Article reference: UK-IA-FAM04

Children, separation and divorce

The separation and divorce of parents can be a very traumatic experience for children. They may feel unloved, angry with one or both of you, unhappy, insecure, afraid and even responsible for the break-up.

But no matter how you feel about your ex-partner, you both are, and will always be, parents to your children.

How to tell you children you are divorcing

It will always be difficult to explain to your children why their parents are splitting up. There are some things you can do to make it easier for you and for them.

Try telling them together with your ex if at all possible. The thought of losing a parent is absolutely terrifying to children. A united message that you are both still their parents will be very reassuring. It will help if you are agreed on what you will tell them, such as the reason for the split.

Take into account their ages when deciding what to tell them. A very young child, for example, might not understand the concept of divorce; an older child might feel patronised if the situation is simplified too much.

Try to give the children only the information that is important to them: where they are going to live, how often and where they are going to see the other parent and so on. Older children might be told that they will have some degree of control over these things. They don’t, however, need to know the details of the circumstances leading up to the agreement to separate.

Acknowledge their feelings: say that you understand that they are feeling sad and angry and that you are sorry they're feeling like that. Explain that you are sad about what's happening and reassure them that things will get better. It will. Most importantly, reassure them that it's not their fault tha you are splitting up; that you do both still love them a lot; that you will both do your best to always be there for them and that this will never change.

How to support them through the changes in their lives

If at all possible, try to work together with your ex-partner. Your children are in need of lots of reassurance that whatever changes, their parents' love and presence in their life will be constant.

Of course, there are situations where one parent does not have contact with the children because, for example, he or she chooses not to. This is often a temporary situation and you should, hard as it will be, particularly try to reassure your child that the absent parent still cares for them.

Keeping to normal routines and activities as much as possible can help your child feel more secure. Introducing changes as new regular routines (such as seeing the ‘absent' parent on a Friday afternoon) can help too.

Try not to be too hard on them when they seem more naughty than usual, are angry or even reject you. They are in pain - talk about that and reassure them.

Talk to teachers and other carers about what is happening (without going into detail). That will help them to help your children.

Talk about your emotions too - they will know you're sad or angry and acknowledging that you are (without 'blaming' your partner) and saying that things will get better can make it easier for them to acknowledge their own feelings.

Look for children’s books or films about divorce (where the parents don’t get back together). If the children of friends or family have been through a divorce, they can also be a great source of support for your children.

Remember that you are the grown up. Do not turn them into your confidantes, or ask them to take sides or to make big decisions. This is always damaging.

You should try to prevent your children seeing negative situations or emotions. For example, try not to talk negatively about their other parent in front of them or let them hear arguments.

Arrangements relating to children

It is in the interests of most children to see both parents regularly. You may have made your own arrangements for this or the court might have made an order.

In any proceedings relating to children, the most important thing for the courts is the welfare of the children. As a parent, that is likely also to be the most important thing to you. Because of this, there is an enormous amount of flexibility in the arrangements you can agree with your ex-husband or wife and which the court will not interfere in.

There is no such thing as a normal or general arrangement when it comes to children and where the parents agree, there will be no court order.

In disputed cases, the judge has a checklist and some of the items he or she has to consider might also be helpful for parents when trying to agree arrangements:

  • what are the wishes of the child (obviously this depends on the child’s age)
  • what are his or her educational, physical and emotional needs and how is each one of you going to be able to contribute to those
  • how would a change in circumstances (such as moving to a new area, or living with the new partner of one of the parents) affect the child?

When you file your divorce petition, you will also need to file a statement of arrangements for the children. This form asks questions about living arrangements, how often the child sees the parent he or she is not living with, proposals for maintenance, any health or educational problems and other similar matters. Its purpose is to give enough information to the district judge so he or she can consider whether these arrangements are in the child’s best interest.

If you’ve thought through your arrangements, taking into account the checklist, this will be clear from your answers and the district judge is much less likely to need further information.

Arrangements for children are never considered final. This allows you to alter them voluntarily whenever you and you ex-spouse are in agreement with each other, or to apply to the court when you aren’t.

Contact

Unless there is a danger of physical or psychological abuse, you should both encourage your children to see their other parent as much as possible to allow them to maintain their relationship.

If you are the parent with whom the children live:

Encourage contact, try and be as positive about this as you would of any other activity that is beneficial to your child and that he or she enjoys.

If you can, talk to him or her about what he or she enjoyed about the time spent with the other parent.

Try to be civil to your former partner at pick up and drop off time and when making arrangements - think of him or her as a 'business partner' in the business of bringing up your children if that helps.

Keep your own issues separate. If you need to talk to your former partner about something not connected to the children, such as your feelings or finances, try to do this on a separate occasion when the children aren't present.

