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How does it feel when your parents divorce? Children speak out

Posted on 12 September 2016

A Child's Guide to a Grown Up Problem

There are countless books on the shelves advising couples on divorce, but until now we’ve rarely heard what it’s really like from the children’s perspective. This week one of the country’s leading family law firms, Mishcon de Reya, will release a book describing divorce through the eyes of children. It makes for a dispiriting read.

The head of the firm’s family department, Sandra Davis — who has handled divorces for Jerry Hall, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Tamara Mellon — decided to publish the book after becoming increasingly frustrated that children’s voices were not being heard during the divorce process, and that too many parents were so wrapped up in their own pain that they weren’t paying enough attention to their children’s wellbeing.

She joined forces with two children’s charities to interview children aged 8 to 17 about their experiences for the book, Splitting Up — A Child’s Guide to a Grown Up Problem, which is published on Monday. Some children reveal that the first they knew of the divorce was seeing their father at the door with a suitcase, others felt pressured into taking sides or keeping their parents’ secrets. Many blamed themselves for the divorce.

“It didn’t surprise me seeing the children’s quotes, or how depressing and miserable they are — I have been a family lawyer for more than 30 years,” says Davis. She is no longer shocked by the horrifying antics of some parents. In one of her cases the parents couldn’t bear to hand over their ten-year-old son to each other so they dropped him at a service station and someone else took him to the other parent. “It was a bit like a hostage situation,” she says. “I’ve seen another parent work strenuously to ensure contact is not provided. Excuses were given so the children ended up thinking they didn’t want to see the other parent. That’s a tragedy. In the UK, 50 per cent of fathers lose contact with children one year after divorce.”

Davis asks all her clients at their first meeting to show her a picture of their children. “I keep it on the table so the children remain uppermost in their minds. Parents need to remember they are divorcing each other; they are not divorcing their children.”

Research shows that family breakdown can have a huge impact on children. A Swedish study last year showed that children of divorcing parents were far more likely to suffer insomnia, headaches and stress-related conditions, and a survey of 500 British teenagers with divorcing parents revealed that two thirds felt their GCSEs were affected, and one in eight said that they had turned to drugs or alcohol.

With 42 per cent of marriages ending in divorce in the UK — and 55,000 divorces involving children in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available — it’s vital to get it right, says Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, senior clinical consultant to the children’s mental health charity Place2Be, which has a presence in 287 schools and provided some of the children for the book. Others came from Voices in the Middle, a website about divorce written by children and young adults.

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