How to help children deal with divorce or separation
Separation may involve bad feelings between the parents and their families. Children can pick up on this, which may make them confused or unhappy – or even blame themselves for a break-up.
To support children during a separation and help them with their worries, you should:
- remind them that they're loved by both parents
- be honest when talking about it but keep in mind the child's age and understanding
- avoid blame and don't share any negative feelings the adults have about each other
- keep up routines such as going to school and specific meal times
- let them know they can talk about their feelings with you – explain that it's okay to be sad, confused or angry
- listen more than you speak – answering questions will help them to open up.
There are lots of ways to make it a bit less painful when talking to children about divorce or any other difficult subject. We’ve got more advice for parents in our guide for talking about difficult topics.
Who has parental responsibility?
In general, mothers automatically have parental responsibility for their child from birth.
Fathers usually have parental responsibility for the child if they were married to the child's mother and/or are listed on the child's birth certificate.
If both partners have parental responsibility, then both are responsible for the child's wellbeing until he or she reaches adulthood at age 18.
Learn more about parental rights and responsibilities on the UK Government website.
How to agree on child contact
Children tend to do best when they have contact with both parents. And they have the right to maintain contact with both, unless it's not in their best interest.
There are 3 ways for deciding who a child lives with and how visits will work.
'Contact arrangements' refers to who the child lives with (the resident parent) and when they can see the non-resident parent.
Contact arrangements should be discussed and decided by the parents. They should always focus on what's best for the child, not what's best for the parents.
If possible, this decision should happen without going to court. A court process can be distressing, costly and lengthy.
If parents are finding it difficult to agree on arrangements, the National Association of Child Contact Centres may be able to help. Contact centres provide a friendly, safe and neutral environment for the non-resident parent, and other family members, to see the child without the parents having to meet.
If parents can't agree on contact arrangements, the next step is family mediation. This can help resolve disputes without needing to go to court.
A mediator is an independent, trained professional who can help parents come to an agreement and explain how this is legally bound.
Parents may be able to get legal aid for mediation. Find out more from the Family Mediation Council.
Sometimes mediation doesn't work. That might be because one parent doesn't agree to attend or because an agreement can't be made with the help of a mediator.
If mediation fails, either parent can apply through the courts for a Child Arrangement Order. This should always be a last resort.
Before an application can be made, parents will need to prove they have attempted mediation and should get legal advice from a lawyer specialising in family law or visit their local Citizen's Advice Bureau.
A Child Arrangement Order (previously known as a Contact Order) is a legally binding agreement that specifies:
- who the child lives with
- who will have contact with the child
- how often and for how long the contact visits will be.
The court will only make an Arrangement Order (rather than make no Order) where they believe it would be better for the child to do so.
Before they can see a judge, the family will be allocated a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) officer. The Cafcass officer will work with the family to assess any risks to the children and consider whether a decision can be made through mediation.
How courts decide on child contact
Every child and set of circumstances is different. But in every situation, the child's welfare must be put first. When deciding on contact and residence, the courts focus on a number of key factors, such as:
- the wishes and feelings of the child
- any harm or risk of harm
- the child's physical, emotional and educational needs
- the likely effect of any change in the child's circumstances
- the child's age, sex, background and characteristics
- the ability of each parent to meet the child's needs.
What the law says about child contact
A child can't be forced to see the non-resident parent but if there's a court order in place, the resident parent must follow the agreed arrangements.
It's really important that you ask your child and explore what's bothering them before you think about stopping contact with a parent or another family member.
Both parents should work towards helping the child feel safe and happy in their care. A child's feelings are important but contact should be encouraged as long as it does not place them at harm.
If a young person doesn't feel their voice is being heard, they can contact an advocacy service such as NYAS, which helps young people in England and Wales express their wishes.
A Child Arrangement Order is legally binding and ensures that contact takes place between the child and non-resident parent. If the agreement is broken, then the parent who has breached the Order can be taken to court.
Contact should only be refused if the parent thinks their child is likely to come to harm during contact and they must be able to justify this in court.
Legally, yes – but children generally do better when they have contact with both parents (and their extended families). Parents should consider what's best for the child, not for the parent.
If a parent feels they are being unfairly denied contact, they may consider seeking legal advice.
Grandparents have no automatic rights to have contact with a child after a family break-up. However, agreements can usually be reached with the parents.
If this doesn't happen, contact Grandparents Plus, which provides support to grandparents who have been denied access.
Co-parenting and COVID
While there's still a lot of uncertainty and there may be more anxieties as new COVID variants emerge, it's important to do what's safe and right for everyone. 3 things to think about when deciding whether a child should visit both homes are:
- the children's health
- whether there's risk of infection
- if there are vulnerable people in either home.
Routine can help children feel safe, secure and reassured so keeping to your usual contact arrangements, as long as it's safe to, will help maintain consistency and routine. Talk to your children about any changes and explain why these have been made so they feel involved with decisions and secure that others in their lives are still involved day to day.
If you can't see each other in person, you can instead use technology to stay in touch. Skype, video calls and talking on the phone can be great for sharing parts of your children's day with everyone and can help everyone feel connected. Or have film nights where you all watch the same film and comment on messaging apps or by phone.
Young children might enjoy parents and carers reading stories at bedtime or at a set time each day using video calls.
It might be difficult to keep to your usual patterns and routine if someone is sick. If this happens then communication needs to be clear and honest from parents and carers to children. Your child might feel they are missing out on time with each of their parents and it may be helpful to agree they could have more time in the future.
Children should feel safe and secure. Hearing disputes and arguments over child access can leave children feeling confused, upset and worried. Be mindful about what your children can hear when you're talking with their other parent.
You may be experiencing or have experienced domestic abuse and have child contact arrangements in place.
If you're concerned your partner is trying to control the situation – for example saying your child can't be returned due to coronavirus – call us on 0808 800 5000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for support or speak to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline.
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Other organisations you can talk to
We can't provide legal advice but the Coram Children's Legal Centre offers free information and advice on all aspects of the law relating to young people. Coram's helpful Contact factsheet (PDF) addresses common questions about contact arrangements.
You can also get help from the following organisations.
- Families Need Fathers champions the child's relationship with both parents during and after family separation.
- Gingerbread provides support for single parents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with factsheets offering practical advice on issues such as money, separation, housing and work. One Parent Families provides this service in Scotland.
- Relate provides family counselling and advice on understanding children's feelings and behaviours during separation.
- Family Lives (England and Wales), Children 1st Scotland and Parenting Northern Ireland all provide professional, non-judgemental advice to all family members to help achieve the best for everyone.
- Family Law Advice Centre gives advice to families in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and offers support with associated financial or child arrangement issues.
- The Scottish Child Law Centre gives legal advice for and about children and are working in partnership with Parentline Scotland.
- Citizens Advice can give advice to parents if their relationship breaks down and can give information on child maintenance services.
More support for parents
Talking about difficult topics
Mental health and parenting
Work or volunteer with children and families?
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