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Giving Priority to Children During Divorce and Separation

Divorce and separation can have a huge impact on families, especially on any children involved. Family Solicitor, Gareth Morris Jones (insert link) shares what parents and other adults need to know when issues such as where the child should live or how much contact they will have with the ‘non-resident parent’ arise. Other issues might include maintaining a relationship with the extended family members (such as Grandparents), or the child’s welfare.

The Welfare Principle

It may not come as a surprise that the law says any issue about a child should be decided by what is in that child’s best interests. The problem is, of course, that parents or adults may disagree on what is best for the child. Sometimes the personal conflict between the adults might cloud one or both their opinions about this. It’s always a good idea to listen to the other side, but sometimes this can be difficult when trust has broken down. If adults are finding it difficult to see eye-to-eye, seeking professional and impartial advice can be really helpful. If a dispute cannot be resolved, the matter may have to go to court where a judge will determine what is best for the child, after hearing from relevant parties.

To avoid the additional stress of court, agreement is in everyone’s best interests – particularly the child’s.

Consider negotiation to avoid court

Issues that separating parties can have trouble coming to an agreement on include deciding who the child should live with or how much time the child should spend with the other parent. We can assist here by providing objective and experienced advice, often giving clients a good idea of what a court would likely decide if an agreement cannot be reached.

Whilst Christmas is now perhaps a distant memory, I regularly encounter parents who are not able to agree on where their child should spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. These can be extremely emotional times and lead to dispute. This may not only apply to Christmas of course, but to school holidays, birthdays, or other important events throughout the year!

A court will almost certainly expect adults to take responsibility and come to an agreement on this type of issue. The answer is for both parents to be flexible when trying to come to an agreement. Being generous in this negotiation could lead to returned generosity and a new more amicable basis for the next negotiation.

Again, it is in the child’s best interests to plan arrangements well ahead. You can use a joint calendar to record agreement. It is also advisable for one parent to keep the other informed of his or her plans for the year, such as holiday dates and commitments in work. Indeed, anything that might lead to a misunderstanding or affect arrangements for the children should be discussed as soon as possible.

When communication has broken down completely (not speaking to each other), things can get really challenging. To get around this, you could consider :

  • Creating a handover book with notes on important and daily matters (for example, medication notes, meal times, bath times, a child’s new interests)
  • Using telephone apps to communicate (these are similar to a physical handover book and are available to download

Giving your child a voice

Conflict is distressing to children, particularly when it is between the parents. A child loves, and generally would prefer to remain loyal to, both parents and so a family breakdown can cause real distress and potentially even emotional damage to that child in the long term if conflict persists.

The parents’ ongoing arguments can be extremely emotionally difficult for the child to witness if that child is caught in the middle. To help avoid this try to ensure that arrangements run smoothly and any disagreement is resolved quickly, quietly, and amicably. In saying that don’t forget to listen to what the child wants – but without involving that child in ‘the front line’ of any dispute!

As a general principle, don’t ask children to take sides!

As a child frequently wants to remain loyal to each parent, I have found it is often the case that the child will tell one parent something quite different to what she or he is telling the other parent; simply because that child is trying to please both! So don’t underestimate the emotional impact of parents separation and family breakdown on the children themselves. Children can pick up what is happening between the adults not only by overhearing conversations, but also by witnessing and picking up on their parents’ behaviour and emotional responses when they are together.  

Don’t delay seeking advice

When disputes can be resolved at an early stage, the outcome is better for everyone – including children. Sometimes this is not always possible between adults directly, which is why seeking advice early from an experienced family solicitor can help. As members of the Law Society Children Panel, we specialise in helping adults resolve child disputes. Matters my colleagues or I can help with include:

  • Working out arrangements for children following family breakdown
  • If children’s services/social services become involved with your family
  • Child protection and what to do when you think a child is at risk
  • Adopting a child
  • Your rights to see your children
  • Child custody issues (including Child Arrangement Orders and residence issues)
  • The legal rights of children
  • International Issues
  • Other complex issues relating to children

If you have experienced a relationship breakdown and need support to come to an agreement, contact us on 01978 880 276. We can give guidance to help you come to an agreement but we can also represent you and provide professional advice and support if you have to go to Court over the difficulties surrounding your child.

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