Children’s Mental Health Week and Separating Families

4 February 2021

Children's Mental Health Week takes place between 1 and 7 February 2021. The theme is "Express Yourself".

If COVID-19 and the successive and seemingly endless "lockdowns" have taught us anything it is that we must look after our own mental and physical health and just as importantly the mental and physical health of those we love, especially our children.

Parents are only too aware of the need to protect their children and their emotional well-being, and the risks posed by bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and the dangers of social media.

When parents separate conflict between them can often overshadow what the children are experiencing.

A recent report from The Family Support Group entitled "What about me?" highlighted the number of parents who apply to the Court expecting Judges to make decisions about the arrangements for their children. It also highlighted the number of alternative and potentially far better options which are available if parents cannot reach agreement, e.g. Mediation and Collaboration. 

Most importantly its main theme is that all too often what is best for the children can be overlooked, not just by the parents but by others involved as well.

Research undertaken at Exeter University in 2014 concluded that "where there is a dispute involving children, good practice involves ensuring the agenda is driven by their needs and welfare, not by the "rights" of the adults." Extensive research has shown how difficult and sometimes how harmful it can be to children when their parents separate. It is even more harmful where there is a conflict between parents and that emotional harm may continue for many years, well beyond childhood.

To understand more about how children are coping, what they are feeling, what they are hoping will happen and what they would like to happen, we need to talk to them, give them a voice. 
Allow them to express themselves.

That does not mean that children are left feeling as though they should be making the decisions.

It means that parents can make informed decisions about what is best for their children in the knowledge of their children's views and feelings. Judges normally have to have before them reports about the children's "wishes and feelings". 

Mediators are obliged to highlight to parents that children over the age of 10 are given the opportunity to have their voices heard directly if they wish to do so.

So, why don't we give that opportunity to children all the time? 

From the time their parents' relationship breaks down why wait until Mediation begins or one parent decides to go to Court?

By listening to children in these very difficult times we are giving them an opportunity to be heard when their parents can no longer live together. We know from research that children will benefit from being given that opportunity to talk freely and openly about how they are experiencing and coping with the changes happening in their lives. In this way children will not feel that they need to align themselves with one or other parent. They will not be afraid of upsetting the parent they are living with in case they lose that parent as well.

Instead, their mental health and emotional well-being will be protected by knowing that they have had a role in decisions being made about what is best for them and they have been listened to.

There are a growing number of Child Consultants and Mediators who are specially trained to talk to children. They can help children share their views and anything that they want to be shared can be fed back mindfully. They understand this is confidential. They may not even wish to have any of their views shared with the parents, yet the sheer opportunity to say them out loud can offer a sense of relief for them. They will also know that their parents want to understand how they feel about what is happening and that they are important.

Not just this week but 52 weeks every year, as family justice professionals and parents we all need to put children first, let them have an opportunity to speak, listen to them and in doing so we can be more confident that they will be able to cope with fundamental changes in their lives. 

In short, we need to allow children to express themselves. 

Graham Coy is a Partner in the Family Team at Wilsons and a qualified Mediator and is more than happy to discuss any of the issues raised in this short article.

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