Caught in the parent trap: can divorce ever be the best outcome for children?

By Norman Taylor, collaborative family lawyer

Almost 400,000 children in England and Wales under the age of 16 live at two homes following the separation or divorce of their parents.

Perhaps, therefore, it is understandable that David Cameron unveiled proposals last year to give four million married couples tax breaks as an incentive to keep them together – particularly if it means that those with children might think twice about getting divorced.

But the reality is that a tax break worth just £200 a year is hardly a large enough incentive to either encourage couples to marry, or keep them together.

The bigger question is should couples, whether they are cohabiting or married, actually stay together if they have children, even if their relationship is in tatters – or are they better off splitting up?

At Jones Myers we are champions of ensuring the welfare of any child involved in a divorce is at heart of our client’s priorities. So I was interested to read journalist Radhika Sanghani’s take on the impact of divorce on children.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph Radhika says that when a number of her friends’ parents split up, they were pleased because it meant an end to the arguments and conflict within the family home.

“A few celebrated, coming into school thrilled because their parents had actually called it a day. The tension in their homes evaporated and peace ensued,” she writes.

“It wasn’t that they didn’t recognise divorce as serious. They did. It’s just that, in most cases, the parents’ relationship had been so bad that it affected the whole family. Separation or divorce meant an end to the arguments. The tension in their homes evaporated and peace ensued.”

From my experience, the impact of a divorce depends on the age of the children, with those in their teenage years more likely to suffer emotional trauma. This is because they will be used to growing up with two parents in the same home, and a divorce will mean they will have to deal with other issues as well as the usual teenage angst. There is also the danger that if a split has been acrimonious, the ‘battle’ between their parents will remain with young people well into adulthood and possibly affect their own future relationships.

Parents going through a divorce need to ensure that their children see them handling problems in a dignified manner, endeavouring to resolve disputes in civilised, non-adversarial ways.

At Jones Myers we would like to see proposals for all divorcing parents to attend parent/separation classes – rather like speed awareness courses. These would deal specifically with the impact of parents’ behaviour on children with tips on how to behave in front of sons and daughters to ensure they are not damaged in the cross fire.

A key part element would be to stress to parents the importance of keeping their emotions under control and to try to remain calm. Also, advising parents to listen to their children and spend quality time with them. Children often believe they are at fault when their parents divorce so it is critical they know they are loved. Contact with wider family members on both sides should also be maintained to ensure continuity.

Family lawyers adopting a sympathetic non-confrontational approach can also help to make sure that children don’t feel trapped in the middle of a divorce.

Is getting divorced more traumatic than staying together for children? Should there be parent/separation courses?

If you have any concerns or questions about the impact of separation or divorce on children please call us on 0113 246 0055, leave us a comment below or drop us an e-mail. You can also follow us on Twitter: @helpwithdivorce.