The financial aspects of separation are heavily predicated on a single date of separation. However, separation or divorce is not a single event in a child’s world. Rather, it is a series of events leading to the breakdown of their parents’ marriage or relationship and the consequences that follow, which can involve changes to their care arrangements, principal home and school. Emotions can resurface again when new changes or challenges arise.
Whilst the impact of a separation upon children varies (particularly when considering their age), it can leave some feeling that their whole world has been turned upside down. Some children can feel a sense of loss, confusion and unfamiliarity. Some may feel rejected, fear abandonment by one or both parents or feel like they are torn between their parents. Others may be angry at one or both of their parents or feel guilty that they were the cause of their parents’ separation. Many children cling on to a hope that their parents will reconcile. Sometimes these feelings can manifest into adverse behaviours and emotions. A child’s behaviour can be challenging or disruptive. Some children regress and behave much younger, which can be seen through excessive clinginess, bed wetting and night terrors. Adverse childhood experiences of parental separation can have lasting impacts on a child’s development, mental health, physical health, educational attainment and future life success.
It comes as no surprise that research strongly indicates that the reactions of a child’s parents can markedly alter a child’s adjustment to separation. Factors which can influence this include the nature of the relationship between a child’s parents, the parents’ own adjustments to separation, the parents’ awareness of a child’s reaction and the support provided by parents to a child post-separation. With that in mind, here are some top tips for supporting positively your child through separation:
Children should not feel like they are being ignored or that secrets are being kept from them. When appropriate, parents should have a face-to-face conversation with their child to provide an age-appropriate and straightforward explanation for the family break up. It is better if parents plan together how the child will be told and sit down with the child at the same time to present a united front. It goes without saying that a child ought to be reassured that whilst their parents may no longer love each other, they still love them and will always be there for them as parents. A child needs to hear that their parents themselves are “ok.” Suggestions that one parent is to blame for the family separation should be avoided. Efforts ought to be made by both parents to address sensitively any queries that the children may have about how the separation will impact on their life to provide reassurance, even if all of the answers are not entirely clear at that stage. It can help a child to know that changes may take time for everyone to get used to. Children find adjustment to loss easier when they are provided with honest information and are encouraged to have open dialogue, participate in discussions and ask questions.
Care ought to be taken, however, not to cross the line when sharing information with a child following separation. A child need not be privy to adult discussions, nor involved in meetings or be aware of communications between solicitors.
When appropriate, careful consideration ought to be given to how the children can have continuity and quality contact with both of their parents. This can involve careful planning around practicalities, including the child’s routine and handover arrangements. Sometimes children can find it unsettling when moving from the care of one parent to another. Often parents will interpret this as the child being upset at leaving their care or fearful of returning to the care of the other parent. Children can pick up on the feelings of the parent whose care they are leaving or going to. Parents can help this by positively managing transitions and encouraging the child appropriately.
It is a fact of life that individuals can have different parenting styles and values, whether parenting together or apart. It is important that parents discuss important routines and boundaries (such as meal times, bed times and discipline) to try and ensure as much harmony as possible can be achieved. This will promote an easier transition for a child between households. Children adjusting to parental separation can test the boundaries and may try and “play” their parents off against one another. It can be easier to manage such behaviours if there is a consistent message coming from both of their parents.
Whilst a child’s views concerning care arrangements are important and can inform discussions between parents, it is important to avoid placing a burden on the child that makes them feel that they must chose between their parents. Children should not be expected to be the conduit between their parents concerning care arrangements or pass on messages between their parents. It will be more reassuring to a child if their parents are able to communicate directly about important matters involving them.
It can assist a child adjust to separation if other important parts of their life remain consistent and if adults make as few changes as possible to make them feel more “normal.” This includes attendance at extra-curricular activities and seeing their friends and extended maternal and paternal families. Parents should avoid making a child feel that they require to take on adult roles of the parent who has left their principal residence. Similarly, a child should not be relied upon as a confidant regarding the separation. It can be helpful to a child if other important adults in their life (such as school teachers) are aware of their parental separation and changes to their life so they can get support when necessary.
Successful care arrangements are predicated on a reasonable level of cooperation between parents. Exposure to conflict or animosity between parents can be stressful for a child. This can be overt (such as arguments at handovers) or sometimes subconscious. Children can be very observant and can sometimes pick up on conflict between their parents even when the adults believe that the child is unaware of dispute. Avoid making negative or even sarcastic comments about the other parent to the children or in their presence. It is a better experience for a child if their parents speak positively about one another.
As children grow up, there will be important milestones and events which require parental decisions. This can include the child’s religion, the child’s educational establishments, healthcare decisions for the child, introduction of new partners of parents and holidays abroad. Both parents should ensure that they are registered to receive updates from the child’s school and General Practitioner. Parents should consult with one another before making important decisions that will affect a child. Dialogue is important to try and reach agreement on matters without intervention from courts. There will, however, be times where parents disagree on what is best for a child, whether they are together or separated. A Family Law Mediator can help parents explore such issues when agreement cannot be reached.
When a parent or child displays signs that they are struggling to cope with a separation, it is vital that professional assistance be considered, particularly where there is an adverse impact on the individual’s mental health. In some cases, consulting with the child or parent’s General Practitioner will be required. Family “consultants” (or “therapists”) can provide emotional support to both children and adults to help them deal with the impact of separation.
Additional advice, guidance and resources are available at:
Brodies LLP has a team of Family Law solicitors with experience in providing advice on all aspects of separation, divorce and child law. Should you wish specialist legal advice, please do not hesitate to contact one of the team. Please visit our dedicated Divorce and Family Law page at https://brodies.com/divorce-and-family-law/.