This is perhaps the most important Children’s Mental Health Week there has ever been, in the middle of the third national lockdown of the pandemic and with schools again closed. Children, like adults, have been ordered by the UK government to stay at home, and are trying to get used to the dramatic impact this is having on their daily routines.
We are all aware of the significant toll the government restrictions are having on children’s mental health. Many are struggling with sitting in front of a computer screen for many hours every day for home schooling, with the lack of face-to-face teaching to progress their learning and education, and with the lack of social interaction with their peers and friends. This social interaction is crucial, particularly in early years, to help children develop social, language and behaviour skills. It is no wonder they are finding it difficult to cope whilst missing out on this.
This year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is focused on expressing yourself. Parents are having to get more creative than ever before from home to help children find ways to do this, so children can share their thoughts, ideas and feelings. This could be via various different mediums, such as through photography, art, drama, music, poetry, or something else that works for the individual child. It is crucial that children feel that they have an outlet to express and share their feelings at the moment, to help them manage with the difficult situation we all find ourselves in.
As children lawyers, we are acutely aware of the importance of putting the best interests of the child first, before anything else. In children proceedings, the child’s welfare is the court’s paramount consideration. An unfortunate consequence of the government lockdowns over the past year for some children is that they have been more exposed to conflict between their parents, and it is difficult for children and parents to get the space and separation they need when a parental relationship breaks down and the atmosphere at home becomes tense.
Below are a few tips from the Vardags Children Department as to how you as a parent can make sure you are putting the best interests of your child first during what can be the most difficult time of your life:
Certainly do not deliberately bring them into any adult disputes or problems. Children will feel loyalty to both of their parents, and they will want to please whichever parent they are with at the time. They should not be asked to choose sides or to agree with one parent’s perspective in a dispute, as they will feel conflicted and worried about how to deal with this.
Remember, children have the right (in law) to have a relationship with both of their parents. Even if you do not see eye to eye with the other parent, or if you feel the other parent has been a bad spouse or partner, your child still has the right to a strong and meaningful relationship with them. Of course, the one caveat to this is if there are safeguarding concerns, then the court would want to satisfy itself that the child arrangements in place are safe for the child.
For example, if you feel that your spouse has treated you badly, has shouted at you and belittled you and you need to separate, don’t let this cloud your judgement when it comes to the arrangements for your children. Just because someone is a bad husband or wife or partner, it does not mean they are a bad mother or father. Your child will love both their parents very much, and will want to continue to have strong relationships with both of you, even if their parents separate.
Making sure that you think about how to tell them about your separation once you have decided to do so, in a way that is appropriate for their age, is vital. You should agree with the other parent on a joint approach to this, and then tell them together. During this conversation, you should constantly reinforce the message that the separation will not change how much both of their parents love them and always will do, and this is not something they should worry about at all, to provide them with the reassurance they need.
Keep your lines of communication in respect of arrangements for the children, and matters about their upbringing such as their health and education, open and amicable. Good communication is a crucial foundation for a positive co-parenting relationship. There are family apps available to help parents to communicate about their children if needed.
It is best for children, and for parents, if their parents can reach an agreement about the child arrangements going forward, if at all possible. Making an application to court for a judge to decide for you which parent(s) your children should live with and how their time should be split between you both should be a last resort once you have tried all other avenues.
If you are struggling to agree on these things directly between you, think about trying negotiations through solicitor correspondence, and/or with a trained mediator or even speaking to a specialist family counsellor about how to understand your children’s perspective better and the point of view of the other parent. Your specific circumstances will inform which route is most appropriate for your family. There is not a one-size fits all for this.
We hope that these tips and insights can help you to think about how to navigate your separation in the best way possible for your children, to try to minimise the impact on them, particularly at the moment while their mental health may already be suffering due to the pandemic.
If you do require legal advice in respect of your children, please do not hesitate to contact us to set up a gratis consultation with our specialist Children Department.