An Unspoken Wound: How the UK gets it wrong for children affected by family separation

On Monday, the London Law Firm Michcon de Reya released the results of a survey which spans twenty years. This survey gives us a glimpse of the impact on children of divorce and separation, something which has been largely ignored by the current government.

These results make sobering reading but come as no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field of supporting separated families over the past two decades. 38% of the children interviewed said that they lost contact with their father completely after family separation, whilst 50% of the parents admitted putting their children through an intrusive court process and 68% confessed to indiscriminately using their children as bargaining tools. Most worrying of all are the scars that children affected by family separation report, depression, anxiety with a large percentage suffering so badly that they have considered suicide.

This was a survey with 4,000 respondents, which represents a significant sample of the UK population. The results should prompt some serious concerns, particularly amongst those concerned with the health of the nation, the economy and the overall well being of our society. The government’s response, however, was simply to say that the 20 year scope of the survey means that it is out of date and that, today, there is lots of support for separating parents.

The survey found that most parents said that they wanted to do the best for their children, whilst admitting to doing the worst and overlooking their needs. With the dismissive attitude from government and the silence surrounding the subject up until now, perhaps this is unsurprising.

Family separation in the UK is a messy business. Parents who decide to go their separate ways do so without very much help, guidance or support. Friends and family are often the first people that couples turn to and, whilst these people can play important roles further on, they can often exacerbate an already volatile situation with opinions, blame or efforts to reconcile or repair.

Outside of friends and family, there is little guidance or support for separating parents to help them to get it right for their children. Relate, the family relationships charity, delivers little in the shape of information about the impact of separation on children whilst other organisations steer clear of the subject completely, focusing instead on the rights of parents. Children’s charities do, at least, acknowledge that children are affected by family separation, but here too there seems to be some nervousness about exploring the ways in which they are affected over a lifetime. It seems, therefore, that there is almost a collective discomfort on the subject of children’s well being after separation. The political conversation continues to be focused upon the alleviation of child poverty and the narrative put forward by parental rights groups is that the only thing that must be resolved for the sake of the children, is the level of conflict between parents.

The survey results from Mischon de Reya, however, show a different story, with complete loss of relationships between children and their fathers, high levels of emotional, mental and psychological distress and admissions from parents that they do, indeed, use their children as bargaining tools. When emotions are running high, as they usually are when a relationship is ending, it can be almost impossible to avoid fighting over even the smallest thing. Children, who most often represent the love that two parents shared together, can find themselves drawn into long and protracted battles for their time, their loyalty and even their identity.

The fact is that the time when a relationship is ending is one of the most difficult transitions that an adult can undergo. At these times, with little guidance, support or advice, parents most often retreat to roles that they are familiar with. For mothers that is care of children and for fathers it is work. Over time, as familiar and comfortable ways of being with children are eroded for fathers, their relationships with their children change, become more fragile and dislocated and, for far too many children, become lost all together. This is not the fault of fathers, many of whom do everything within their power to remain close to their children. The responsibility for this lies with our policy makers and our service providers who continue to cling to the idea that the only thing wrong with family separation is conflict or child poverty and that if these are eradicated then the problem is solved. The survey results released on Monday suggest that despite all of that focus over the past twenty years, the impact of family separation on children and the problems it causes throughout their lives, remain glaringly real.

Mischon de Reya are calling for the set up of compulsory conflict clinics throughout the UK, funded by the diversion of Legal Aid. Strong penalties should be set, according to the Law Firm, that will enforce the take up services through these clinics and ensure that parents co-operate rather than head into the Family Courts.

This type of intervention is utilised in countries such as Norway and Sweden, where mandatory classes for parents, to help them to understand the impact of their separation on children, are part of the divorce process. For a government that has launched a wide range of strategies designed to intervene at just about every stage of family life, such a move should not seem too drastic.

And yet there is a continued reluctance by the government, the bigger charities and other support providers, to move towards a more holistic and interventionist approach to family separation. Its almost as if there is a collective unwillingness to change the status quo. Arguments about parental and individual rights are utilised to demonstrate that our current systems of support should not change and new initiatives to bring about the kind of services that could unlock some of the problems for children are resisted, diluted or simply ignored.

