How Court Proceedings can Damage Children of Separating Parents

How Court Proceedings can Damage Children of Separating Parents

In many of our blogs we have looked at the emotional effect of parents’ separation on the children involved. Fighting and involving the children in the disputes will cause stress and anxiety, putting unnecessary  psychological burdens on to young shoulders.

In an ideal world, living and contact arrangements should be worked out between the parents, with the children’s best interests at heart. There is a lot of evidence to show that parental collaboration is associated with better child adjustment. However, for some separating couples they are unable to reach a mutual agreement by themselves or through mediation. So, litigation or court proceedings begin and the children become involved in stressful hearings where they will see their parent’s battle things out. Currently in the UK, around 10% of separating parents go through court proceedings.

High Conflict Families

Often in these higher conflict families, where court is the only option, the children are much less likely to adjust and often the damage has already been inflicted whilst the parents were still together. Some typical high conflict parent behaviours can be:

  • Asking children to carry hostile messages to the other parent
  • Arguing openly in front of the children
  • Asking children intrusive or accusatory questions about the other parent
  • Creating a need in the children to hide information
  • Creating a need for the children to hide positive feelings for the other parent
  • Putting down the other parent in the presence of the children

Children who blame themselves for their parents’ fighting have also been found to be at greater risk of poor social and emotional adjustment following their parents’ separation.

Lengthy Court Process

At all stages of the process you as separating parents will be encouraged to arrive at a mutual agreement regarding the arrangements for the children without court proceedings.

  • Firstly you will have to attend a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting) to determine whether mediation can provide a resolution to dispute of child arrangements.
  • If mediation fails or is not appropriate, court proceedings can be started by applying for a court order.
  • Aside from where the children should spend their time the court can also deal with specific issues such as which school a child will attend or prevent one parent taking the children abroad for example.
  • CAFCASS, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service for England and Wales will provide advice to the courts about the wellbeing of children and their families. They will usually talk to each of the parents on the phone before the first court appointment and write a letter to the court.
  • At the first court hearing, the judge or magistrate will read what Cafcass has written and may listen to what the parents have to say and make a decision. A report by Cafcass will usually only be ordered if the court is concerned that there are issues that concern a child’s welfare.
  • If a report is ordered there will be considerable delay as CAFCASS will want to see both the parents and the children and possibly the school and anyone else involved in the child’s care. Possibly 3 to 6 months later a hearing date will be arranged, at all stages you will be encouraged to settle out of court. A judge may delay hearing dates several times to encourage resolution.

The whole process can be extremely lengthy and very stressful for all involved. This can be particularly hard for the children, whose possibly limited understanding of what is going on, coupled with stressed or angry parents, making them feel very confused.

Parental Conflict Damages Children’s Mental Health

In March 2016, the EIF (Early Intervention Foundation) were commissioned by the Department of Work and Pensions to carry out a review of ‘What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children’. EIF collaborated with Professor Gordon Harold, a world expert in child development and the role of the family in children’s psychological development and his team at the University of Sussex to produce the report.

The key findings of this report include:

  • Parents embroiled in hostile and distressed relationships are typically more hostile and aggressive toward their children and are less responsive to their children’s needs.
  • Children who witness severe, ongoing and unresolved inter-parental conflict can be aggressive, hostile and violent. Others can develop low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, be suicidal. It also reduces their academic performance and limits the development of their social and emotional skills and ability to form positive relationships themselves, all of which will affect the long term life chances of children.
  • Inter-parental conflict can adversely affect both the mother-child and father-child relationships, with evidence suggesting that the association between inter-parental conflict and negative parenting practices may be stronger for the father-child relationship compared to the mother-child relationship.
  • Interventions which seek to improve parenting skills in the presence of frequent, severe and unresolved inter-parental conflict – without addressing that conflict – are unlikely to be successful in improving child outcomes.

There has been much research recently into the outcomes for children exposed to destructive relationships/conflict. In this report, a summary which includes the findings of research carried out by several independent bodies is very telling:

  • A common outcome of destructive conflict between parents is the development of emotional or behavioural difficulties for children (Grych et al., 2003; Cummings et al., 2006).
  • Children’s own social relationships can also be affected, with children prone to developing poor interpersonal skills (Finger et al., 2010). As a result, children and young people in high conflict homes may have difficulties getting on with others, such as parents (Benson et al., 2008), siblings (Stocker and Youngblade, 1999), teachers, peers (Parke et al., 2001) and, in the longer term, romantic partners (Cui and Fincham, 2010).
  • Children are also at risk of a range of health difficulties (Troxel and Matthews, 2004; El-Sheikh et al., 2008), including: digestive problems, fatigue (El-Sheikh et al., 2001), reduced physical growth (Montgomery et al., 1997), and headaches and abdominal pains (Stiles, 2002).
  • They may also suffer with problems sleeping (Mannering et al., 2011). Difficulties can extend into school, with children less able to settle, more likely to have trouble getting on with peers, and less likely to achieve academically because of the impact of conflict between parents on children’s cognitive abilities and attention (Harold et al., 2007).

Can we Help?

Settling out of court and reaching agreement through mediation is a much less stressful process for all concerned. If you would like further information or advice about our mediation services for families please get in touch on 0117 924 3880.