How can parents prioritise children during their separation?

New research commissioned by the family justice organisation Resolution has uncovered the struggles experienced by separated parents, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. The research shows that two-thirds of separated parents said they lacked help or advice about how to put their children first when they split from their partner. One-third of separated or divorced parents said they found it harder to keep child contact arrangements in place when pandemic restrictions such as lockdowns were in effect. Nearly three in 10 said that they have felt more stress and tension in their relationship with their ex-partner since the pandemic began.

The latest official figures show that in England and Wales, during the last 12 months alone, almost 90,000 children were involved in private law applications, which are legal processes to determine matters such as whom the child lives with. This is the highest figure ever recorded and it represents an increase of over 6 per cent on the previous year. These statistics provide clear evidence to support the reports that the pandemic was driving an increase in relationship breakdown as early as December 2020. As the pandemic wears on into 2022, so does the stress which it is placing on families and relationships.

With nearly a quarter of a million people getting divorced in the UK each year, the need for information and support for those affected is clear. However, separating parents have reported a distinct absence of guidance in this area. It is therefore a welcome development to see the publication of a balanced, informative and well-researched new guide from Resolution, Parenting Through Separation, which aims to fill that gap. This sets out information and advice on how to best manage parenting through separation and divorce, with a clear focus on reducing conflict between parents, to the benefit of children. It offers practical tips on ways to help ensure that family break-up has as little impact on children as possible.

Better support needed for separating parents

The research clearly underlines the need for better resources and supports for separating parents, and their children. Parents reported a range of behavioural impacts that separation had on their children – one in 10 said their children showed violent outbursts and one in seven said their children displayed anti-social behaviour since the parents broke up.

A quarter of parents said their children showed a loss of confidence while a similar proportion said their children had suffered from depression due to family breakdown. Nearly two-fifths of parents surveyed said they turned to friends and family for advice during their separation. A third of parents engaged a solicitor or legal professional and most of them reported that doing so was an effective method in helping to get them the advice they needed.

Resolution was founded in 1982 by a group of family lawyers who felt that a non-confrontational approach to family law issues would produce better outcomes for families. Resolution has since expanded its membership beyond the legal profession and the organisation has now become “a group of family justice professionals (lawyers, mediators, therapists and coaches) from around the country” which works “with families and individuals to resolve issues in a constructive way.” The interdisciplinary nature of Resolution reflects the multifarious effects which separation and divorce can have on families. There are few other areas of law which impact not only the clients, but their children and their extended families and communities in so many ways. The impacts of a separation are certainly financial and legal, but they are also emotional and psychological. This is why, for lawyers and clients alike, a broader sense of perspective, and a collaborative approach, are ideal when approaching separation and divorce.

The importance of minimising conflict in separation, and prioritising the needs of children, are consistent themes which run through the guide. However, it begins by exploring the emotional impact of separation, and the fact that at least one partner often must navigate their way through the five stages of grief before reaching acceptance of the new realities that separation brings. The guide says that “Coming to terms with losing someone who you thought you would be with forever, is one of the most difficult journeys a parent can take”. It also suggests that it may be advisable to seek assistance from a therapist or divorce coach to help navigate through the five stages of grief at the loss of a marriage, namely: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Of course, the primary aim of therapy is to help the person directly affected. However, achieving acceptance also helps all others involved including, ultimately, the children affected by the separation. After all, as the guide notes, “Who wants to agree with the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organising the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking parents into what appear to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.” This is an important insight which many family law practitioners share, and it is wisdom often gained through the bitter experience of seeing how unhelpful negative emotional states can be when attempting to agree a positive outcome in a family law dispute. In order for a collaborative approach to succeed, reasonable decision-making and clear thinking are required to achieve a mutually acceptable outcome.

Nobody expects a client to achieve a superhuman level of emotional equanimity in such fraught and difficult circumstances. However, it can be profoundly helpful to retain an awareness to dampen the impact of the inevitable negative emotions that will be stirred during the separation process. The guide is realistic in this regard. It asks rhetorically, “Is it possible to separate without conflict?” before answering, succinctly, “The short answer is ‘no’. When any significant personal relationship ends there will usually be some conflict. Be realistic, aim to manage your side of the conflict, rather than to eradicate it.” One of the guide’s strengths is its wealth of such grounded and realistic advice, which it provides in straightforward terms.

Becoming co-parents

It explains to separating parents, with admirable clarity, that “you are becoming co-parents.” It notes that “Once you have separated, the difference in roles and parenting styles is often amplified and this can be a reason why arguments occur when you are trying to organise a routine for your children. Learning to be co-parents is a new journey. It is not always easy and, like learning anything new, you won’t always get it right the first time. It is important to remember that everyone is adjusting to a new way of living. Try to be patient during this transition.”

