Splitting Up — A Child’s Guide To A Grown Up Problem, published by law firm Mishcon de Reya in collaboration with children’s charity Place2Be, makes deeply painful reading with its tales of distress, anger, self-blame and humiliation — all, for the first time, in the voices of the children themselves.
Yet psychotherapist Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, the charity’s senior clinical consultant, says they are fairly typical. ‘The effect of divorce on children is generally worse than we think, right across the social spectrum,’ he says. ‘Divorce is much harder for children than a lot of adults realise.’
‘Parents never fail to astonish me with how petty and cruel they can be,’ says divorce lawyer Sandra Davis, head of the family department at Mishcon de Reya.
‘One parent might let the child stay up far later than the other parent would or give them junk food knowing, and maybe even enjoying, how much their former spouse would disapprove.
‘I’ve heard of under-age children being given online betting accounts or being taken on holiday to a destination different from the one the other parent was told they were going to.’
Sandra has even worked on a case where a mother deliberately sent her child to stay with her dad with a set of clothes that were far too small, forcing him to buy new ones — and humiliating her daughter in the process.
'The parents were trying to punish each other. Instead, they punished the child.’
Of course, there are good ways of handling a split. ‘Divorce is rarely a good thing for children, but it doesn’t have to be damaging,’ says Sandra.
‘If a child is comfortable and isn’t anxious, if they are involved in all the plans and they know that their life won’t be turned upside down — and that they won’t be used as a go-between — then they’re more likely to emerge from it unscathed.’
In first meetings with divorcing parents, Sandra asks them to show her a photo of the children, and then places it in full view on the table while discussions progress, ‘so that the children remain uppermost in our minds’.
If all parents followed this basic level of good practice, says Dr Adams-Langley, children might be spared an anguish they simply don’t deserve.
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