3-9 February 2020 marks Place2Be’s Children’s Mental Health Week, an event created to shine a spotlight on the importance of children and young people’s mental health. This year’s theme, #findyourbrave, has particular resonance for children experiencing divorce and family breakdown, who require specific support to navigate what can be a scary and confusing process.
With that in mind and based on our experience as family lawyers, we have put together our top tips on ways in which to support your children through the divorce process.
1. Share the news together
It is important that, where appropriate, both parents sit down with the children in person to explain what is happening, having first discussed how they will approach the conversation and how much the children will be told. Where emotions are particularly heightened, attending a joint session with a child specialist beforehand can help in preparing a plan for the conversation and how to handle difficult questions. The children should be reassured that, no matter what is happening between their parents, they will both always love them very much, and will always be there for them, and there should be no suggestion that one of the parents is “to blame” for the separation. It can often be comforting for both parents and children to explain that they are separating as a married couple but not as parents.
2. Present a united front
Children adjusting to their parents’ separation will inevitably test where the new boundaries lie and confusion ensues when these boundaries differ between their parents. Adopting a united position about things such as routines, chores and consequences for bad behaviour provides consistency and reassurance for children at a time when they need it most.Some parents find it helpful to put together, with or without the assistance of solicitors or a mediator, a written parenting plan detailing these matters as well as bigger decisions such as how and when they will approach topics like sex education, piercings or the consumption of alcohol, and how and when new partners will be introduced to them. Although these plans are not legally enforceable, they can nonetheless be extremely useful resources, and can also prove helpful indications of parents’ previous views should disputes occur in future.
3. Inform other adults in the children’s support network
Sharing the news with other important adults in a child’s life means that they too can be alert to changes in the child’s behaviour and provide them with extra support and reassurance. Again, this should be done jointly where possible, with prior agreement as to how much detail will be shared. Many schools have particular policies in place for supporting pupils through divorce, which will involve practical arrangements for ensuring that both parents remain fully updated about things like parents evenings or achievements as well as wider pastoral support (such as that offered through Place2Be. Aunts, uncles, family friends and extra-curricular teachers or sports coaches can also provide an important outlet for children who are concerned about adding to their parents’ worries by expressing how they are feeling. Parents should let children know who has been informed of the divorce so that they know who they can speak to if they need to.
4. Speak positively about the other parent
Remember that, however your former spouse or partner has behaved towards you, they remain your child’s parent. Criticising or blaming them in your child’s presence is incredibly harmful and can often lead to them feeling that they have to choose between their parents and need to hide their true feelings towards the other parent.They can also begin to question their parent’s feelings towards them as they “come from” the parent being criticised. Parents should also be conscious not to seek emotional support from older children or put them in the role of confidant. Shielding children as much as possible from parental conflict and encouraging their relationship with both parents is key to protecting them emotionally and mentally.
5. Communicate directly
Arrangements for the children and their time with each parent should be agreed directly, rather than messages being passed via the children, no matter how minor the subject matter. This prevents children feeling caught in the middle or responsible for any miscommunications or difficulties than ensue. Where direct contact is difficult or inappropriate, many parents find that using a contact book, which travels between them with the child, can be an extremely useful way of passing information back and forth, whether that be details of medication the child has been given, the dates of upcoming school events, or concerns about out of character behaviour they have been showing. Parents should resist the urge to share criticisms or complaints about the other parent in the book, and keep communications neutral and informative, particularly given the risk that the children might read the book themselves to try to find out what is going on.A wealth of online resources and apps also now exist to allow parents to share information directly without involving the children, which can provide a useful alternative. Where matters do need to be discussed in person, avoiding doing this at handover or in the presence of the child, and instead organise a specific time to speak, with the support of an impartial third party if appropriate.
6. Seek specialist support
When children are showing signs of struggling with their mental health, whether during, after or outside of the divorce or separation process, early intervention by specialists can make a remarkable difference. A range of child-focussed therapies are available and can be tailored to a specific child’s age and needs, whether that be play or art therapy for very young children, family therapy attended by parents and children together, or one-on-one sessions with child psychologists for children with complex needs.Meeting these professionals provides a child with a safe, confidential and neutral space to explore what is happening and tailored support to help them through it. It also allows the professionals to advise parents on how best to meet their child’s specific needs and recommend additional resources.