If you and your partner have decided to separate, you will probably be concerned about how your children will be affected. We have developed some new resources with lots of information that you might find helpful
We’ve also put together some frequently asked questions to help you think about and respond to how your children might be feeling.
How can I communicate with my ex-partner?
- Be respectful – even if you don’t like the other person you can still treat them with respect.
- Listen before replying – try to have only one person speaking at a time.
- Try talking to each other as if you were work colleagues.
- Be polite and avoid derogatory, personal remarks.
- Stick to the issues under discussion.
- Agree a way of calling a break or re-scheduling the discussion to a more appropriate time.
- Think yourself into the other person’s shoes – how would you feel in their situation?
- Focus on how you want things to be in the future, not how they have been up until now.
What do my children need?
Children need to know that their parents love them and that they are valued members of their family. Children need to feel safe and secure and to know what is expected of them. Children need to be able to express their emotions in appropriate ways.
The following messages from children about what they need in the context of separation and divorce have been summarised from research by Kent Family Mediation Service:
- Try not to argue in front of us, but tell us what’s happening and keep talking together about things that affect us.
- We don’t want to be involved in what went wrong or whose fault you think it was. In particular, we don’t like it if you criticise each other. It makes us feel bad and it affects us at school and other places too.
- We are mostly sad or angry that you can’t live together anymore, but we can cope and get on with our lives, so long as you do too. If you don’t, we can’t.
- We need to be close to both of you. This means we like doing ordinary, everyday things with both of you – eating, playing, going to bed and getting up, going to school, watching TV …
- We don’t want to make the decisions, but we do want you to ask us what we think and to listen to what we say. Remember, we have our own lives and friends to see, so please ask us about our ideas. We need to be able to relax in our homes, have space and just be ourselves.
- We don’t mind if Mum and Dad do things differently. We can cope with different rules in different places.
- We just like being kids. We love you both, but do not want to be like a grown-up friend to confide in.
How should we tell our children?
Once you have both decided to separate, you need to tell your children. It may be one of the most difficult things you have to face in the process of separation and divorce. It is not possible to make it a pain-free experience either for you or for your children, but there are some things you can do to make it better for them.
- If possible, arrange for both of you to be there when you tell your children. If this is not possible, agree what you are going to say to them and make sure each parent talks to them about the separation.
- Let children know when changes in living arrangements will happen and what those arrangements will be, at least in the initial period.
- Reassure children that the separation is not their fault.
- Talk about the fact that you are not able to live together any more, rather than about feelings that do or don’t exist.
- Tell them how you feel about them as their parent, that you still love them and want to care for them.
- Reassure them that you will each continue to be their parent and to play a role in their lives.
- Be ready to answer practical questions.
You may feel that it would be better not to upset your children by talking to them about the separation. However, children are very intuitive and will be aware that everything is not right. When they don’t know the reasons for this feeling, they will make up their own idea of what’s happening.
Many children harbour feelings of guilt that they have done something to provoke the separation. It is better to tell them something, even if this makes them feel sad. They have to start to work through the process of separation too.
If you are unable to answer practical questions then be truthful with your children. Rather than telling them that you don’t know, say that you are talking about or thinking about this. It is important to convey to your children that you are in control. You may not have made certain decisions, but that doesn’t mean you are incapable or incompetent.
Helping children to recognise that you are still able to look after them even though you are not living together is very important. This sense of security begins at the point when you tell your children.
Try to leave fault and blame out of what you say. It can be confusing for children who may feel they are being asked to take sides.
How can I sort out arrangements for our children?
For many parents, the emotions produced by their separation make it very difficult for them to reach agreement about arrangements for children between themselves.
The way in which you make your decisions about your children’s future after you have separated can have a substantial influence on how your children are affected by the separation.
There are a range of approaches you can use to achieve agreement. None of them will be easy, but the methods you use to resolve your differences will send very clear messages to your children.
Like so many changes that come with separating, there are no rules about what the best arrangements for children are. However, research indicates that in general:
- Children whose parents separate benefit from continued contact with both of their parents.
- Children whose parents separate benefit from being protected from their parents’ conflict.
- Arrangements for contact after separation need to reflect what will work for a particular family.
When you are deciding about arrangements for children, it is important to take into account your children’s ages and stage of development. Younger children need consistency, structure and routine. Older children need greater flexibility and independence.
What is the best way to make arrangements with my partner?
