Someone once asked me, if I could give clients a specific gift that would help them through their
current circumstances, what would it be? In a heartbeat I answered time travel: the ability to travel
one, two, five or ten years to the future to show them their future self and how their decisions and
behaviour of today would impact their future, but particularly their children. In short, I wish I could
give some clients the gift of hindsight.
For some clients, hindsight could give them reassurance that there is an end in sight, or the comfort
that they will be okay, both financially and emotionally. For others, it may be the wake-up call that
they need to do better while going through the separation process, but most importantly, hindsight
could be invaluable when it comes to the children at the heart of a family and the long-lasting
impact that parental separation has upon them.
As a family law practitioner, I have seen how separating parents handle the difficult steps of moving
away from parenting as a couple, towards co-parenting. Some parents are able to handle that
transition better than others, but without a doubt, it can be an extremely challenging transition
when emotions are running so high as a result of the relationship breakdown. We are, after all, only
human and we will make mistakes.
The vast majority of parents going through a separation will say that they want what is best for their
children, and that they will work hard to achieve that. Unfortunately, that message can be lost when
the grown-ups are in separation turmoil, unable to communicate effectively with their former
spouse/partner amidst high levels of conflict. Children can turn into possessions to be argued over,
or pawns in an elaborate game of who is the better parent. Regrettably, some parents may simply
disengage from their parental role. These behaviours can leave a child feeling emotionally battered
and bruised as a result of their parents’ separation.
I have been able to learn about the impact of separation upon children through my work. But
parents need this invaluable insight too, in order to help them ensure that their children are put at,
and remain at, the heart of how issues are to be resolved within their family. Children are not
possessions and parents do not have rights over their children. Parents have responsibilities
towards their children and that responsibility continues throughout that child’s life.
The gift of hindsight could be a wonderful tool to help get some parents back on track. Sadly,
hindsight is not an option, so what can parents use instead? The knowledge and expertise of others,
with an unwavering determination to ensure their children are at the heart of the parents’ decisions,
would go a long way to helping.
Many years ago, looking at the knowledge and expertise of others, a view was held by some family
law practitioners that children were resilient and that they would bounce back from their parents’
separation. The narrative now is very different. After years of research, although there are no
definitive conclusions, we are now much more aware that separation and divorce can have a
profound and lasting impact upon children, which can last well into adulthood. It should be noted at
this point that adolescence could last until someone is aged 25, so when we think of children, we
also need to consider the young adults in some families and the impact of parental separation upon
Children are more likely to have difficulties with their schoolwork, friendships, future relationships
and self-esteem for example, as a result of parental separation. The reaction that a child has will also
depend upon the age of the child: a younger child may regress (for example, bed wetting again) and become more attention seeking. Older children may show their anger or fall into the rabbit hole of
devices. Adolescent children, whose parents separate when they head off to university, may
question the truth behind their entire childhood: were their parents ever happy, or did they just stay
together for the sake of the child? There is also a possibility that children will have a delayed
reaction to their parents’ separation after a number of years.
Parents also cannot assume that siblings will feel the same as an older or younger brother or sister.
Indeed, how boys and girls react can also be very different. So clearly, parents need to be aware
that how one child copes with parental separation could be very different to another child, even
within the same family, and each child may need very different things put in place in order to help
and support them.
Parental separation directly impacts children of the family, and their lives. Both parents need to be
fully aware of the emotional impact their separation can have upon their children, and the power of
the child’s feelings in this situation. Young people experiencing parental separation had an
opportunity to have their voices heard, through the Family Justice Young People’s Board.1 A list of
top tips for parents going through separation was produced and included points such as “don’t make
me feel guilty about spending time with my other parent” and “be open to change, be flexible and
compromise when agreeing arrangements for me”.
Both parents will need to ensure that they really listen to their children and try to understand, and
accept, what they have to say, however difficult that may be.
To that end, parents, and indeed family law practitioners, should watch the “What About Aruna”2
series of videos delivered by Child Psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin. The series can be found on the
Only Mums & Dads website.3 Only Mums and Dads is a not-for-profit organisation that provides
support for parents going through a separation or divorce. Dr Rudkin is one of the advisors for Only
Mums & Dads.
One of the biggest challenges that separating parents may face is maintaining good communication
with their former spouse/partner. Without good communication, all decision making issues in
respect of the children will undoubtedly be even more challenging. In order to help facilitate better
communication, parents could consider using a mediator to help them reach decisions together,
hopefully less acrimoniously.
One final thought to help keep parents on track, or to use as a tool to encourage positive
communication: years down the line, people will generally not recall the details of conversations or
reasons as to why decision were made, in any great detail. They will, however, remember how they
felt at that time. So ask yourself this: if you were to ask your future adult child how they felt during
the separation, what would you want the answer to be? If you want your adult child to say that they
felt loved by both parents, that they were listened to and that they have maintained a good
relationship with both parents, who did a great job co-parenting, then parents need to be putting in
the hard work when they separate, even though it is incredibly difficult at times. Your future adult
children will be forever grateful that you did. And your future self will also be grateful that you
managed to navigate your separation without too much conflict, thereby protecting your children
and their future happiness.