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Do Adults Always Know Best? Tips on Listening to Children in Divorce Proceedings

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Children are often at the heart of divorce and dissolution, but sometimes their voices get lost.

For most parents, the happiness and welfare of their children is the most important thing in the world. However, when divorce talks are in full swing and both parents have different views on what is best, disputes can quickly arise and make the situation very stressful, especially for the children.

If you are worried about the impact of your divorce or dissolution on your children, there are many steps you can take to support them. While it is tempting to try to hide what is going on from the children, being honest, talking to them and listening to their feelings can actually help them adjust to their new normal.

Putting your children’s feelings first

Children can be surprisingly observant and picking up tension during divorce can be very confusing and upsetting, so protecting them from disputes is essential. However, children’s feelings and views are also important. Leading children’s mental health charity, Young Minds, provides some great tips for supporting children through separation, including:

  • “Place the feelings and needs of your child above adult feelings and considerations.”
  • “Children can adjust to loss when they can rely on:
    • Stability;
    • Being given honest information;
    • Encouraged to ask questions;
    • Participating in family discussions; and
    • Turning to a trusted adult for comfort.”

Responding to your children’s feelings on the divorce or separation

Being aware of how you react to your children’s feelings is just as important as listening to them.

Cafcass – an organisation that represents children while involved in family court proceedings – recently responded to a complaint from a young person who felt scared to talk about how they felt about the contact arrangements with their father.

Cafcass decided that this young person was absolutely right. They stated:

“Listening to this young woman talk to us about her experience of us and the impact of our work on her was a serious lesson in never assuming that adults know best. She taught us the value of listening and also the need to check always whether we are!”

As a result, Cafcass, in consultation with the Family Justice Young People’s Board and the young person who made the complaint, added a new point to their Top Tips for Separated Parents:

“Don’t make me scared to say what I think about my arrangements for fear of being told off or treated badly by you if you don’t agree.”

Young Minds encourages parents to remember that children often go through feelings of grief and loss during divorce and separation. They may be angry, scared, confused. It is important for parents to remember this and reassure their children that it is okay to be sad, while also maintaining discipline and reinforcing healthy ways to deal with angry feelings.

Do judges take children’s views into account during family court proceedings?

When judges are asked to make decisions on behalf of families in divorce, dissolution and separation proceedings, such as deciding where a child should live and how much contact they should have with each parent, they are legally required to put the best interests of the child first.

Judges use a list of consideration called the welfare checklist to help them make decisions. The first point on the welfare checklist is “the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of their age and understanding)”.

This means that judges have to take the child’s feelings into account. They will usually place more weight on the wishes of older children, aged 11-12 onwards. However, every child is different and will have different levels of understanding and emotional maturity.

It is Cafcass’s role to speak to the child and work out their wishes and feelings, although sometimes the judge themselves will also speak to the child.

The child’s wishes are not the only consideration. The judge will also take into account:

  • The child’s physical, emotional and educational needs
  • The likely effect of any change in circumstances
  • Their age, sex, background and any other relevant characteristics
  • Any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering
  • The capability of the parents and any other relevant person to meet the child’s needs
  • All the powers the court has to make orders in relation to children

Using alternative dispute resolution to sort out divorce childcare arrangements

Although judges are great at putting children first in family law proceedings, it is understandable to feel anxious about a third party making decisions about your family. Court proceedings can be stressful and intimidating, especially for children.

Sorting out divorce and dissolution matters involving children out-of-court is the ideal way to resolve family law issues. Not only is avoiding court less stressful, but it is also usually faster and cheaper so you can get your separation sorted and focus on helping your children adjust to their new normal.

Often, having the help of a practical and supportive family law solicitor is all you need. At Henriques Griffiths, several of our Family Law team are members of Resolution, which is a network for legal professionals who specialise in helping families find positive solutions without going to court. We regularly help parents make strong parenting plans that work for every member of the family.

Another popular method of alternative dispute resolution is mediation. This is where you sit down with your ex-partner to sort out issues such as childcare with a qualified mediator. The mediator does not take sides, they are there to guide your conversations and defuse conflict.

It is usually a requirement to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to explore whether mediation is right for you before you can apply to court.

Our family law solicitors can also provide advice about going to mediation and refer you if you decide to give it a go.

Do you need help sorting out arrangements for children on divorce, civil partnership dissolution or separation?

If you need advice about arranging childcare or resolving other children related legal issues, get in touch with our specialist child law solicitors in Bristol.