Western Mail, 31st January 2006
It’s a shocking fact that one in four Welsh children will experience their parents’ divorce. Ahead of a new Channel 4 series ‘How To Divorce Without Screwing Up Your Children’, lawyer Melanie Hamer of Wendy Hopkins Family Law Practice comments below.

Research has proven that every child is affected by their parents’ divorce, whether they show signs of it or not.

Each one of us will know family or friends that are divorced or separated; and this is hardly surprising given figures that state one in four children aged 16 will have gone through the divorce of their parents.

But separation and divorce are adult solutions to adult problems. Your marriage may end, but your duty and responsibility to play a full and active role in the upbringing of your child or children will continue.

All families have to deal with some change and conflict but separation and divorce are different. They often cause disruption and distress, but of course it is important to recognise that continuing conflict within the marriage can cause even more damage.

A small minority experience continued problems; sometimes these problems – including poorer employment prospects and family disruption – continue into adulthood.

The factors thought to be associated with increased risk of poor outcomes following divorce and separation include financial hardship, high levels of parental distress, and experiencing more than one set of changes in family circumstances.

For example, separation may be followed by a new relationship for either parent, which may in turn be followed by new step-siblings and by the birth of half-siblings to the child’s parent and his or her new partner. These new partnerships may also end in separation; subsequently either parent may embark on a further new relationship involving step or half-siblings.

No matter how parents feel about each other, the essential thing is that they need to work together to make workable arrangements for bringing up their children. This may mean if there has been a history of domestic violence, or a fear of violence, you may want to seek help from those who have experience of it and understand the affect this will have on children.

When parents separate, children, especially younger ones, often feel they have done something wrong and believe the problems in the family are the result of their behaviour. Some children also worry that if their parents can stop loving each other, they could stop loving their children too.

If children are distressed, don’t be afraid of talking to a health visitor or even the school to see what help is available. There may be a school psychologist or child psychotherapist who can talk to your children to find out what their worries are.

Occasionally, parents may take the rather drastic step of deciding to split the family up completely, but it is recognised that children do tend to feel happier when they are together.

Do talk to the children about the possible options but make sure you do not put them in a position where they feel they have to chose which one of you to live with – this is a very distressing thing to do to a child who will not want to hurt either of you and will worry about either of you being alone.

Sometimes children do move from one parent to another. The important thing is that they feel loved, wanted and cared for by both of you, no matter which one they live with most of the time.

One solution is to make sure there is a firm routine established between you and your ex that the children know about. Children will quickly develop a sense of certainty in a situation that feels very emotionally difficult.

Research has further shown that grandparents are very important to children, so discuss with both the children and grandparents how they think that contact can be maintained, during such times as holiday visits, family birthdays or events.

Contact with family members is the right of the child and the fact you may not get on with the family member concerned is not reason enough to stop the children from staying in touch. Indeed, talking to or staying with grandparents or other family members can be very helpful to children.

There are situations when children suggest different arrangements to the ones that have been agreed by their parents or perhaps even the courts. If this happens, it is vitally important that children are listened to and their views considered because if you are able to reach a family agreement, then it is very likely this will be put in place.

If there are any doubts then a mediator or a family court officer can talk through possible alternatives, while it is also important to remember that a judge will be influenced by the age of the children as well as the parents’ views and circumstances.

Overall, working together as parents is hard where there is conflict in a relationship and even harder after separation or divorce.

Arranging contact between the children and the non-resident parent requires a sustained effort by both parents. Non-resident parents must accept that their role has changed from when they shared a home with the child ; parents with care must accept that they need to actively facilitate contact arrangements, even if their own relationship with their former partner is not amicable.

Above all, it is always important to seek out as much advice as possible. There are a large number of agencies and specialists only too willing to help.