May 30, 2014

Mental health concerns for children caught in the middle of divorce

By Kate Banerjee, head of our children’s team

As the new Children and Families’ Act  brings a plethora of changes to encourage couples to take a more collaborative approach to divorce, there is disturbing evidence from both the UK and USA on the long term impact of marriage breakups on the mental wellbeing of children.

In an article published during the recent Mental Health Awareness Week, the Children and Family Court Advisory Service (CAFCASS) shows that children’s mental health is a factor in many of the cases they deal with in family courts – often as a result of parental acrimony.

Witnessing parents’ fights and disputes can leave children emotionally bruised – particularly if they are forced into inappropriate roles such as acting as a go between or being a sounding board for one parent’s grievances against the other. And the effects can last way beyond childhood.  A recent study in the USA conducted by Columbia University suggests that the mental health effects of divorce can linger, even putting adult children of divorced parents at a greater risk of suicide.

In the UK, one in 10 children aged between five and 16 has a clinically diagnosed mental health problem. The Commons’ Health Committee is taking the matter very seriously, to the extent that it has now launched an inquiry into children’s mental health.

The impact of separation and divorce on children is similarly highlighted by Childline, which has seen a 122% rise in the number of children contacting them about their parents’ separation or divorce.

We have written extensively on the Jones Myers blog about the impact of divorce on children, including a powerful and personal account from a young woman involved with charity Kids in the Middle and some sound advice from Relate, who offer a support service for separating parents.

I sincerely hope that new Child Arrangement Orders, designed to encourage parents to take joint responsibility for their children, will also support parents to be more collaborative about where their offspring live and how often they see mum and dad. Reaching an amicable agreement about what is best for children will need patience, understanding and a degree of compromise – with both parents placing their children’s physical and mental wellbeing at the heart of all negotiations.

Here are some helpful tips on how to support children through a divorce:

  • Don’t let your children witness your anger or negative feelings towards your ex.  They are entitled to love both of you so, grit your teeth, be polite and courteous when dealing with the other parent in front of your children
  • Children are good actors and may hide how they feel so encourage them to talk and help about their pain and feelings. There are some excellent books to help children come to terms with this difficult time, including ‘Jack’ by family solicitor Helen Victoria Bishop
  • Be clear, concise and honest when you talk to your children about the impending divorce  – don’t try to ‘dress it up’ and confuse the messages you are giving them
  • Talk to your ex about what you each want and what you both feel is in the best interests of your children.  If you can’t agree then do seek outside help – your family lawyer can help you to find a counsellor or therapist
  • Reassure children about practical arrangements – they will be concerned about where they will live, if they can stay at the same school, still see grandparents, friends and even their favourite pets
  • Remind children frequently about how much you love them.

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.