Love Lose Live published 4 February 2016

Putting children first

We should all remember – children don't get divorced. They don't marry or cohabit. They simply want to live with their parents until they grow up. Or most of them do, violent and dysfunctional parents excepted. So when couples divorce, the build-up may have been long and painful or it may have been non-existent. Either way, usually there is some element of control, of choice, or of self-determination at the very least on the part of one, if not both parents.

But however it happened for the adults, it will probably be a shock to their offspring whatever age they are. The parents may have had time to adjust to their grief at the end of their relationship or they may not, but the children will for the most part have a lot of sadness to deal with, a stage which often starts just as one or both parents are in recovery. Children then mourn the loss of the family life together that they used to enjoy, the standard of living, holidays and resources that two parents are better able to provide than one. They may have to change schools or move house. They may be manipulated: they may be asked to give up important relationships with grandparents, other relations and friends that they love; they may be required to choose between their parents, forced to take sides; they may be prevented from seeing a previously much-loved parent. They may feel guilty, and think that it’s all their fault. Parents are so wrapped up in themselves at this time, they frequently become emotionally unavailable to their children. Children of separating and divorcing couples can suffer in so many ways. So what should parents in this situation do? I suggest they should read Penelope Leach's book Family Breakdown: Helping children hang on to both their parents, separate their needs and wants from those of their children and put their children first. This is a tall order, but it can be done. No ifs, no buts, no maybes. If parents love their children enough they'll make that love mean something by remembering that love is a verb. It is something you do or don’t do – because children matter.

Mary Banham-Hall, mediator and family lawyer, author of Love Lose Live: Divorce is a Rollercoaster, published 4 February 2016.