If, as this survey suggests, mothers as well as fathers are equally capable of using their children as weapons against each other, as bargaining tools and as witnesses to destructive arguments throughout divorce, why are we not acting now to intervene and stop it? Why are we not, as Mischon de Reya suggest, acting to incentivise the use of support that can help parents unlock the conflict and co-operate?

The truth of the matter is that the UK does not have the kind of support widely available to separated families that is offered as standard in other countries. Locally available Relationship Centres for example that are accessible across Australia, the parenting programmes that are available in Norway.

The majority of the support on offer in the UK is delivered in the traditional ‘lone parent’ model, which means that all of the financial, emotional and practical support is delivered to one parent whilst the other is relegated to the second best status of ‘non resident parent’. This model of support is designed to address the issue of child poverty, with mums being seen as the natural carer for children and dads being seen as the provider. It is a model with a thirty year history in the UK and, if the results of this survey are representative of the wider experience of family separation, it is a model that has failed and will continue to fail our children.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Mischon de Reya, in their efforts to keep parents out of the court process have hit on the right way forward in ensuring that the impact of family separation on children is reduced. The issue, however, is wider than simply making conflict clinics mandatory to prevent the use of the family courts. 90% of separating parents never go near a family court and somehow manage to muddle through, making arrangements that don’t necessarily suit anyone in the family but which go on year after year simply to avoid the eruption of old furies and unresolved issues. This lamentable situation could so easily be remedied if we were brave enough to do the work that is necessary to bring about better outcomes for children.

The UK needs a wholesale root and branch change in the way that it approaches support to family separation, starting with the courage to look at the results from this survey and the acceptance that the way we have approached it over the past two decades means that we are failing our children.

In short, it is time as a society to accept that becoming a parent means that some of our individual rights must be shelved for a time in order to provide for our children a better way forward, even if we decide that our relationship as adults is no longer working. This is not about taking backward steps and suggesting that parents must stay together ‘for the sake of the children’. It is about expecting parents to continue to work together after family separation and providing support and guidance to help them to do that. Most of all it is about believing that mothers and fathers really matter to their children and valuing their different contributions to children’s well being after separation in our policy and practice.

A consultation document on families and relationships is expected to be released by the government by the end of this year.  As part of this consultation, an audit of our current services to separated parents should be urgently undertaken to show the yawning gap where guidance advice and support to parents around their children’s well being should be. Innovative services to support the whole family do exist in the UK and these should be nurtured, developed and rolled out as widely as possible. The Child Maintenance Commission is delivering its Options Information service to mothers and fathers to help them to make choices about payment of child maintenance, The Centre for Separated Families delivers parenting programmes, counselling and intensive facilitation to separating parents and other, locally based services are starting to recognise the need for inclusive, family centred practice that really makes a difference to children.

Finally, lessons learned from other countries must be learned and translated for use in the UK and a new conversation must begin, one that neither demonises or silences the children from separated families, but seeks to understand, empathise and put right the wrongs that too little support to separated parents has caused over the years.

In a country that has spent a great deal of time making sure that children have a voice over the past two decades, dismissal of the results and failure to listen to the voices of the children in this survey would be a tragedy. Lets hope this research from Mischon de Reya really heralds a turning point so that the next generation of children do not have to suffer in the same way.


Karen Woodall is a Family Counsellor and the Director of the Centre for Separated Families an organisation helping parents to manage separation in order to bring about better outcomes for children. Karen is also the co-author of a Guide for Separated Parents – Putting Your Children First – Piatkus 2009.


The poll of 4,000 parents and children revealed that–

19% of children said they felt used in the separation

38% children never saw their father again once separated

50% of parents admitted putting their children through an intrusive court process over access issues and living arrangements

49% admitted to deliberately protracting the legal process in order to secure their desired outcome

68% confessed to indiscriminately using their children as ‘bargaining tools’ when they separated

20% of separated parents admitted that they actively set out to make their partners experience ‘as unpleasant as possible’ regardless of the effect this had on their children’s feelings.

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