Words have meaning, and the way we use them matters. Take words like “bitter”, “battle”, “fight”, “anger”, “revenge” – all could aptly be used to describe seismic conflicts from human history. But rather than pulling them from the Wikipedia page about the Battles of Hastings in 1066 or Waterloo in 1815, they are instead a selection of those that appear in recent media stories about high-profile divorces.
And herein lies the problem. This use of language shows just how much work there is still to do if we are to minimise the damage divorces can cause, to children and parents alike.
It’s important to firstly recognise that strong progress is being made in the UK, with the introduction of no-fault divorce the most obvious example of positive change.
However, numbers of divorces are on the rise, with ONS statistics showing that half of all children come from separated households, and there has been a year-on-year increase in the number of separations/divorces from April 2022 to April 2023. With more children being affected by separation and divorce, understanding and mitigating against the potential negative impact on children is of paramount importance.
If legislative changes to introduce no fault divorce represent a solid practical foundation, the next step is for family lawyers to help drive deeper attitudinal change to ensure we are doing the maximum to support children’s emotional wellbeing.
Deescalating the language used by legal professionals, parents, and the media, is imperative. Too often people fall into the trap of using adversarial terms like “battle”, “tussle”, and “fight”.
Softening language, by using words like “co-parenting”, “compassion” and “our” children , can change the focus of the discussion, moving it towards finding solutions that are best for the whole family. Personalising the proceedings helps too. According to the Family Solutions Group, 76% of family professionals said that the use of personal names, rather than terms like “applicant” would help reduce the impact on children. Family law practitioners have the power to effect positive change, and to alter expectations and perceptions children have of divorce.
It’s something we try to practise as we preach at Triple P – Positive Parenting Program ®; one of our own courses on parental separation is called “Family Transitions”, precisely because our work with children and adults alike has shown us the positive effect of positioning this as a change in family structure, not a fracture.
Family support programmes can also play a much closer role alongside the legal system in heading off challenges around anxiety, behaviour, and potential conflict before they arise. One practical step that we at Triple P would like to see taken is to broaden the scope of the Family Mediation Voucher Scheme.
Expanding what the vouchers can be spent on to cover a broader range of support, including evidence based parenting programmes, will further benefit parents and children.
We know from randomised controlled trials that programmes like Family Transitions work for families. The challenge is to make them accessible to as many families as possible. Mediation is important, but so too is developing the emotional readiness to engage.
Secondly, we advocate using these vouchers earlier in the process of divorce, making them accessible prior to the filing of the C100. This will ensure that programmes play an integral role alongside mediation, rather than being a tick box exercise on the way to court.
Early intervention and the offer of support can ensure that parents feel equipped with a range of techniques to support their child through a time of potential upheaval.
With child mental health consistently rising since the outbreak of the pandemic, it has never been more crucial to be proactive in protecting the emotional wellbeing of children. We are making steps in the right direction, but only when we’ve lost the ‘battle’ and lost the ‘war’ from divorce will we be delivering the best outcomes for children.
Associate Professor Matt Buttery is CEO of Triple P UK & Ireland