Making Separation and Divorce Easier For Children


We understand the difficulties that children of all ages face particularly when going through an upheaval such as experiencing their parents going through a divorce or separation. In recognition of Children’s Mental Health Week 2021, FLiP Director James Pirrie explains how best to help children through a divorce or separation.

We get it. We truly do:

  • We are all tired and especially tired of these new lives imposed upon us. Some are very much more in the front line and their keeping on as they do is truly a thing of wonder.
  • Families are more at risk as this pandemic unrolls, particularly in those times such as now when it feels more step-back than step-forward.
  • The risks to our relationships are very great in these times; and
  • We know that children are at risk where separations happen and many times more so when those separations are done badly.

As family lawyers working with parents, we know that when separations happen:

  • Parents need solutions so they can get back to the job of being parents.
  • Minimum resources (time/emotion/money) should be swallowed up in the transition of separation so that maximum resources are left intact for the future.
  • Children need their voices heard in the transition.
  • And we all need to work hard to create solutions that meet children’s needs.
  • Above all children need closure and peace so as to be protected from the fall-out of separation as best as can be done.

Children need to know that their parents are ok so that they can carry on with the job of being children rather than being pulled one way or the other or left out in the cold as the adult challenges of applying principles to circumstance to find a way forward goes on inside (or even just the challenge of finding out what are the principles). Many will find their best steps adopt the following:

  • The adults themselves
    We can only parent our children well if we are in a good place to do so. We need to attend to ourselves and get the support we need, in particular to manage the trauma of the end of a relationship.
  • Safety
    The non-negotiable for every child is ensuring their safety from emotional and physical harm and all of the other ten principles are subject to this over-arching requirement.
  • The parents’ relationship
    Where our interactions with the other parent are driven by our own needs and based in the history of the relationship, we are going to struggle to achieve the sort of working arrangement that will enable the child’s needs to be addressed well. A child’s needs are best met by parents continuing to work together as a team. Even where you find that the other parent is not doing this, you still need to steer the steady course that is focused on the child’s needs. It is the thing most likely to generate change and enable the other parent to become the best parent they are capable of being.
  • Ground rules
    Work out good ways to raise and negotiate issues relating to your children.
  • Informing the child
    Good management of the discussion where the child is told of the impending separation is important. Ideally together, tell the children of the changes to come and reassure them – not just once, but also dealing with the questions during the after-shock period. Be honest and find a reassuring way of talking through the things that you don’t yet know. We look at this stage below.
  • Staging the separation
    How the separation is staged will be the child’s first experience of how separated parenting is going to be. Doing it well, with proper information, good timing, joint management and positivism can deliver particular benefits. Don’t worry if things don’t go well. It is usually better than the child’s worst fears and there are usually second chances. 
  • Goals & principles
    Many parents have found it helpful to pause and consider what sort of childhood they want their child to be able to look back upon. It has helped them to be clear about what to promote and what to avoid. Working out these “self-evident truths” that will underpin how the parenting will work promotes better communication, faster decisions and consistent approaches for the future. Writing them down into a parenting plan will embed the approach further.

For many families, this will include:

  • the imperative of promoting the best relationship possible with each parent.
  • maintaining proper boundaries – so that the child is not burdened with adult issues.
  • being honest with the child over the issues that do concern the child (but in an age appropriate way) and listening.
  • putting yourself in the child’s shoes and understanding their position, which will include recognising the difficulty for the child of seeing conflict between the parents.
  • being relentlessly positive about the other parent. 
  • Good arrangements
    This is the way that parenting will work over the first chapter, in line with those principles. Good arrangements will also provide the means for assessing different options for working out the child’s arrangements between the two homes and how important times (holidays, Christmas and birthdays) are to be structured. It is all too easy to sink into exchanges over who was to blame for the end of the relationship and have the arrangements fed by grievance, rather than what must remain your metric: namely what will work best for the child.
  • Family story
    We define ourselves by the stories that we tell. Children do too – perhaps even more so. Shaping and explaining the separation in an authentic way that also enables the children to make sense of it to themselves will help them, and it may enable more of that context around the family of relatives and friends to remain intact rather than their being alienated and polarised into different camps on one parent’s side or the other.

