Much has been said and written about the effect of divorce on children. Various studies over the years have ascribed a raft of negative emotions and behaviour – doing badly at school, turning to crime and failing to forge lasting relationships – to the trauma of young children and teenagers experiencing the break-up of their parents’ marriages.
After three decades in the family law business, I can say that this doesn’t have to be the reality.
That is not to say divorce is easy for children to adjust to, or that it isn’t sad when their parents go their separate ways, but the truth is that if the situation is handled in the right way, children can survive relatively intact.
I’ve written about this aspect of divorce several times, but was minded to do so again after reading a recent magazine interview with actress Tamzin Outhwaite, a mother-of-two whose marriage to fellow actor Tom Ellis ended last year. Asked about the break-up, she said that ‘kids adapt’ and daughters Florence, six, and two-year-old Marnie were ‘not that much worse off’ as a result of the split.
‘He’s still their dad and they still have a relationship,’ she asserted.
This is at the heart of the matter: that the children continue to have a close relationship with both parents – even though one of them is living elsewhere.
Children need to know that the divorce is not their fault; that both parents love them as much as they ever did, and that both parents will continue to be there for them.
The best way to achieve this is – from day one – to put the needs of the children first. That means a couple setting aside their own squabbles and animosity for the sake of the children. Only this month (on Valentine’s Day, in fact), divorced showbiz couple Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin were seen walking arm in arm along a beach in Malibu with their two children, looking happy and relaxed in each other’s company.
While over-friendliness might give children false hopes of reconciliation, building in regular family time to post-divorce arrangements will make the transition easier and help to reassure the children that their parents are still a unit.
It sounds simple, but the key to a good divorce for children is to put them first. A bad divorce is where parents are so busy warring with one another that they disregard – or don’t pay enough attention to – their children’s feelings and needs.
Children need to feel loved and safe. If their parents conduct their divorce in an amicable, responsible, child-focused manner, the children will continue to feel loved and safe. As a result, as Tamzin Outhwaite rightly says, they will adapt and not be much worse off than they were before.