Divorce and separation is a profoundly sad time, and for all parties involved. Nobody enjoys breaking a commitment that two people have made to each other, but when there are also children involved it is a unique link that will always be shared, and while you may not be partners any more, you will always be parents. This is why resolving arrangements around your children is the most important element of divorce proceedings, beyond the division of assets and material possessions, because it is a time where children are particularly vulnerable and how this period is handled can have long-term effects on them.
Any period of divorce and separation can be anxious and stressful for you, but coming to the decision often involves children as a central focus, and fundamentally how they will be impacted. It is common for children to be a reason for partners to stay together, but if you have made a final decision to separate and seek a divorce settlement, it is essential that you approach this in the right way in order to minimise the negative impact on your children.
How can children be affected by divorce?
How children are affected by divorce will largely depend on their age and the circumstances of the separation. It is possible that an unliveable situation has been festering for some time, and this decision comes as something of a relief, but in most cases divorce and separation is amicable, has no obvious reason and can be something the child didn’t see coming. In such situations, the child can be confused and unstable, they may be exposed to arguments, but mostly they are seeing their safety haven in sudden turmoil.
Children can feel torn between each parent and have split loyalties in this scenario, and they may be worried about the future and how it will play out. This can also come at a time when there are issues at school or with friends, and the older the children are the more complex teenage issues become. A divorce can be something that adds to a melting pot of conflicting emotions for the child, so how the situation is managed needs to be approached with upmost sensitivity by you and your partner. It is true that you might be struggling with your own feelings at this time, and it is hard to think coherently and to plan ahead with any certainty, but it is important that children are the focus of separation plans that you and your partner make, and that you have these discussions as soon as possible.
What issues do you need to resolve relating to your children when agreeing a divorce settlement?
All relationships are different and in some cases a breakdown in a relationship can become bitter and unmanageable. In such instances formal court proceedings are often the only answer, and a Child Arrangement Order will officially set-out the parenting plan going forward. However, in most cases it is possible for two partners to discuss arrangements in a balanced and mature manner, and to maintain the welfare of their children as the most important issue. Between you, the following needs to be agreed:
- Living arrangements – where the children are going to live
- Visiting arrangements – where and how often the other parent can visit or have the children visit them
- Schooling – discussing progress, making decisions, helping with school work etc
- Financial support – agreeing an acceptable figure and how and when this will be paid
- Co-parenting – how you will communicate and make arrangements
- Relocation – how to manage a situation where one parent moves a significant distance away
- Grandparents’ rights – how grandparents fit into visiting and access arrangements
The Children Act 1989
The Children Act 1989 outlines the principles and legal rules which must be applied when children are involved in a relationship breakdown. It acts as a guide to encourage parents to reach an amicable agreement on arrangements out of court, which should always be the aim as legal proceedings are known to heighten stress and tension in domestic situations. The Children Act introduced the idea of ‘parental responsibility’ which essentially encourages a softer approach to making arrangements, and phased out harsh legal terms such as ‘access’ and ‘custody’.
Now it is important that divorce proceedings follow a series of welfare principles where it comes to children:
- The welfare of children should be paramount
- Children should be given a voice and their wishes should be listened to and acted upon
- Mediation rather than court orders should be the first course of action
- Any delays in making arrangements can be very damaging to children
- Unless there is a good reason not to (such as issues of domestic abuse for example) both parents should be involved in making these arrangements
How to inform children of divorce and separation
Again, this will depend on the circumstances of a relationship breakdown and how old the children are, but there are some common guidelines which can be followed to lessen the negative impact of what can be a hugely damaging life event:
- Parenting plan: Plan ahead and try to have a parenting plan established before you speak to your children
- When to tell them: Tell your children as soon as you can to ensure they have the maximum time possible to get used to the idea and to transition to the upcoming situation
- Questions: Children will ask questions, so be honest but try to keep things general and not specific, parents should agree an explanation which avoids a ‘blame game’ as this could lead to children looking to take sides, unless of course there was a specific incident
- Joint decision: Tell your children together to at least present a united front and explain that this is a joint decision
- No blame: Explain that the children are not to blame
- Upset: Explain that it is okay for the children to be upset, but they can take time to make any decisions about where they want to live and with whom
- Speak to you: Explain that the children should speak to you about anything they are upset about
- Age: Explain in a way that is sensitive to their age and how emotional they will become
- Where to tell them: Don’t have this conversation in public, do it at home where they feel safe and can be emotional without any additional worries
- Timing – Don’t have the conversation around holidays, birthdays or Christmas as that can apply lifetime negative associations
- Change – Explain to the children that as little as possible will change, and you and your co-parent are working to keep everything the same as much as you can.
Managing divorce where children are involved
It is very hard to predict how children will be affected by divorce, but there are key principles you can follow to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible:
- Have a parenting plan agreed before you tell the children
- Minimise change to their living arrangements and routines
- Use a mediator to help make arrangements and ensure legal proceedings are a last resort
At Ison Harrison we have vast experience of working with families involved in divorce proceedings and can offer sensitive advice as to how to proceed to minimise the negative impact. If you want to speak to our family law team about divorce and separation and child arrangements, then contact us today.