Growing together: protecting children's mental health during separation

Article 07 February 2022 Experience: Divorce and family lawyers

It is Children’s Mental Health Week this week. All children will face their challenges in growing up but, if their parents separate, this is a time to keep a particular eye on things. Whilst children are notoriously resilient, acrimonious divorce proceedings can impact some children well into adulthood.

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate (or go a long way towards mitigating) the potential impact on children’s mental health by minimising their exposure to conflict. This makes sense. Children dislike conflict as much as most adults do. I remember that, as a young child, I would have done anything to avoid conflict, from professing that I loved Christmas presents that I didn’t like at all, to making false confessions to misbehaviour because I was told that ‘it would be better if you own up now’. Nobody, child or otherwise, wants to find themselves caught up in conflict between their parents or any two people that they love dearly. When they do, they so often wonder what part they played in it or what they could have done to prevent it, which is not an easy load to bear.

If you are worried about your child/children’s mental health during a separation, then you may wish to consider seeking advice from a counsellor or medical professional. That said, we set out below our five top tips for proactively protecting your children’s mental health during a separation:

  • Watch what you say. Try not to argue in front of children, and resist the temptation to ‘badmouth’ the other parent. Be clear that both parents still love the children, and respect each other, but that the adults are better off being apart now, and it is not the child’s fault.
  • Present a united front. Don’t ask children to take sides or use them as bargaining chips in other negotiations, for example about the finances. While you can (and should) involve children in certain decisions, it is unfair to ask them who they would prefer to spend Christmas Day with.
  • Get a new routine. Once the dust has settled, try to agree the children’s new routine with the other parent as quickly as possible, and stick to it. This will help children feel secure about their relationships with both parents.
  • Look after yourself. If you are able to cope better, then you will be in a better position to support your children during this difficult time. Consider what support you can get from a therapist, your family doctor, or family and friends.
  • Talk to school. If teachers are aware of what is going on at home, then they may be able to help. Most schools are used to dealing with separating parents. However, do make sure you are open about your communications with the children’s school(s) to the other parent.

It is impossible to separate without any disagreements at all but staying outside the ‘adversarial’ court system is a good way to prevent things from escalating. If there are specific issues where you and your co-parent cannot agree, mediation is often a very effective option, which can involve the children if appropriate. There are also many resources available to help separating parents learn how to become effective ‘co-parents’ for the benefit of their children.

Withers have also developed a service called Uncouple, which for some couples might assist in minimising the emotional burden of separation for you and your children. It is an alternative to the adversarial court system, a system which requires couples to instruct separate lawyers and pit themselves against each other. Instead, with Uncouple, both parties work with a single facilitator to resolve financial matters and child arrangements as quickly and cost efficiently as possible.

See here for more on supporting your children during divorce.