Is there a right time to break up if you are a parent? Here, children of divorcees describe their experiences — both good and bad
There are countless books on the shelves advising couples on divorce, but until now we’ve rarely heard what it’s really like from the children’s perspective. This week one of the country’s leading family law firms, Mishcon de Reya, will release a book describing divorce through the eyes of children. It makes for a dispiriting read.
The head of the firm’s family department, Sandra Davis — who has handled divorces for Jerry Hall, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Tamara Mellon — decided to publish the book after becoming increasingly frustrated that children’s voices were not being heard during the divorce process, and that too many parents were so wrapped up in their own pain that they weren’t paying enough attention to their children’s wellbeing.
She joined forces with two children’s charities to interview children aged 8 to 17 about their experiences for the book, Splitting Up — A Child’s Guide to a Grown Up Problem, which is published on Monday. Some children reveal that the first they knew of the divorce was seeing their father at the door with a suitcase, others felt pressured into taking sides or keeping their parents’ secrets. Many blamed themselves for the divorce.
The ending of a marriage should not mean the dissolution of your family
“It didn’t surprise me seeing the children’s quotes, or how depressing and miserable they are — I have been a family lawyer for more than 30 years,” says Davis. She is no longer shocked by the horrifying antics of some parents. In one of her cases the parents couldn’t bear to hand over their ten-year-old son to each other so they dropped him at a service station and someone else took him to the other parent. “It was a bit like a hostage situation,” she says. “I’ve seen another parent work strenuously to ensure contact is not provided. Excuses were given so the children ended up thinking they didn’t want to see the other parent. That’s a tragedy. In the UK, 50 per cent of fathers lose contact with children one year after divorce.”
Davis asks all her clients at their first meeting to show her a picture of their children. “I keep it on the table so the children remain uppermost in their minds. Parents need to remember they are divorcing each other; they are not divorcing their children.”
Research shows that family breakdown can have a huge impact on children. A Swedish study last year showed that children of divorcing parents were far more likely to suffer insomnia, headaches and stress-related conditions, and a survey of 500 British teenagers with divorcing parents revealed that two thirds felt their GCSEs were affected, and one in eight said that they had turned to drugs or alcohol.
With 42 per cent of marriages ending in divorce in the UK — and 55,000 divorces involving children in 2013, the latest year for which figures are available — it’s vital to get it right, says Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, senior clinical consultant to the children’s mental health charity Place2Be, which has a presence in 287 schools and provided some of the children for the book. Others came from Voices in the Middle, a website about divorce written by children and young adults.
“Most parents are compassionate, they are not bad people, but they are lost in their own fear, resentment and pain,” Adams-Langley says. “The key point is that children want a relationship with both parents and it’s really difficult for parents to somehow swallow the anger and bitterness to make that happen.”
Davis and Adams-Langley agree that you should tell children early and honestly what is going on, without burdening them with the details. Agree core messages of security and safety and repeat them often to children. For example, “we will both always love you”, “we will both stay in your lives”, and “always come to us with your worries”.
Get therapeutic help if you need it (most parents would benefit, says Davis) and try to wrap divorce proceedings up as quickly as possible. Reassure them that none of it is their fault.
“Children are very forgiving of adults’ behaviour,” says Adams-Langley. “They don’t care what you have done, they just want a relationship with both of you. They need loving attachment, security, continuity, and their feelings, fears and emotions need to be heard.”
‘They broke up when I was 18’
By Georgia Robson
My parents divorced the summer I turned 18, after 22 years of marriage. We were on holiday in Greece. There had been whispered discussions and a tense atmosphere; something was different. A week into the trip they sat my older brother and I down and broke the news.
It’s probably an understatement to say we felt shaken up. My brother had been away from home at college, so it came as more of a shock to him. It was as though my parents had tried to keep things as normal as possible for as long as possible, right up to and including that holiday. My advice to divorcing parents is to tell your kids as soon as you know. They’re not stupid, especially if, like me, they’ve been around to see the decline.
The feeling when they told me was a mix of relief and sadness. Relief because I knew my mum would be happier, sadness because inevitably the family unit would be broken. I knew that was something my brother specifically feared, even as a 20-year-old.
Mum said she’d thought about making the decision years before but felt she should wait till we were grown up, and potentially off to university, so we might cope better with it. Sadly, we didn’t.
