Published on December 18, 2022

When parents separate, children are inevitably affected. Many parents will wonder whether they should ask the children where they want to live. What is important to remember is that they should not be drawn into any adult conflict. However, this needs to be balanced with ensuring that they are listened to and kept informed to some degree about the plans which are going to be put in place for their care so that they do not feel too anxious about their own future.

Far too frequently, children can feel stuck in the middle of their parents as if they have to choose one or the other. Whilst it is important to engage with the children and listen to what they want, it is also vital to reassure them and ensure that they do not assume the weight of responsibility for decisions regarding their care.

Far too frequently, children can feel stuck in the middle of their parents as if they have to choose one or the other.

Child’s voice

A child’s ability to express their wishes and feelings accurately, with an understanding as to the implications of those wishes and feelings, depends on how old they are. Indeed, a court, when making a decision for a child, will apply the ‘welfare checklist’ found in Section 1(3) of the Children Act 1989, which states that wishes and feelings should be considered in light of the child’s age and understanding (see here for more information on the welfare checklist). What this means is that, for example, an older child within any court proceedings may be given more of an opportunity to write a letter to the Judge or to express their views than that afforded to a younger child because they are more able to understand the consequences of what they are communicating.

Practical steps you can take when deciding on where the child lives

By directly asking a child where they want to live, it is possible that this will put them in an unfair situation where they feel they have to choose. It may be more appropriate, depending on their age, to have an open discussion with them as a family to invite and listen to their wishes and feelings rather than asking direct questions.

Cafcass, (Children and Family Court Advice and Support Service) provide guidance about how to listen to the child’s voice after separation. Cafcass also provide a template parenting plan document, which may help separating parents to consider how best to approach discussions concerning the arrangements for the children.

Some parents also like to consider whether some form of family therapy is suitable to help guide parents and children through the emotional impact of a separation with practical plans also being established during the course of that therapy. Family mediation is another service that may assist parents. Within mediation you can discuss the arrangements for the children but also agree how best to talk to the children and listen to what they want.

Communication between parents

Ultimately, the majority of child arrangements cases that end up in court arise because there is a lack of communication between the parents. It is undoubtedly a difficult and stressful time for parents when separating but it is important to remember that the children must be protected; they love both as their parent and, whilst the parents are ultimately responsible for the decision as to where they live, they must feel listened to without being forced to choose.

Emma Taylor contributed to Separating With Children 101′, 3rd edition, (Bath Publishing).

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The Early Days Of Separation

Humans are designed to cope with many onslaughts, but change continues to prove extremely challenging. How you manage the early days of separation or divorce has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the process.

When couples separate, they are often thrown into a period of uncertainty. Identities are changing from couple to single, from mum and dad together as a family unit to mum with children and dad with children. Depending on the circumstances and who decides to leave the family home, there are many questions that arise during the early days of separation. “Will we have to sell our home?” “I haven’t worked since we had children – how will we manage financially?” “What will our friends and family think?” “How much will divorce cost?”
“Will I cope on my own?” There seems to be so much to sort out both practically and emotionally and it comes at a time when at least one of you will be ‘all over the place’ emotionally due to the loss you are experiencing. This can make decision-making seem impossible. Who wants to agree the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organise the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking mums and dads into what appears to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.

Take Your Time!

In those early days of separation or divorce, take your time if you can. Seek support from friends, family and professionals. Try not to make any big decisions too quickly.
Bear in mind that communication problems with your ex and all the pressures on family life you are now experiencing, like for many separating couples, will get better with time. It’s important to recognise that you and your ex will more than likely be in very different emotional places at the moment; different stress levels and anxieties will be making communication difficult. Taking the time to sometimes do nothing, to not react, give things a day or two, can prove very useful techniques.
What you have to remember is that if you have children, your ex is always going to be part of your life. That can be hard to take on board when you are feeling hurt and angry. If you can find a way to communicate with each other that focuses on the children, you will all benefit in the years to come.

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