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Family Matters - Putting children's needs first in a break-up

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This was first published in the Wigan Observer on the 24th September.

Q: My partner and I have been together for almost 12 years, however recently things haven’t worked out and we have decided to separate. I don’t know how to break the news to our children. How should I address the situation?

Over 240,000 children in the UK every year experience the separation of their parents. Sadly this means that over one third of children will see their parents split before they turn 16 years old. Even though relationship breakdown is increasingly common, whether parents are married or cohabiting, the effect it has on the children of such relationships is not always predictable, and perhaps often underestimated.

The breakdown of a relationship can mean emotionally difficult times for a separating couple and it may seem hard to remain amicable, but an experienced family lawyer should explain that parents finding themselves’ contemplating separation, or having already parted, should try to keep matters as friendly as possible for the sake of the children. In reality, dependent upon the reasons for the difficulties, this can be very hard to do. Formal mediation or relationship counselling may well assist in any discussions you may have to have, but friends or family members that might be able to look at things objectively, can also be a great help.

When parents separate, children are either unlikely to know the full extent of any problems between their parents, or if they do, don’t want this to happen and will desperately try to keep their family together, oblivious to the real strain in their parents’ relationship. Sometimes however, although the children may not realise or appreciate it now, it may be best for their parents to separate to stop any ongoing conflict or disagreement that may be causing unhappiness or disruption in the family. Although a child’s ideal might be a continuation of their parents’ relationship, the reality maybe somewhat different.

When this happens, however hard it may initially seem, you should try to consider and focus upon what is in the best interests of the children, rather than the particular needs of yourselves as parents, when it comes to considering the arrangements about how the children should be looked after in the future, such as where they are to live or how much time they should spend with each of their parents. If you can’t do this there is a risk that relationships between the parents become so strained, that the children needs are overlooked, meaning an inevitable impact upon their relationship with either or both parents. Perhaps the best way is if you try to put yourself in your child’s shoes and think how a situation might feel for them.

What is clear is that it is easier to maintain a good relationship, whether with your former partner or child, rather than trying to fix a damaged one. Disagreement can then lead to lawyers, and onto court whereby you may need input from the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), which provides information for parents and children involved in family law disputes. Legal Aid is not available for such cases now, unless you can prove entitlement as a result of being subjected to Domestic Abuse in the relationship, or one of the other limited exemptions.

Clearly, if you need to discuss things with you child, you need to take account of their age and understanding to ensure that matters can be dealt with in a child focused way. The younger they are, the less perhaps they need to know if anything, but whatever age they should know that you both love them and that the spilt isn’t their fault. You can make the experience of their parents’ separation less heart-breaking by providing stability and support, to reassure them. If you and your former partner can do this together, it may prevent conflicting messages be given which can cause confusion. Your children could be happier for it.

By Chris Fairhurst, associate solicitor in the family law team 

Media information: Lianne Tracey and Chloe Kendall, Stephensons Solicitors LLP, Tel: 01616 966 229, Email: lct@stephensons.co.uk and cke@stephensons.co.uk