Keep arrangements regarding child support and maintenance separate from those relating to contact. Whether your partner pays or not should not affect your child's right to see him or her. You would be punishing your child for your partner's fault.

Try to be flexible about visits.

If you are the parent who has contact:

Try to stick to the arrangements wherever possible. If you're going to be late or are unable to have the child let him or her know as soon as possible and make arrangements for the next visit.

Try to be civil to your former partner and keep non-contact issues separate (see above).

Pay child support and maintenance. It's for the benefit of your child and will make it much easier to have a reasonably good relationship with his or her other parent.

Try and spend the time you have with your child in doing things both of you enjoy. Keep talking to him or her.

If possible, agree with your former partner to be there for supporting events such parent’s evenings and football tournaments.

Try to be as flexible as possible.

Remember that if there are problems with contact that you are unable to sort out between you, the Family Mediation Service can help you resolve them.

Domestic violence

Violence has an extremely damaging effect on children, even if they are just witnesses rather than victims. If you feel you are in danger of becoming violent, remove yourself from the situation and get some help. If your partner is violent towards you or the children, or is threatening to be so, you should get help immediately to get an injunction against him or her. A solicitor will be able to help you.

Re-establishing contact

There are a number of reasons why you may have lost contact with your children and you may now feel that you would like to spend time with them again. Alternatively, you might have felt that it wasn't in your children's best interest to have contact with your former partner and now feel differently. As in all matters concerning children, the most important thing is what's in the child's best interest.

Possibly the best way to re-establish contact with your children is by, initially, re-establishing contact with your former partner. Explain to him or her your thoughts and feelings why you think that it would be good for the children. You could make some proposals as to times and places.

Children, as well as former partners sometimes respond negatively to a parent trying to re-establish contact. This could be for a number of reasons, for example, they might feel angry for the past lack of contact. So bear this in mind when you make arrangements.

As a last resort, you can make an application to the court for an order for contact.

Introducing new partners

Apart from conflicts over contact with both parents, their parents having new partners is probably the next most disturbing thing to a child after divorce. Before you introduce a new partner to your child, you might want to consider putting yourself into your child's position:

  • he or she may still harbour hopes that you and your partner might reunite
  • he or she may feel less loved because there is now another person in your life
  • he or she may fear that this person intends to take the place of his or her mother or father
  • an older child may feel embarrassed by a parent being romantic with someone other than a parent
  • he or she will almost certainly feel unsure about how to behave

Of course, none of this should deter you from having a relationship again but you might want to think about how to introduce this to your children.

It is a good idea to give them the time they need to get used to the idea rather than tell them that they now have a new 'step' relation.

You might also reassure them that you still love them and that you still want to spend time with them. It can be a good idea to keep some separate contact time without your new partner being present.

If your child expresses negative emotions, be understanding about it. Do not expect them to love or even like your new partner just because you do. Give them (and your new partner) the freedom to develop their own relationship at their own pace.

Emergencies

As is the case during divorce proceedings, situations requiring immediate action to protect your children can arise. There might be threat of your partner taking the child permanently out of the country, your partner refusing for your child to have medical treatment or even violence and other abuse. In these cases you need to act immediately. For abuse and kidnapping contact your local police station, in other cases contact a solicitor (making sure you explain how urgent it is).

Fortunately these kinds of cases are relatively rare and most parenting 'emergencies' can be dealt with by agreement.

Take care of yourself

People who are themselves going through a very traumatic time are likely to find dealing with their children's problems difficult. You will make mistakes and do and say things you wish you hadn't. Apologising when that happens and explaining that you are feeling stressed, angry and so on, and that that's made you say or do something that wasn't right can help both you and your child.

Try to get as much support for yourself as you can. Friends and family can be a fantastic support both practically and for providing you with a place where you can let of a bit of steam. Counselling can be invaluable to help you deal with your emotions.

The adjustments to your life, both in practical and emotional terms, are very difficult for you and your children. But, in time, you will get used to them and you will feel better.

Important note about your will

When you married, any old last will and testament automatically became void. This does not happen on divorce or separation. If you made a will that left everything to your partner, it will still stand. If you haven’t made a will and you were married, then by default, until you divorce, your ex-husband or wife will inherit everything.

The best way to make sure that the people you want to benefit under your will - and not your ex - inherit your money and possessions is to make a new will as soon as you separate.

Net Lawman offers a number of template documents that allow you to make your own will for free.

Further information and relevant documents

Next, you might be interested to read about what should be covered in a separation agreement. It covers why arrangements for children.

You may also be interested in the document templates that allow you to create your own separation agreement.

Please note that the information provided on this page:

  • Does not provide a complete or authoritative statement of the law;
  • Does not constitute legal advice by Net Lawman;
  • Does not create a contractual relationship;
  • Does not form part of any other advice, whether paid or free.
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