The importance of our children's mental health cannot be understated. In the UK, a recent NHS survey revealed that 1 in 8 of the 5 to 19 year olds surveyed met the criteria for at least one mental disorder at the time of interview. This is an issue that cannot be ignored.
It was Children's Mental Health Week, the week before last, which the Withers family law team endorsed and supported. The mental health of children has received extensive media attention recently, with almost daily articles and reports linking mental health problems with social media. However, social media is not the only area requiring focus.
The impact of family breakdown
It has long been thought that family breakdown can be harmful to children and their mental wellbeing, not just in the short term but well into adulthood. As family practitioners, we owe a duty to our clients to support them in ensuring that their children's best interests are always a priority. Helping parents to separate with minimum acrimony and maximum respect for one another, is a step in the right direction for protecting their children's mental health.
Following a report commissioned by the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies published in January 2019, researchers concluded that children whose parents separated in late childhood and early adolescence, between the ages of 7 and 14, had on average a higher chance of emotional problems and behavioural issues than the children whose parents separated earlier or later.
For a parent whose relationship has broken down, these kinds of statistics can be of extremely worrying. But parents should exercise caution when relying on statistics like this, which rarely show the full picture.
The potential increased risk of damage to a child's mental health who is aged between 7 and 14 needs to be balanced against the potential harm to a child whose parents are unhappy together. Staying together for the sake of the children is not always the best outcome. Particularly if there is domestic abuse.
As a parent, what can you do?
It is also important to remember that each parent can help their own child to navigate their way through the separation and seek to minimise that potential negative impact. The following practical examples might help:
- Being ready to listen when your children want to speak and really listening to what they are worried about as it might not be what you think they are worrying about;
- Reassuring them about the things that won't change – schools, friends etc;
- Not involving them in parental conflict – not asking them about what your former partner is doing, or asking their opinions;
- Ensuring that they know that they are not to blame;
- Trying as far as possible to present a united front and talking to the children together;
- Talking to the school so that they can offer help (see Jennifer Dickson's interesting blog and advice on this topic here).
What this research highlights is the importance of putting your children at the centre but not in the middle – so that they are the priority for all your decisions but that they are do not feel responsible for any decisions.
Of equal importance is parents taking care of their own emotional well-being, taking advice when needed and having input from professionals where appropriate.
It comes as no surprise that a stable home life, whatever that looks like, is key to good mental health for children. However, this should not be interpreted, in my view, as necessarily being a home life where the parents are still together.
Families come in many shapes and sizes and relationship breakdown does not have to damage your children. If managed sensitively, most children adapt well to their new circumstances. Getting sensible, realistic and family-focussed advice from a family lawyer can help anyone to achieve that.