My brother — a sensitive soul — struggled emotionally after the divorce and wasn’t around much. I was left feeling very isolated without him or my usual family set-up. It was an unhappy period. Instead of moving onwards and outwards into adulthood, my focus was pulled back into the home and the place we were supposed to be growing out of. Just because I was older, I was not any more malleable. Quite the opposite.
Delaying a divorce to protect a child is not the answer. I knew my mum was unhappy for years. I remember seeing a photo of her in her early twenties laughing, full of life, with a group of girls, and it was like looking at a stranger. I had honestly never seen her like that. If I could say one thing to parents in unhappy marriages, it would be that you have no idea how much your child is being negatively affected by your decision to stay together. Children are so perceptive. I was very aware of the unhappiness in our home.
There isn’t an easy way to handle divorce or its aftermath. I’m now 27 and my brother and I are still adjusting to the changes. Had we been younger though, maybe we would have adjusted quicker.
‘I’m oddly proud of my disjointed family’
By Sarah Biddlecombe
Every time someone asks me to describe my immediate family, I give an inward sigh. There are no fewer than seven divorces shared between my parents, step-parents, former step-parents and parent’s partners, and explaining this to an outsider — least of all one who grew up with the basic two-parent package — can be long-winded.
Despite this I’m oddly proud of my disjointed family. If nothing else, it’s certainly taught me not to settle for the wrong person. And while there is no such thing as the perfect divorce, making the decision to end your marriage doesn’t have to mean the dissolution of your family; when handled carefully, it could even be a positive thing for your child, as I believe it was for me.
I’ll let you in on a secret shared by most children of divorce: we don’t want our parents to stay together. I don’t remember my parents crying after their divorces, but I do remember them crying before. It may sound simple, but happy parents make for happy children, so if you’re miserable, move on.
There’s no right way to break the news, but steer clear of distractions. My parents got divorced when I was five and their announcement was almost better than a birthday, complete with gifts and a trip to McDonald’s, so the messaging was slightly lost.
Obviously, try not to argue in front of them and remember that most children are mini sleuths who love spying on their parents, so be sure your private conversations, with other people as well as each other, are kept that way.
Sticking to a routine when making such a fundamental change to their lives will also help. It was business as usual when my dad moved out, and even though he wasn’t in the kitchen eating Weetabix every morning there was still the humdrum monotony of school, homework and seeing friends to keep me grounded. I also found it helpful that he didn’t suddenly treat me differently or shower me with presents. There was something infinitely comforting in knowing he was still just my dad, and that he would still be very cross with me if I threw a tantrum.
So how does it feel to be the 27-year-old survivor of all those dead-end romances? It feels fine. My parents made sure my childhood was never defined by their relationships, and it’s a lesson that’s stuck.
‘I’ve learnt resilience and independence’
By Emily Morris
My dad came home from a work trip on April 9, 2012, and told my mum, in front of Bethany, my little sister, and me, that he wanted a divorce. I was 19 years old. It wasn’t really that surprising to me that they were splitting up. He and Mum had had a rocky marriage since he’d had an affair when I was ten, and we’d moved from Essex to Cambridge the previous year so that they could make a fresh start.
The next day he told her he wanted her out of the house. She didn’t want us to stay with him, so she took my youngest sister, Bethany, to live with my grandparents in Birmingham. I was about to take AS levels so I ended up at a friend’s house and my middle sister, Maisie, who was then 16, moved in with her boyfriend and his parents.
It was a chaotic time and I found that there wasn’t much support. If you’re 19 and walk about with a smile on your face, then people think you’re OK. But this doesn’t always mean that things are all right. Mum had a breakdown that year, so at one point I was living with Bethany in our rented house in Cambridge and looking after her, including going to her parents’ evening.
It took my parents two years to get a divorce because they were fighting over money. They were so wrapped up in their own situation that I don’t think they thought of us enough. They never asked us, the whole two years, are you OK? Mum has since said she thought that if we were fed and had a bed that was enough. But I think children need more than that. They need honesty and love. I reacted by putting all my energies into studying for my A-levels so I could get away to university.
On the plus side, I’ve learnt resilience and independence. My experience also led me to study law. I’m 23 and I’m now in my final year at York University. In 2014 I produced a booklet for people aged 14-plus whose parents were divorcing because I felt there was so little support for children of this age. So positive things have come out of my experience. But on the other side, I find it hard to trust people and the idea of a relationship scares the living daylights out of me.
