1. Whereas parents believe that separation is for the best, most children would prefer that their parents were helped to resolve their problems.
This conflict between the
wishes of parent and child is heightened when parents seek ‘a fresh start’
by reducing proximity, contact and memories of a previous partner. Often
a feature of High Conflict Contact Disputes (HCCDs).
2. The psychological effects
of parental separation on children
Subject of considerable published
research (e.g. Kelly, 2000) - fairly consistent in showing some adverse
outcomes, though sufficient variability to make it difficult to generalise
research findings to an individual case.
Rates of psychosocial problems
(behavioural and emotional disturbance, academic under-achievement, relationship
difficulties) that are two to three times higher than children whose parents
remain together. Those children who are affected will continue to
have difficulties in coping with people, work and society in adolescence
and adulthood. Despite this increased risk, 70 to 80% of children
whose parents separate are not obviously disadvantaged, and a small proportion
is advantaged – e.g. those relieved from serious domestic violence, abuse
Differences between children
have a large effect on outcome - children who are already competent, sociable
and intelligent are more able to cope with family breakdown. Individual
resilience may play as big a part in determining outcome as anything else.
Outcome for children varies
according to the competence of the residential parent/carer (RP).
Some parents more competent once relieved of distress of an unhappy relationship;
an unhappy and preoccupied single parent is less able to provide support,
discipline, supervision and care than one unhappy spouse in a couple.
3. The psychological effects
of parental conflict
When children witness hostility
(particularly violence), or are aware they are the subjects of dispute,
there are much higher rates of psychosocial disturbance. When conflict
continues following separation, the outcome is even worse than that for
children exposed to chronic conflict between partners who remain together
- these children are the most likely to be the subject of professional
assessments in Private Law Court Proceedings.
4. The Effects of Continuing
(May be reversible as a result
of development, changes, life experiences - the outcomes are widely variable)
Younger children - increased
levels of anxiety e.g. separation anxiety and reluctance to separate for
contact. In HCCDs some children become overtly distressed at handover
from one parent to the other. Although used as a reason for aborting
a visit, observations of the same child may show that he/she is completely
settled and happy in the care of the NRP once the handover period has passed.
Some - particularly boys
- show increased levels of aggression and hostility, to members of family
and others. May be able to articulate this as anger caused by what
is happening between parents. Older children may be distrusting/disrespectful
of adults - can lead to challenging behaviour and lack of respect for rules.
Some become preoccupied with
pleasing adults - unduly attentive to adults and seem unable to relax.
May develop adult mannerisms/language/‘parental’ manner. Demeanour is displeasing
to other children and may become isolated and unhappy.
Some (aware that experiences
in one or other household arouse strong emotion in the other), become secretive
and uninformative in their communication with their parents. Can
lead to a distrust of close relationships.
Children, whose parents communicate
poorly, may become manipulative and dishonest in their relationship with
their parents, other adults and children.
Some children feel they are
the cause of their parents’ hostility and experience guilt and self-blame.
When parents are obviously
hostile children may experience their love for one as disloyalty to the
other. Older children more able to be objective but the conflict of loyalty
may be so distressing that some decide to cease contact (see also ‘parental
alienation’ below) for their own peace of mind. Secretly they may be biding
their time until they are independent enough to cope with the conflict
5. False Allegations
Hostile parents seeking evidence
regarding failings of the other parent often question children, who may
feel encouraged by the reaction that revelations cause, or pressurised
by repeated and suggestive questioning.
As a result some children
become prone to exaggerating, misrepresenting or fabricating events. In
the absence of sufficient contact the continual denigration of one parent
by the other can lead to a ‘negative stereotype’ and the ready formation
of false beliefs.
Children (especially younger)
exposed to a combination of negative stereotyping, repeated suggestive
questioning, a conflict of loyalty, and the emotional turmoil of family
breakdown are particularly prone to making false allegations against the
NRP (Kuehnle and Connell 2009). False allegations can be very serious (e.g.
neglect, physical and s.exual abuse)
6. The Effects of Contact
Following Parental Separation
Continuing good quality contact
with a NRP who is supportive of the RP brings benefits. Contact with
a NRP who is rejecting, disengaged or deviant appears to make matters worse
(e.g. Dunn, 2004).