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Nine ways of protecting your children from the fallout of a separation

Kids can be caught in the firing line when their parents divorce, says Lisa Salmon

Lawyer Georgie Hall stresses that communication is key to resolving problems and avoiding a court case
Lawyer Georgie Hall stresses that communication is key to resolving problems and avoiding a court case

By Lisa Salmon

It's estimated that 42% of marriages end in divorce, many of them bitter. What's even sadder is when the separating couple's children get dragged into the fight between their parents and are used as emotional weapons, which can be hugely damaging for them.

The fight may end up in court. This year there's been a 7% increase in child dispute applications being made to court, which can be stressful and damaging to children.

Lawyer Georgie Hall, a family law expert and partner at Prettys law firm (prettys.co.uk), stresses that communication is key to resolving problems and avoiding a court case.

"Often, people believe the legal process can deliver the undeliverable," she says. "The court process struggles to alter parental behaviour - it's up to the two people involved to do that. What can be useful is to get the parents to open up a discussion to see which elements benefit from the legal framework and which most benefit from other non-lawyer, children-focused experts."

Here, Hall and Karen Woodall of the Family Separation Clinic (familyseparationclinic.com), co-author of Putting Your Children First (Piatkus, £8.50), outline important ways to protect children from stress during a bitter divorce battle.

1. Create a new co-parenting relationship

Hall says children benefit from seeing parents being able to work together as parents, even if the marital relationship is ending. She says parents should focus on what they both want for their children and keep them away from the conflict.

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2. Remember you're divorcing, but your children aren't

Children who understand that their parents' personal relationship is different from their parenting relationship do best.

"Help children understand you're parenting together by reminding them the parent they're not with loves them," Woodall says, advising parents to draw up basic rules to be shared in each home, updating them as the children grow.

3. Put aside your feelings when the children are around

Children are very good at picking up on unspoken messages, Woodall points out. "They'll seek to take care of you if they think you can't cope and that puts them in the wrong place in the family - their role is to be children."

4. Let children know what's happening, but don't make them choose between parents

"Children should be guided to know both their parents love them and want the best for them," Woodall says.

5. Have a round-table discussion

Use a constructive process to resolve the ending of the marriage and use a solicitor with strong listening skills. Try a discursive approach through your solicitor such as mediation.

6. Use your expert wisely to try court avoidance

"Deep-seated changes in behaviour tend not to be achieved through taking the other person to court," Hall stresses. "A judge can't wave a magic wand."

However, she says sometimes a court order is needed, particularly if there's a risk of harm to someone in the family.

7. Bring in appropriate experts where necessary

If a court order isn't essential, work with a child specialist to improve parental communication, parental behaviour and the outcome for the children, says Hall.

8. Think about how your child's voice is heard

This depends on your child's age and understanding. Young children can express what they want but are less likely to distinguish between that and what's best for them.

"Ideally, hearing from a child should be based on the child having space to express positively, rather than being placed under pressure," Hall explains.

"It can be easy to merge what you think is best into the voice of the child. Children will want to please their parents and can find it hard to disappoint them by taking a contrary view."

Your solicitor can help in round-table work to use appropriate child qualified experts to bring out the child's voice while being protective of the child-parent relationship.

9. Remember change is difficult for children

Many children struggle with moving back and forward between parents for no other reason than they don't like picking up their stuff and moving, but many cope well and like it.

Woodall says: "If your child struggles with seeing the other parent, never jump to conclusions. Change is difficult for children - get guidance on how to help them cope."

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