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Family matters - talking children through a break-up

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By Chris Fairhurst, associate solicitor in the family law team

This first appeared in the Wigan Observer on October 22nd 2014

Q: Deciding to separate has been really difficult for me and my ex. But I’m worried about the impact it has on our children too. How can we ensure our parting doesn’t involve them too much?

A: family separation is obviously a difficult time for all concerned, it’s one of life’s most traumatic events and can be extremely stressful and indeed exhausting for those going through it. If children are involved, this can clearly add to the stress for parents but unfortunately too often the impact and feelings of their children can be underestimated or frankly ignored.

Unfortunately, when parents are unable to put aside their own hurt feelings, it is often the children who will bear the brunt of any conflict despite the best efforts of the parents, who aren’t likely to want to cause deliberate upset for their child. The disparity between parents’ perceptions of their child’s feelings and children’s experience following separation is stark. A survey by Netmums found that while three quarters of divorcing couples thought their children were coping well with divorce, only a fifth of youngsters agreed.

The way that news of a divorce or a family separation is broken to children can have a big impact on how it may be handled. Some of the kids who took part in the Netmums survey indicated that they had found out about the family breakdown during a row between mum and dad – and unfortunately with ever increasing tech savvy youngsters by text message or the family lawyers favourite (or not as the case may be) Facebook.

The most common way for changed family circumstances to be communicated was for a mother to sit down with the children and let them know what was happening, however, this could often leave the children misunderstanding what had happened or blaming one parent, as a result perhaps of having just one parents perspective. If possible, it’s important for both parents to explain the situation to children together and in person.

A family breakdown can be acrimonious if not managed properly, because arguments or even fighting between parents can create a negative atmosphere. Even if child doesn’t witness a particular incident they are very perceptive and as the evidence shows, can be aware of things even if both parents have made the best efforts to protect them, and can be particularly harmful for the children involved.

It is very difficult for children to accept their parents arguing as they are likely to just want them happy and a  child may feel guilty and that s/he is somehow to blame, or they may feel torn in terms of whether they should take sides. In reality they’ll love each parent as much as the other and won’t want to and parents should avoid temptation in trying to persuade them otherwise.

Normality is another element that can turn a child’s world upside-down when it suddenly disappears. Although not always the case, a quarter of those children surveyed said they hadn’t seen their father since the split. When half the child’s support network suddenly disappears overnight it can be incredibly traumatic. If possible, children should be gradually introduced to the separate living circumstances of their parents and be given the opportunity of spending regular time with both parents on an ongoing basis.

The guilt that many children feel can make it almost impossible for feelings to be shared openly with the adults in the family. This can result in children bottling up how they feel, becoming isolated. Keeping lines of communication open and listening to what they may say about what is happening to them can prevent this kind of harmful impact. It can also be useful to engage outside support perhaps by counsellors or other professional support networks that children can trust if they feel they’re not being heard at home.

We may only be in October, but many children will already be starting their Christmas lists and looking forward to the festive season. At times like this, it is always useful to plan ahead. There is a risk of arguments between parents who fail to communicate effectively over the plans, and co-operate effectively. It may not be easy but the children will definitely benefit if you can work together. At Christmas, children want to spent time and feel loved by both of their parents. I’d suggest making a plan and sticking to it, successful child arrangements will involve both parents sharing their time with the children.

Above all let your children know that they are your number one priority, and that doesn’t have to change because their parents are no longer together.

On a final note last week Stephensons Family Law team were awarded the prestigious Jordan’s Family National Law Firm of Year accolade. Something all our team and I are very proud to be associated with.