World Mental Health Day: Why child well-being must come first during a divorce

A break-up is a trying time for everyone, but the potential impact on the mental health of children involved is easily overlooked. This World Mental Health Day, which falls on October 10th, I want to encourage divorcing parents to take steps to reduce the impact separation can have on their children’s mental health.

Mental health and your family

A divorce affects everyone differently and there’s a lot of evidence that shows how the process can be emotionally and psychologically damaging for children, sometimes triggering depression, anxiety and feelings of loss and grief.

Bad behaviour from parents such as shouting, banging on doors, arguing at the school gates and speaking badly of the other parent in front of the child can trigger negative feelings in children, adding to the heartbreak of the breakdown of their family unit. It doesn’t help that the current grounds for divorce encourage apportioning blame, but there are ways to protect children from the most common psychological issues associated with divorce and separation.

Currently, the law only allows a couple to divorce if one side can prove that their partner committed one of three so-called “faults”; adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion. Cuts to legal aid and the availability online divorces have resulted in far more self-representation and a lack of legal advice that would otherwise steer them away from antagonistic behaviour have made the whole process much more difficult.

The only way a couple can divorce without blame is if they’ve lived separately for two years and both agree to the divorce or if they’ve lived separately for five years, but there are practical and emotional reasons why many parents simply can’t wait that long. Apportioning blame is never helpful as it can escalate into a drawn out, antagonistic approach that can cause damage to children in the long-term.

Time for change

As chair of Resolution Nottingham/East Midlands, I’m an ardent supporter of “no fault” divorce. I believe that mediation and seeking resolutions away from court can offer a far more constructive, non-confrontational way of reaching a solution – which has to be better for children and all concerned.

Working with Nottingham-based charity CASY, which stands for Counselling and Support for Young People, I’ve heard first hand that many young people aged 16-25 in Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire are experiencing mental health problems often brought on by divorce. In fact, CASY supported 1,700 young people last year alone. According to the charity’s chief executive Mick Mason, divorce can have long lasting consequences for children involved and can manifest as anxiety, sleep issues, or depression and can lead to self harm or suicidal thoughts.

By campaigning through Resolution, I’m hoping that “no fault” divorce will eventually become a reality, but in the meantime it’s important to communicate and negotiate camly to keep the needs of children at the forefront. Organisations such as CASY provide invaluable support at these times.

What can you do?

Support, support, support. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the break down of a relationship, especially when there are financial implications and important life changing decisions to be made, but try not to fall into the trap of airing these issues around the kids.

World Mental Health Day is a great chance to take the time to think this over, and consider not only your own mental well-being but that of your children.

Try to work together and recognise that although your relationship with one another might have come to an end, your roles as parents are everlasting. By focusing on this, the emotional well-being of the children will be supported and protected.

Specialised courses are now available for divorcing parents to explore methods of protecting children against the long-term damages of a family breakdown, which can be a great way to meet other parents in similar situations and hear advice from the experts.

A divorce is a big life event for the entire family, but there can be a peaceful and positive outcome especially if children’s interests are held uppermost in the mind.

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