Celebrity Splits or Anonymous Divorces? – How Best to Help Children Through it

Vanessa Fox Partner and Head of Family Law hlw Keeble Hawson

Vanessa Fox
Partner and Head of
Family Law
hlw Keeble Hawson

It is surprising that couples as wealthy as Amber Heard and Johnny Depp and now Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wash their linen so publicly, when financially they are in a position not to do so.

Their motives may perhaps lie with a need to respond to the media circus that surrounds them – seeking to gain the public’s sympathy for their individual position – something the rest of us mere mortals can be grateful to avoid.

With that in mind, media speculation over a potential court battle over Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s six children – aged between 8 and 15 and, on any view, the innocent bystanders – is extremely worrying.

It is reported that Ms Jolie has instructed a lawyer well known for litigious work. However, it is to be hoped that the celebrity couple’s legal teams will advise them that there are other routes to achieving agreement that would prioritise their children’s needs.

For their children’s sake, any parents during separation, should act responsibly and avoid a bloodbath of litigation – which comes with the danger of distressing any young family members immensely. With celebrity couples, any litigation appears to be conducted in the public eye, with media comment at every stage.

Where there are children to consider, especially across a wide age range, separating parents should think carefully as to the legal path they take upon separation, as this will affect the children greatly. The legal recommendation to separating parents should be that a court appearance about children issues should be the last resort.

Although there are cases where a court application is the only option, parents should be advised to look at other choices, including mediation, counselling and collaborative family law practice. If parents can sit in a room together (whether with mediators or trained family lawyers) and listen to each other, they often realise that more unites than divides them where the children are concerned.

On a practical level, it is vital that children are helped to get through their parents’ separation and divorce as sensitively as possible and with minimum disruption. To achieve this, I recommend a checklist of ten tips:

  • It is best if parents can sit down together to tell their children about a separation or divorce. If the conversations have to be separate, it’s important to agree what you will each say beforehand so that children have a consistent message. Keep explanations simple and try not to blame each other.
  • Put your children’s welfare, not your own, at the forefront of your mind and avoid unnecessary squabbles over trivial issues with the other parent where possible when the children are present. Try to look at each situation through your children’s eyes.
  • Try to be as fair and as flexible with the other parent as possible about children issues, whilst not messing each other around with last minute changes of plan. A routine is helpful for children, but it needn’t become a straitjacket.
  • Agree some parenting ground rules with your ex, but also try to fit in with some differences in approach, without compromising on issues that really matter to you.
  • Don’t get into a ‘blame game’ with the other parent and give each other as much notice as possible with any problems that will inevitably arise from time to time with contact issues. This will help the children understand that they need to see both parents.
  • Reassure your children that you love them and that they are not to blame. Always remember that children are entitled to continue to love both their parents.
  • Explain in simple terms how their lives will change, particularly major decisions such as where they will live and how often they will see each parent. Be prepared to consider changes to the routine you have agreed with your ex if your children want to change the arrangements – and be particularly flexible with teenagers.
  • Listen to your children and make time for them, giving them your full attention – and turn off mobile phones when you spend time with them. Don’t force your child to talk to you, but reassure him or her that you are there to listen when they are ready.
  • Keep your own personal issues and feelings about the separation out of any discussions with your children and focus on how they are each feeling.
  • Try to counter the negative impact of separation or divorce with positive statements about the children such as praising them for achievements at school or helping around the home.

About Vanessa

hlw Keeble Hawson partner, Vanessa Fox, marks 25 years as head of the firm’s family law department in 2016.

Collaboratively trained and a qualified mediator, she has modernised South Yorkshire Resolution since becoming chair in 2013 and is also a member of the Law Society’s Family Law Panel and the Children Panel.

She can be contacted at on 0114 290 6232 or on vanessafox@hlwkeeblehawson.co.uk.

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