It may help if you try to see the child’s other parent as a business partner or work colleague who is involved in the common task of bringing up your children. It will help to limit discussions to the issues that directly relate to the children.
Prepare in advance for any meetings that you have with your child’s other parent, being clear about what the purpose of the meeting is.
Agreeing between yourselves shows your children that you both intend to continue to play an active part in their lives. It will also clearly show them that you are in control of the situation.
What if we can’t agree on the arrangements for the children?
If it is impossible for you to sit down together on your own and discuss arrangements for the children, it may be that mediation would help. Going to a mediator—a trained impartial individual who will support you in your attempt to resolve your differences—is only one step removed from reaching the arrangements by yourself.
You will still have to talk to each other face to face and discuss your differences in relation to the children. However, this will be done in the presence of an individual who has been provided with the training to help you focus on your children’s needs in this situation and help you manage the differences between you.
The neutrality and safety provided by the mediation session may make it possible for you to negotiate decisions that would have been impossible to arrive at by yourselves. The decisions, however, will still be yours. The mediator will not try to influence them.
Going to mediation shows your children you are willing to try to communicate for their sake. It also shows them that you are in control of the situation.
What if we can’t work it out together, even with mediation?::
If you are unable to negotiate face to face, either between yourselves or with the assistance of a mediator, then decisions about arrangements in relation to children can be made in a process of negotiation in which you are represented by a solicitor.
Solicitors who have particular experience in family law can be contacted through the Family Law Association.
As far as your children are concerned, you should not be opponents fighting over your rights to live with them or to see them. The interests of your children demand that you work together as much as you can, in whatever ways you can, to provide them with the security of two parents who obviously care for them.
As a negotiator, your solicitor will be looking for the common ground that you share with your child’s other parent and the ways in which your interests may be jointly met.
You can make it clear to your solicitor that, although you are unable to resolve your differences about your children directly with their other parent, you do not want the negotiations to be carried out within a framework of conflict.
Reaching decisions using solicitors can still be a way of indicating to your children that you both still care for them, providing it is not done in a provoking and vindictive spirit.
Should we use the courts?
Ultimately, if negotiations prove impossible or unsuccessful, it is possible for the court to make the decision for you. The court will be very reluctant to make decisions in relation to your children because they generally hold the view that parents are the best people to reach these decisions about children.
It is no longer possible for parents to apply for custody or access orders in relation to their child. If you want the court to make an order about where your child lives and when, then you may apply for what is called a residence order.
The residence order will be made in favour of the parent named in the order and will not take from your child’s other parent any of the responsibilities and rights that he or she has concerning the child.
Anyone seeking a court order for contact, whether it is for day contact or residential contact, would have to apply to the court for what is called a contact order.
When making a decision, the court will consider the following points:
- Priority is given to what is best for the child, not what the parents want.
- It is presumed that parents will continue to play an active part in their children’s lives even after separation.
- It is presumed that a child will benefit from contact with both parents.
- It is presumed that parents will take account of what their children want if the children are old enough to express their views.
- If parents are unable to resolve issues in relation to a child, the court may seek the views of the child about arrangements for their future.
- An order will be made only if it is clear that making an order will be better for the child than not making one.
How can I manage my feelings about how things have turned out?
When you have decided on arrangements that fit the demands of your new circumstances, keeping them working will depend on the ability of both of you to manage your feelings about each other and your ability to communicate for the sake of your children. To achieve this you will need to think about how to manage your feelings.
Now that you’ve decided you can’t live together there will be many difficult feelings. As well as being difficult they will be very powerful feelings. You may feel resentful and angry about the way you have been treated or you may feel guilty about your role in the breakdown of the relationship.
These feelings do not make it easy to maintain even the most basic communication necessary to continue to be parents to your children. However, it will help your children to make sense of their new family life if you can take control of your feelings.
There are a number of ways in which you can approach your new relationship as separated parents that will help you to manage the very difficult feelings that you may still have about each other.
Try to see your relationship no longer as an intimate personal relationship but as one between work colleagues, two people who have a common goal—the well-being and healthy development of their children.
When you approach your ex-partner as a business colleague you can begin to recognise the areas of your life about which your ex-partner has no right to comment. It may help you to protect yourself from the hurt that remarks from your ex-partner may cause.
Remember to take care of yourself. Give yourself time to adjust and seek out help from family and friends.