Spy kids: Leading mental health charity warns divorced parents against using their children to snoop on their ex’s new partner








Monday 12th September 2016:  Leading law firm Mishcon de Reya has partnered with children’s mental health charity Place2Be to warn that the emotional cost of a divorce on children can far outweigh any legal costs incurred. Many children feel distress when they are caught between two families and the pressure that is sometimes placed on them as a ‘go between.’ Some parents expect them to reveal intimate details of their ex partner’s life and choice of new partner, even though asking children to communicate this information can place them in conflict.

This is one of the biggest struggles children face in response to parental separation, as revealed in a new book, Splitting Up – A Child's Guide to a Grown Up Problem, which will be officially launched and available for immediate sale on Amazon from 12 September 2016. In the book, children of various ages and from different backgrounds - with one shared experience - offer up their feelings on the grown up problem of splitting up. They give advice to separating parents on how best to support their child, and offer their support to other children going through the same thing.

Psychologists have written that 11-15% of the children of divorcing parents are suffering the effects of implacable hostility, whereby after separation one parent denies access to, or contact with, their child(ren). In the UK, where over 100,000 divorces are granted every year, the estimate would equate to over 10,000 children every year.

Parents often believe - wrongly - that their children do not understand that they are unhappy and they wait until the children are in bed to attack or accuse each other of their failings. However, some children hear through walls, listen to the rows and often despair. They are usually confused and unsettled by the ill-feeling and this can negatively affect their behaviour and academic engagement. These circumstances of course affect each child differently.

Typically, boys tend to “act out” and become aggressive or non-compliant and disengage from lessons. Girls more often “act in” and can become withdrawn or depressed and insecure. Small children - both boys and girls - can suddenly begin to wet the bed and have nightmares. In some cases, teenage children can begin to develop self-harming behaviours such as eating disorders or cutting themselves in a desperate attempt to divert their parents’ attention to their despair and unhappiness. They are frequently fearful.

I did have a photo of my dad on my bedside, but she didn’t feel comfortable with it after a few weeks, so she asked me if I could put it away, and I said, if it was what she wanted, then yeah.

I don’t know where it is. I think maybe my mum threw it away. I wish I still had it.

Anneliese, 9 years old

I live with my mum and I visit my dad. When I see my dad I cry because I really miss him so much. I want daddy to come home. I’m now allowed to speak to him on the phone and I go and stay at my dad’s house.

Hannah, 8 years old

I wish my mum and my dad had stayed friends. Because now they have kind of moved away from each other, mum and dad don’t really talk anymore. They face away from each other when we open the door and dad’s started standing at the pathway and we hug him, he leaves, and then mum only opens the door once he’s gone. And she even opens it so she can’t see him. But, I think it’s a bit hard for her because dad’s found another person in his life. I really care for my mum. And my dad too. I love them both. My mum doesn’t really like it when I bring stuff to dad’s, so I think I’m gonna have to ask my step mum to buy some new wellies for me with my pocket money.

Millie, 10 years old

The book is comprised of six chapters:

-     Breaking the news: the shouting and the silence

-     When a family falls apart: pain, loneliness and worry

-     Torn in two: caught in the middle

-     New home, new family, new routine: living a double life

-     Take it from me: advice for children of separated parents

-     The way it should be: advice for separated parents

At the end of each chapter, Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, a Senior Clinical Consultant at Place2Be, offers insight and practical guidance on how to address some of the issues the children raise in each chapter.

Mishcon de Reya is calling for fundamental change to the way we approach divorce. Litigation should be the last resort for resolving disputes involving children as it can be a divisive and traumatic experience for all parties involved. Court proceedings also do not address the underlying issues in a way that enable parents to work together to reach solutions that are in the best interests of their offspring. Given the low impact of compulsory mediation, Mishcon de Reya is calling for greater therapeutic input to resolve disputes funded by the public purse. Instead of focusing on the destructive nature of court proceedings, parents would engage in focusing on their child’s needs before their own.

Commenting on the book, Dame Benita Refson DBE, President of Place2Be, said:

"This book has been created to give children's voices a platform. We believe they are not heard soon enough. The children who contributed represent the views and experiences of other children in our society who find themselves caught between parental conflict and separation.”  

"We want to encourage adults to engage with their children to really understand how their actions affect them, both in the short and long term.”

"Here, we are offering a necessary insight into what children of separated parents are going through, advice on how to help them and an opportunity for parents to start a dialogue with their children. Without an outlet for their pain, young people will continue to suffer, and often this suffering will be in silence."

Sandra Davis, Head of the Family department at Mishcon de Reya added:

"Taking into account the welfare, wishes and feelings of children during a family dispute is an enshrined legal principle, but without the concerted effort of parents to prioritise their children over their difficulties with one another, the law can only do so much.”

"It is only through listening to children that we can begin to develop a long term mechanism to ensure they are protected during and following their parents' separation. And never has this been more important. According to data released by the ONS at the end of last year, almost half (48%) of couples divorcing in 2013 had at least one child aged under 16 living in the family. And that's just married couples. Cohabiting families are the fastest growing family unit - the number of children living in opposite sex cohabiting families has more than doubled, from 0.9 million in 1996 to 2.1 million in 2015 according to a House of Commons briefing paper published earlier this year.”

"Society no longer follows the traditional structure for which the law was developed, and yet we continue to see courts being forced to make decisions for modern families that will inform the lives of the children within them. Alternatives to litigation such as therapy or mediation have been shown to deliver better outcomes for children and their parents.  Public finances should be more widely used in supporting these services." 

“Confusion, loneliness, worry and the multitude of other feelings that accompany the breakdown of a family don’t have a gender, class, race or religion. It is not just our parental responsibility to our children that is vital, it is our societal responsibility to listen and seek to understand what children tell us about how we can serve their needs better in the event of a family breakdown.”

Dr Stephen Adams-Langley of Place2Be epitomises this debate in his advice to parents that they “have to put more effort into the love they have for their children than into the animosity they may have for each other.”


About Place2Be

Place2Be is the UK's leading children's mental health charity providing in-school support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff.

Our support helps improve children’s attitudes to learning. It builds children’s, young people’s and families’ resilience, providing them with brighter prospects and more hopeful futures.

Our school-based teams of professional counsellors and therapists build strong links with students, staff and wider school community to help develop a ‘mentally healthy’ ethos within the school environment.

We are also a leading provider of specialist training and university-validated professional qualifications for those who work with children, helping them to enhance their understanding of children’s mental health and wellbeing, and ultimately improving the support that they can offer children and young people.

About Mishcon de Reya

Based in London with offices in New York, Mishcon de Reya services an international community of clients and provides advice in situations where the constraints of geography often do not apply. The work we undertake is cross-border, multi-jurisdictional and complex.

Our clients are dynamic and sophisticated and we reflect that in our belief in challenging the conventional or accepted ways of working. We like to solve problems quickly. We fiercely guard our clients’ interests, recognising the significant nexus between business affairs and personal affairs and the ways in which this affects our clients.

We appreciate the privilege of sitting alongside our clients as a trusted advisor. Building strong personal connections to our clients and their businesses is important to us. It is for these reasons we say ‘It’s business. But it’s personal’.