This blog is focused on the second Family Solutions Group report called A Child’s Right to Matter which was published in November 2023. The first report “What about Me” was published in 2020. I wanted to write about it because I think it matters (not intended to be a pun). You can simply read the report or the executive summary and I would encourage you to do so.

The publication starts with some important statistics:

  • In 2021 there were 2.3 million separated families in the UK, with 3.6 million children
  • Almost half of children are growing up outside the traditional nuclear family
  • 44% of babies at the start of the century did not live with both biological parents their entire childhood
  • Every year approximately 280,000 children have parents who separate

That is a huge number of children and shockingly no government department takes overall responsibility for them. They are, by virtue of what they are living through, vulnerable. The Department of Education looks at their education and their child protection, and the Ministry of Justice looks at applications for child arrangements orders and the like through court. Many children are never subject to court proceedings and so are simply swallowed up in the number of children going to school. They don’t automatically have any specialist support, or even an automatic safe place to talk about what’s happening to them.

As part of this report the Family Solutions Group carried out two consultations. One was with a cross section of experienced multi-disciplinary professionals and the second was with 112 members of the Youth Parliament who were aged 11-18. I just wanted to pull out some of the things that leapt out to me as part of this report:

  • Parents are not always the best judge of how their children are coping
  • Children need access to a listening ear which doesn’t have to specialist counselling or support
  • Outcomes are better when children of a suitable age are consulted about arrangements but this rarely happens
  • 74% of children consulted didn’t know who to ask for for support and the majority of children didn’t know about any support services that could help them
  • 67% felt teachers didn’t understand their needs when going through a separation
  • Young people said they had to grow up more quickly and choose which parent they preferred, which they felt was an unfair question. They said parents could be manipulative.
  • Children talked about things being done to them rather than done with them.
  • One clinical psychologist put it that ‘children need more rights and fewer responsibilities’.
  • This quote really stood out to me given the large numbers of children of separated parents we’re talking about: ‘Teachers are trained in how to spot someone being a terrorist or FGM, but the normal signs that a child might be going through a family separation are overlooked in our training.’
  • This comment from a 14 year old male also stood out to me ‘‘Sadly this happens all too often, it’s tough and it will be hard, and you will feel guilty spending more time with one parent than the other, but you shouldn’t; it is not your fault, and you are trying to find your way they need to listen to what you want and why’.

What does this mean if you’re a separating parent?

It means you get a great heads up on what your child might be thinking and feeling. Have a look at the report (or the summary) and see the kind of things young people said. Secondly, talk to your children. Don’t try to make things alright or to deny how they are feeling. Ask them what they’re worried about and listen and acknowledge their worries. You may think they’re unfounded but if your children are thinking it then it’s a worry for them. You may be able to provide reassurance but don’t dismiss it. Thirdly, how good are you at keeping your children away from your conflict? Do your children truly know that they still have two parents that love them and that each parent is 100% OK with them seeing, spending time with and loving the other parent?

What does it mean if you work with separating couples or individuals?

Bluntly, it means we all need to pay more attention to the children. This is tough because the vast majority of family practitioners will never meet the children of their clients. Here are some simple things I think we as practitioners can do, and do better (and I absolutely include myself in the doing better suggestion):

  • Ask and ask again about the children. How are they coping? What support are they getting? What are they worried about? Are they being involved in decision making in an age appropriate way?
  • When you’re discussing steps to take do you talk about the impact things have on the children? For example, when a lawyer gives advice for a parent to stay in the home to ensure their rights are protected do they acknowledge and discuss the impact on children of continuing to live where there is conflict? How can this be managed or ideally lessened?
  • Have you explained how the children’s voices might be heard? This might be informally by parents or it might be through Child Inclusive Mediation? Do you feel you have the skills and the information to explain these things?

For further guidance you may find this blog on connecting with your child after separation by Mette Theilmann helpful.