How we communicate and the language we use is fundamental to all of our lives. How parents talk about the world, their problems and relationships and how they talk to each other will significantly impact on the health, wellbeing and development of their children. This is all the more important for parents who are separating or for separated families or families facing significant changes such as divorce, re-marriage or a move to another country or another part of the world. Even normal life events, such as children starting secondary school or the birth of a new step-sibling could be a source of friction which could lead to negative language and an increase in tension and parental conflict.
We know that parental conflict causes harm to children. This harm can be devastating and far reaching. Research published in the Department of Work & Pensions: Reducing Parental Conflict Programme shows that children who are exposed to parental conflict are more at risk of having problems at school, with their physical health, with smoking and substance abuse and mental health problems. This can negatively impact their life chances in all areas including relationships, academically, in employment and can put them at risk of long term health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Language that creates, increases or perpetuates parental conflict is therefore capable of putting children at real risk. That is the case whether that language is being used by a parent at school pick up, by a professional in correspondence or by the media on television.
Here are some tips to help you improve the language and reduce conflict for separated and separating families:
- Avoid fighting language. Resolving family issues does not have to be a battle. You are not at war with the other parent. You need to work together and confrontational language will only make that more difficult;
- Think about how you talk about the other parent in front of your child and in front of others. You may not like the other parent anymore. You may not trust them. But like it or not they are an important part of your child’s life and putting them down, criticising them or humiliating them will not only impact your child’s relationship with them but it will make co-parenting more likely to end in disagreement and conflict and may even damage your own relationship with them;
- Think about using a technical term, especially if you are not sure what it means. People often misuse terms as ‘shared care’, parental alienation’ or ‘primary carer’. These can be very loaded terms which can often raise tensions and make resolving disagreements more difficult;
- Don’t believe everything you see on television! Who doesn’t love a good TV drama but be careful about how family breakdown and family legal problems are portrayed. Most family cases resolve out of court through careful discussion and negotiations. It may not be exciting but if you come expecting a fight because that’s what happens on TV then you are already making things more difficult. Also, be careful about the language used in foreign media. Many US programmes use the terms ‘custody,’ ‘visitation’ and ‘access’ whereas we have taken a conscious decision to remove those words from the law in England & Wales as they immediately created an imbalance between parents which caused conflict and did not adequately focus on what was best for the child;
- Keep your language child focussed. Try to avoid language that makes it about you. It is not ‘your weekend’ or ‘your turn’ to attend parents evening. It is the arrangements for your child to have a relationship with both parents. Sometimes that means putting what is best for them over what you think is fair for you and using language that acknowledges this may help reduce conflict.
Another way you can help to improve the language of family law for everyone is to get involved in the debate around the use of language and help identify incorrect or inappropriate use of language in the media. The Family Law Language Project was launched in November 2021 with the aim of doing just that. You can get involved and follow the Project at www.thefamilylawlaguageproject.co.uk and on social media @TheFLLProject.
It is not just about using language that reduces conflict. The family legal system is there to help families and children. It is not there to help lawyers, judges or any other professional. It therefore needs to be as accessible and understandable as possible to those families and children and put their needs first. At the moment, the law is full of technical terms, acronyms, abbreviations, procedures and traditions which can make those who are not familiar with it feel alienated and excluded. Whilst there will always be some need for technical language this has to be balanced against ensuring an inclusive and accessible legal system particularly when, as with many family law cases, vulnerable people such as children and victims of domestic abuse are relying on that system to support them during a time of crisis.
If you do find yourself needing to engage with the family legal system and there is something that you do not understand then remember it is ok to ask for an explanation, and that can be from your own lawyer, the lawyer for another party, a Judge, social worker or another professional. We are ultimately all there to help families and should be providing a system that is open, supportive and helps families to resolve issues in a positive and child focussed manner.
Whatever you do, please think carefully about the language you use and the impact it may have on you, your family and the wider community.
Emma Nash was a contributor and consulting editor to the 3rd edition of ‘Separating With Children 101’. (Bath Publishing, 2023)