Helping 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 are loved by both parents
- be honest when talking about it but keep in mind the child's age and understanding
- avoid blame – 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.
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Custody and legal 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.
You can learn more about parental rights and responsibilities on the UK Government website.
Agreeing on contact
Children do best when they have contact with both parents. This is recognised in Article 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that a child has the right to maintain contact with both parents in the event of separation, unless this is incompatible with the child's best interests.
There are three ways for settling 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 Arrangements 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 Arrangements Order (previously known as a Contact Order) is a legally binding agreement that specifies:
- who the child lives with (resident parent)
- who will have contact with the child
- how often and for how long the contact visits will be.
The court will only make an Arrangements 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.
Who can help?
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.
If you think a child might be at risk of harm, please call the NSPCC helpline to discuss your concerns with a Helpline counsellor.
How the courts decide
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.
- 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 does the law say about 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 Arrangements 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 the Grandparents Association, which provides support to grandparents who have been denied access.
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