any court process.  Such courses can help parents understand how to put the children first and to understand separation from a child’s point of view.  They help parents learn the fundamental principles of how to manage and reduce the impact of conflict on children.  

Parents may also decide to attend individual or joint family therapy in conjunction with or separate to attendance on a parenting course.  Family therapy (or systemic psychotherapy) can aid communication issues and help families to change, develop and resolve conflict.

Children of divorced parents may also need individual therapeutic intervention to help them cope with, identify and express their feelings. Non-verbal therapy options such as art, play and music therapy can allow a child to express his or her feelings in an age appropriate way.  For older children, individual therapy (through schools or independently) can help with processing feelings and can provide a valuable a neutral outlet.

When trying to resolve the arrangements for the children and the time they spend with each parent post separation, it is almost always best to seek to agree matters outside of any court process.   Mediation is often less upsetting and damaging for the children and will present the message that their arrangements have been agreed, rather than ‘imposed’ on them by a court.  

If you are affected by any of the issues contained in this article or if you require further information, please contact a member of our team.  Anne Kay provides mediation in relation to children arrangements (alongside financial arrangements) and the firm maintains strong working relationships with a number of therapeutic specialists and parenting course providers to equip parents with the best tools to protect their children during and post separation.