It asks parents to consider important practical questions such as, in the short term, how to achieve good handovers and how best to manage birthdays and Christmas, while also putting the entire endeavour in a wider perspective, by asking parents to ask themselves, “What do I want my children to be saying about this in 10 years’ time?”

Parents are also invited to consider longer term issues such as “important transitions, changing schools, university, graduation, weddings etc.” while focusing on remaining civil to each other and assuring parents that, over time, “things will settle down”.

It is made clear that communication between co-parents is crucial to achieving positive outcomes. The guide reminds parents that “family separation leads to a great deal of domestic, parental, social and financial reorganisation. You will need to have many conversations with your co-parent and with your children as life is reorganised. Sometimes it can feel overwhelmingly challenging to have these conversations, particularly early on in your separation journey.” Parents are advised to “keep in mind that you and your former partner/co-parent are likely to be in a different place on your emotional recovery journey which will play a large part in how easy or difficult it feels to talk”. Practical advice is given, and it is suggested that parents consider using a mediator or counsellor to assist with establishing good communication.

The focus of the guide on the needs of children is welcome. It devotes no fewer than 10 pages to advice on communicating with children around the time of the separation. The guide has a particular emphasis on listening to children, “Because it’s the one thing they tell professionals that their parents don’t do very well” and because listening tells children that their parents are emotionally available, and that they matter. Skills for listening to children are also set out for parents to reflect upon.

Importantly, the guide lists how children of different age groups might react to their parents separating. For example, children aged under 5 may be “Complaining of mysterious pains and being in distress” or “not sleeping well”. Those aged 6 to 8 years may feel “lost, rejected, guilty”. A child aged between 9 and 12 may start behaving more like an adult or might start taking sides between the parents. Teenage children might start becoming more distant, or they could start having discipline problems at home or school. Amidst the turmoil of a separation, it may be useful for parents to be reminded of these red flags, in terms of children’s behaviour, so as to facilitate early intervention and to help alleviate children’s distress.

Extended family

The guide also mentions the importance of extended family to children. It says that “Even if you do not regard your child’s relationship with their extended family members as particularly close, it has generally been shown that children benefit from being encouraged to maintain links with their extended family – it is important that these precious and unique links are not permitted to suffer just because the relationship between the child’s parents has broken down.”

The child-focused approach inherent in the guide is again evident in this section, where it says clearly that “It could be that maintaining relationships with extended family will require a degree of selflessness on your part, often eating into your ‘time’ with the child/ren. Just remember, the importance of the extended family relationships to your children does not lessen because you have separated. These relationships for your children and the support that extended family provide can be hidden or taken for granted until it is removed, and this can have a very negative result for children. Grandparents and other wider family members can play understated roles as confidants and influencers, encouraging children to develop an understanding of respectful relationships. ”

The guide explores common disputes which arise between separating parents, and also invites parents to consider the potential impact of changes to the co-parenting relationship – such as when one parent moves house or begins a new relationship.

Perhaps the most inspiring section is that which asks parents to imagine what a successful, post-separation, co-parenting relationship really looks like. This gives parents something to aim for. By implication, it also gives them something to avoid, since few separating parents relish the thought of decades of conflict lying in wait for them.

In answer to the question, “How could things look if we get this right?” the guide says, “When co-parenting works well, it means your child is held in a safe parental bubble and can grow up with a good attitude towards relationships. A good co-parenting relationship can really enhance a child’s life.”

It says that the key signs that a co-parenting relationship is working well are that:

• Your child transitions relatively easily from one house to the next.

• Your child is able to talk freely about their other parent in front of you without feeling judged.

• Your child is able to call you when they want even if they are with their other parent.

• Your child is able to move their things between houses, because they are confident that they are their things and they have ownership of them.

• Your child knows what is happening on important days and times of the year like Christmas and is not made to choose between parents.

• You can both go to parents evenings and school shows and other significant events together and easily.

This focus on creating a positive vision for the future runs through the guide. This approach should help parents to develop a shared vision of the sort of future they want. Once that is in place, the necessity to agree on important matters, and to treat each other with civility become seen as obvious preconditions for the desired outcome.

The other theme running throughout the guide is the focus on putting the welfare of the children first. This is a positive approach to take, of itself, since children are the most vulnerable people affected by separation. Yet it is also positive since this way of thinking prompts parents to take a more collaborative approach. Parents will want the best for their children. Being reminded that a positive and collaborative approach will achieve a better outcome for their children can therefore prompt them to become more motivated to find agreement and reduce conflict – for the kids’ sake.

While the guide is specifically aimed at separating parents, it contains a wealth of wisdom for lawyers and other professionals involved in advising separating parents. Above all, the guide helps to underline the principle that all those involved in advising parents on separation and divorce should emphasise the importance of resolving differences amicably, while helping parents to fully consider the impact of their decisions on their children.

Published in Family Law Week – 12th January 2022