The impact of lockdown has made many of us reflect on what’s important in our lives and in our personal relationships. For some, this has led to swapping life in the city for more space in the countryside. For others, lockdown restrictions have meant moving in together more quickly than might have been the case in ordinary circumstances.
For some couples, however, without the distraction of outside influences, there has been the dawning realisation they no longer want to remain together. This has led to increased numbers seeking legal advice about divorce – with family lawyers predicting a “post-lockdown divorce boom”.
For separating parents, a major question is how to maintain relationships and support children’s well-being during and after separation. My research in this area has found that children can come to view their parent’s separation positively, but that this very much depends on how parents handle and talk about the relationship breakup.
An assumption commonly made by parents is that their child is unaware of the situation because they have not spoken about it. But it’s surprising what young children overhear and the scenarios they create in their own minds
My research involved talking to young adults whose parents separated or divorced in childhood about their experiences. And their views provide valuable insights into how children experience and accommodate their parents’ separation.
I found that children come to view their parents’ separation positively when it brings parental conflict to an end. Good communication among all members of the family about what’s happening and the changes taking place, enables children to develop an understanding of the situation. This helps to support their adjustment over time .
Being able to maintain contact with both parents is very important for children. So having some form of contact arrangements in place as soon as possible (even if it needs refinement over time) will help to support children. Grandparents and other family members also provide an important role where children may feel unable to speak to their parents about the situation for fear of upsetting them.
Friendship groups are also important. Being able to maintain friendships by continuing to attend the same school and remaining in the local area is valued by children.
Plan now for Christmas
For separated parents, Christmas often prompts difficult discussions about where their child spends their time. And for those who have separated recently, it’s likely to be particularly challenging this year.
In normal times, where practical, many children will spend some time with each parent over the festive period, resulting in them having “two Christmasses”. This is often seen as a positive by children, but in the current circumstances this might not be an option.
It’s impossible to predict what restrictions may be in place by Christmas but it may be that family celebrations need to take a different form this year.
At the start of the first lockdown in March, guidance was issued about children being able to move between their parent’s homes – such decisions need to take account of the child’s present health, the risk of infection and vulnerable people in one household or another. And this remains in place as we enter the second lockdown
Alternative arrangements might need to be put in place such as using Zoom, FaceTime, Whatsapp, Skype or the phone for celebrations. This will mean parents need to set aside their differences and focus on their children’s needs, to reach such arrangements.
This is particularly important given the disruption, fear and anxiety many children have faced during this pandemic. Using technology to stay connected and keep some of the family traditions alive requires a level of creativity. But this can be done – think film nights, reading stories each day, making Christmas cards or decorations (receiving craft items through the post is a welcome surprise for children), sharing recipes and food-tasting sessions, at home carol singing and taking time to develop new festive traditions.
Communication is key
Research shows that divorce doesn’t have to mean an unhappy childhood. Ultimately, if a child sees their parents communicate effectively, is able to meet up with both parents with ease and feels decisions are made that take their views into account, they feel they “matter” to their parents. They are reassured and have an increased sense of security.
Of course, in the immediate aftermath of separation, it takes a while for arrangements to be put in place and for parents and children to adjust to the changed situation. But over time, where these factors are in place, children are likely to accommodate their parents’ separation well.
This year the question facing everyone is what small things can be put in place to ensure that Christmas remains a special and joyous occasion for children. Being creative about how we stay connected is likely to be the answer.
The article was first published in The Conversation
About the Author
As a senior lecturer, Dr Susan Kay-Flowers has a long-standing interest in researching children and young people’s relationships. Her research into young adult’s childhood experience of parental separation builds on earlier research into early years children of separated parents, and her previous professional career in Probation and the Family Courts. Her current role involves supervising research students at undergraduate, Masters and doctoral level as well as undertaking research with international partners.
Keen to ensure her research is available to a wide audience including young people, parents, practitioners and academics, she created the framework for understanding children’s accommodation of parental separation. Her aim is for the framework to be used to inform and guide the actions and decision-making of those able to improve and support the well-being of children of separated parents. It has been presented to a range of international audiences including academics, professionals and students in England, Romania and Nepal.
The full study has been recently published: ‘Childhood Experiences of Separation and Divorce: Reflections from Young Adults’, Policy Press 2019.