Emily Morris is a member of the Voices in the Middle youth council
What younger children say
‘They face away from each other when we open the door’
I wish my mum and my dad had stayed friends. They face away from each other when we open the door and Dad’s started standing at the pathway and we hug him, he leaves, and then Mum only opens the door once he’s gone. And she even opens it so she can’t see him. But I think it’s a bit hard for her because Dad’s found another person in his life. My mum doesn’t really like it when I bring stuff to Dad’s, so I think I’m gonna have to ask my stepmum to buy some new wellies for me with my pocket money.
‘Mum asked me to put Dad’s photo away’
I did have a photo of my dad on my bedside, but Mum didn’t feel comfortable with it after a few weeks, so she asked me if I could put it away, and I said, if it was what she wanted, then yeah. I don’t know where it is. I think maybe my mum threw it away. I wish I still had it. I used to see him every week and then he got a job, so then it was every fortnight. And at the moment sometimes I can’t see him for a few weeks, sometimes a few months, because he’s working so hard. I do speak on the phone with him, but rarely, because my mum says she wants to save her credit and my dad says he wants to save his credit as well. If I had money to buy them credit, I would so I could speak to him more.
‘I worry for my little sisters’
I saw my dad packing and I asked why he was packing. He said he was going and I asked him why. Then he said that he was leaving and that they had split up and he put his bags in his friend’s car and went to my nan’s house. I didn’t know if I would see my dad any more. I was worried that my dad might change his number so my mum couldn’t get it. So I worried quite a bit. I worry for my little sisters. Because when they’re older and they find out that our dad’s gone, they might not think about him and where he might be. If I can’t answer the questions, they might feel alone and they might be worried all the time.
‘They make you take their side’
Parents may often unknowingly make you feel pressurised to take their side when trouble occurs. A way of coping with this is to try and explain that you love them both and want to be kept out of their issues. Don’t bottle it up if you feel like you are in this situation. Talk to your parents individually and explain how you’re feeling. I now have no involvement in any discussion between my divorced parents and I feel a lot more relaxed and comfortable to contact either of them without feeling like I’m betraying one.
‘We get dropped off at the corner shop’
Sometimes my parents talk on the phone and sometimes they text each other. At first they are nice to each other but by the end they are shouting and fighting. One parent takes us to the other one — we get dropped off at the corner shop. Mam doesn’t like Dad in her street and Mam is not allowed in Dad’s street. It would have helped if I knew what was happening. Instead we just moved house. That was a shock. Mam said ‘just start packing your stuff’. In my head I was thinking, what’s happening?
‘It would be better if sometimes we could all go out together’
It would be better if my parents sometimes saw each other or if we could go out for a meal or something so we could all be together and have a laugh, maybe go to the movies together.
‘I have been struggling with behaviour at school’
It was like a death in the family. I tried to ignore it. I just said that I didn’t care. Some days I would randomly break into tears and other days I’d get angry and pretend not to know why. I have been struggling with behaviour at school. I’m in year 11, so this is a stressful time for me with GCSEs and college applications. Recently my teacher called me into her office and asked if there was a problem at home. I opened up to her and ever since the school has really got me back on track. So seek advice, even that teacher that you hate the most can help.
‘Children should be involved in the plans’
I think parents should at least plan things before they do it. If they are thinking of breaking up, plan when the child is going to go where. Children should be involved in the plans. If they are uncomfortable going to a certain place at a certain time, then parents should make sure they tell them that they will always be safe, and they shouldn’t worry and just make sure that they are happy.
‘Never make your child choose’
I think it’s better for parents to be separated and happy than together and not, because that is not a healthy environment for a child to grow up in. Ensure your voice is heard and remember, you’ll get through it. To parents: never make your child choose.
‘Don’t bad-mouth the other parent’
Parents, although you might not love your ex any more, we do. Don’t bad-mouth the other parent to your child. We want to be able to form our own opinion on what’s happened and it makes us upset to see someone we love bad-mouthing someone who, although you might not love them any more, we do.
Splitting Up — A Child’s Guide to a Grown Up Problem is published by Mishcon de Reya and available from Amazon from September 12, priced £5.99