But families can’t wait – children will thirst for an explanation that can help them make sense of what is happening to their world and will struggle without it… so a good enough account needs to be managed quickly, even if it is refined later. Often third-party help is particularly important here.

  • Changes
    Families don’t stand still.  Too often it is easy to be bounced into immediate (sub-optimal) responses when children press us for answers. Anticipating the coming challenge (perhaps bed-times, school choices, subject-choices, introduction of new partners) will help parents to manage those challenges as well as possible, and enable the child to make the best of their situation.
  • Implications
    The focus on children can inform the approach taken to other parts of the separation process: how it is timed, how it is to be managed and indeed the outcome: for example, when an ongoing regular involvement is intended through the week, that will inform choices around [continuity at] school, [geographically-close] homes and [child-friendly] careers.

There is a considerable literature around the approaches that might be taken by parents focusing on making the situation work well for their children. And much will depend on the situation, in particular the ages of the children, but also their nature generally. Let’s look at the stage that is likely to come up first: informing. Here the common view of what works best includes the following:

Important Tasks: informing

  • Plan – both together

Ideally both parents will talk to the children together. That will mean planning and agreeing what is going to be said.

Usually, keeping it smaller & simpler is better than to avoid straying into difficult territory… small and simple may be all that the children will be able to hear at the first stage anyway.

Each parent will want to reflect on whether they are able to do their part and whether they will be able to manage their feelings.

  • Fault… no! Honesty… yes

We think that our children may want to know the back story about why this is happening – they absolutely do not and it is a topic better kept well away from … not just at this initial stage but generally.

They may well need to know that you have tried to keep things going but that it has not been possible and you are truly regretful about that.

They should be reassured that the separation is not about them – that it is not their responsibility.

And what you tell them has to be honest: now more than ever they need to know that they can depend on you.

  • Changes

Children will usually want to know a whole raft of things… things that may not yet be decided.

It is ok to say that you don’t yet know… that things are likely to be a bit messy for a while but that you, as parents, will be doing the best you can to provide for the best possible and that you will keep them informed along the way.

  • Care, love and support

Ideally this is the main message that the children will come away with: that mum and dad’s love for them is unaffected, that they will each always be there to support them and each care for them.

  • Follow up

The shock of the news (even where expected) may generate a flow of questions from some children and mute horror in others … tell them that asking questions to each or both of you later on is fine. These children may circle back to the question time and again.

  • Sticking to it

Needless to say, sticking to what you have promised/committed to is crucial.

  • Make it real

Sometimes separation will follow soon after – for others separation is not possible for many months. Children can be confused if the conversation happens and then nothing changes – at least separate bedrooms will be usual – often separating out into different homes will help, in particular where it can be managed well.

We do not come to parenthood hard-wired to know how to get our children through separation well. Finding and acting on the advice can reassure you that you have done the best you can and this may be the most important thing you can do.

At Family Law in Partnership we offer unrivalled expertise across all process options, whether that involves negotiated settlements outside the court process, going to court, mediation or arbitration, for example. And we will work with you to select the best process for your particular case, providing first rate legal guidance and clarity around your options. For more information on our distinctive approach to the resolution of family law issues click here.

We also offer in-house counselling services. Jo Harrison is an in-house counsellor and family consultant at Family Law in Partnership. She has a depth and breadth of expertise in working with clients who are separating or divorcing and is sensitive to the impact of relationship breakdown and how it can affect individuals and families. As a relationship counsellor, Jo fully appreciates the emotional upheaval and difficulties of a separation and as a former family lawyer she understands the particular pressures of going through the legal process.