Before 2021, couples seeking divorce risked getting caught up in a blame game, unable to separate unless one party was deemed to be at fault. Now, through ‘no- fault’ divorce, the first major reform to divorce since 1970, couples are able to separate more amicably, without finger pointing and conflict.
The implications of this for families, and in particular children, are significant. In a 2018 YouGov poll, 79% of respondents agreed that conflict arising from divorce negatively affects children’s mental health. By allowing parents to admit the marriage has simply run its course, children feel less torn between the two, without the pressure of taking sides with the parent who has been ‘wronged’.
But the legal system is still not perfect for families, and support for the children of separating parents continues to fall short.
With half of all children coming from separated households, and the effects of divorce on children well cited, it is crucial that we ensure the system works in the best way possible to help children grow up happy and healthy.
Recently, the Government suggested that mediation becomes mandatory in all suitable low level family court cases, excluding, of course, those including allegations or a history of domestic violence. This, alongside the current MoJ consultation, will help the legal system improve to better protect children from witnessing their parents work out family disputes in court. But there is still more that can be done to diffuse proceedings and reduce the conflict involved.
One of the biggest changes we all need to address is in language. Language matters – 99% of family professionals said small changes in language used in the divorce proceedings could make a big difference to a child’s experience.
This is because lots of the vocabulary used currently furthers the animosity between parents by pitting them against each other. Words such as ‘battles’, ‘versus’, ‘fight’, ‘opponent’, ‘dispute’ and impersonal references to ‘the child’ are not conducive to nurturing collaborative solutions.
Making the language softer, by using first names for example, shifts the discussions towards finding a joint solution that is best for the whole family. This is something the Family Solutions Group have been calling for, a campaign we are firmly supporting.
At Triple P, this is something we are conscious of too – our programme to support parents going through separation and/or divorce is purposefully named ‘Family Transitions’, helping the couple understand their divorce as a familial change, and not as a fracture.
Language and communication are of course important between family members as well. It is imperative for the way children process a separation, that parents are offered support. This is an upsetting time for the couple and it can be hard for them to know how to communicate what is happening with their family. Evidence-based parenting programmes that focus on family communication and co-parenting help parents develop the skills to resolve conflicts with former partners, as well as supporting their child(ren) and helping to build a new family identity.
By helping children understand as much as possible about what is happening, you help them process the situation and reassure them they are still important and loved. Not only this, a strong relationship between parents post-divorce will help them co-parent effectively after the separation.
Programmes such as Family Transitions work, and support better outcomes for families. The challenge is how to make them accessible to the number of families that might benefit. Current investment by the Department of Work and Pensions into the Reducing Parental Conflict programme has gone some way towards this. However, we need more scalable routes such as remote and self-directed online versions of these programmes – and at the end of the day they all cost money to access.
One thought is to widen the scope of the Family Mediation Voucher Scheme to allow these vouchers to be spent on parenting programmes. We believe in the importance of mediation, but also know the emotional readiness to engage is critical to its success. Expanding the scope of the voucher scheme to allow attendance at an evidence-based co-parenting programme alongside mediation, will help to support parents, allowing them to better engage with the separation process. By making these vouchers accessible prior to the filing of the C100 too, mediation and parenting programmes will be genuinely helpful, rather than becoming a tick-box on the way to court.
The family courts are moving in the right direction, with the no-fault divorce and the shift to mandatory mediation being the latest successes for parents and children. But there are still changes that need to be made. For any child, the separation of their parents can be tough. We need to ensure that the process affects them as little as possible by taking the ‘battle’ out of it, and ensuring parents are supported with proven tools so that everyone is given the best chance to understand and adapt to the new family situation.
About Matt Buttery
Matt is the CEO of Triple P UK & Ireland and holds responsibility for the dissemination of the Triple P – Positive Parenting Program® across the UK and Ireland. He is a passionate advocate of using evidence-based practice to help families and communities develop strong, healthy relationships and resilience.
Matt has held various senior roles in the voluntary, statutory and private sectors. He has influenced and implemented health and social care policy across government and held senior positions in charities. He is an Honorary Associate Professor in Family and Parenting Practice and Policy at the University of Warwick, Chair of the Island of Ireland Parenting Network, and is a spokesperson on children and family issues, appearing in national and local media.
Matt previously fostered for over 10 years, and is a former Trustee of the UK National Academy for Parenting Practitioners (NAPP).