12 February 2014
Protecting children from separation fallout
For some couples, the stresses and strains of Christmas can be the final straw in a troubled relationship, so it’s little surprise that January traditionally sees a rise in calls to divorce lawyers. Sue Andrews, partner and family law expert at Buckinghamshire legal firm B P Collins LLP says how parents handle their separation can be critical for the wellbeing of their children.
“The way your decision is communicated to children is really important,” says Sue. “The number one priority must be to make sure they still feel loved and wanted. Parents need to ensure that whatever their personal feelings, children are protected from the conflict and are never made to feel it is their fault".
“While children may be aware of an undercurrent and tension between you, the mistake should not be made of letting them hear you talking to each other or to friends about your problems.”
Although acknowledging that Christmas can be a trigger, she says a break-up is unlikely to be solely down to the stresses of the festive period, adding: “More often there are pre-existing problems and people use the new year as a marker, wanting to make a fresh start in January.”
Make contact a priority
Sue says a key priority is to agree contact arrangements as early as possible, so children know when and where they will see the absent parent. How this is handled will depend on the age of the children. Teenagers may well wish to be part of the discussions.
“You have to put your own desires, wants and hurt aside and accept that no matter what, your children need to have a relationship with both parents,” she continues. “They need clarity and security and to know how they will spend their time.”
When one parent is to move out, make sure children are aware of this and are given time to adjust to the situation.
A child not a carer
Sue cautions against allowing children to feel responsible for the parent left on their own. Very often, she says, children take on the role of “protector” particularly if aware that one of their parents does not want the separation.
“I know of cases where children, even as young as 8, adopt a parent role. This is inappropriate at any age.
“You have to remember you are the parent and they are the child. No matter how distressed you may feel or want to stay in bed, you need to behave normally and try to ensure that if you breakdown this happens when the children are not with you or within earshot."
Don’t compete with each other
“A lot of fathers become more involved in the lives of their children after separation simply because they are together for shorter concentrated periods. This is a good thing and not one to be resentful of.
"It is however important that you don’t compete for love by buying children bigger and better presents, and you should agree mutual rules on things like bedtimes, meals and TV viewing.”
If a parent has a new relationship, there may be a new family unit with children to consider.
“If there is another child living full time with an absent parent it can be hard for a child who only sees that parent on a weekend, and then has to share that parent with others. Children still want to have a special bond with their own parent, so it’s important to have some exclusive time with them, otherwise they risk feeling abandoned in the face of the 'new family’.”
Sue also urges couples to allow children to maintain contact with grandparents as this is a valuable relationship and grandparents can be useful babysitters too!
How professional advice can help
Sue is a firm believer in communication. If parents are unable to do that directly after separation, then counselling and parenting programmes can be very helpful.
“Normally one parent is much further along in wanting to leave a relationship and counselling can enable the other to come to terms with that in a calmer and more reasoned way."
“Parenting programmes and parent effectiveness training courses can help parents resolve their conflicts, and if not then talking to a specialist family lawyer early on can help to avoid parents adopting entrenched positions and hopefully therefore court proceedings."
For expert legal advice on family law, please call Sue on 01753 279046 or email firstname.lastname@example.org