Time for separating parents to put their children first

24 Nov 2014

Jo Edwards
Resolution chair Jo Edwards discusses the findings of our research on the impact of divorce on young people, released on 24 November to launch Family Dispute Resolution Week.

Divorce and separation are all too often a drawn out and painful process, particularly
for children.

New evidence published today indicates that for the tens of thousands of teens each year who experience parental break-up, particularly those in the middle of crucial exam years, the consequences of separation are more damaging and wide-ranging than might be expected. Many say their GCSE and A-Level results suffered and that they were forced to choose sides in their parents’ break-up. It reinforces the importance of couples using more constructive methods to separate, to help mitigate some of the most stressful elements of a break-up and help ensure the best outcomes for both them and their children.

Each year in the UK, figures suggest there are around 100,000 children under 16 whose parents separate – a number which increases significantly when you factor in the children with unmarried parents who break up. Of course we all understand that this inevitably has an impact on young people, but quantifying this is a fraught and difficult task. That’s why a new survey of 14-22 year olds whose parents have separated shines an important light on the very people who are often most affected by separation, but who rarely have much of a say in the process.

The findings make for sobering reading. Schoolwork is one of the most significant areas to suffer as a direct result of parental separation. The survey found that one in five young people “didn’t get the exam results” they were hoping for with the majority (65%) saying it was their GCSE exam results that suffered. These poorer-than-expected exam results might partly be explained by changes in behaviour which the teens and young adults, all answering anonymously, identified. One in four said that they “struggled to complete homework, essays or assignments.” And more than one in 10 said they found themselves “getting into more trouble at school.” Arguably the most disruptive element was the change in schooling: one in six kids in crucial exam years said they had to move schools following their parents’ divorce.

Other findings indicated that parental break-up can impact on young people’s health with one in six saying that they “started drinking alcohol, or drinking more alcohol” than they had done prior to the break-up. But I was most taken aback at the way that in many cases young people had been treated by their parents, and which suggests that many separating couples are not handling the process of break up in a way their children deserve. A full one-third said that a parent tried to turn them against the other parent and more than 1 in 4 said their parents tried to involve them in their dispute. A further 20% said that their “parents have upset or embarrassed me on social media, by posting something about their separation or divorce” while – quite astonishingly – a quarter of young people said that they actually found out on social media that one of their parents had a new partner. It beggars belief.

I’m not for a second suggesting that people should not break-up ‘for the sake of the kids’. Children’s well-being often improves markedly after a break-up when they’re not witnessing day-in day-out the trauma of their parents’ relationship breaking down slowly. It’s not anyone’s job to judge the merits of any given relationship. But the process of the break-up can and should often be managed much better. If this survey tells us anything it’s that separating couples have a duty to their children to reduce the stress of separation. That’s precisely why over recent years, different types of dispute resolution have developed which are designed specifically to reduce conflict and encourage collaboration.

Processes such as mediation and the collaborative process support couples to work together to decide what happens to their children after their separation, and how money and assets such as the family home will be divided. They are often quicker and more cost-effective, giving couples more control and enabling them to resolve their dispute and move on with their lives.

Yet our own experience and research finds that there remains a great deal of scepticism and misunderstanding about these processes. People seem to think they’re not legally binding (not true) and many think they don’t make the terms of a separation clear (again, not true). Sadly, most still think of court as the norm, to the detriment of the children.

We need to start busting the Hollywood myth that the only way to settle a break-up is to have your day in court. For some couples it is the best option but for many it is not. For children a parental break-up is never easy but parents owe it to their children to find the method of separation that will work best for the whole family.