How parents and children experience separation
Divorce  |  Family law

How parents and children experience separation

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Walker Family Law
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Separating from a partner, or having your parents separate, can obviously be an extremely daunting prospect. Few people faced with the prospect will have much idea what to

How parents and children experience separation

expect. In this article, we explore how parents and children experience separation.

And up until now there has been little real understanding of what it is like to experience separation.

A new research study on the subject is therefore very welcome. Its findings should help those going through separation know what to expect, including in terms of available support, and will hopefully improve the experience of all parents and children who go through the process in future.

Key findings

The findings of the study were based upon data from 42 family members (mothers, fathers and children) across Wales and the South West of England, who had experienced separation. They were interviewed by a research team at the University of Bristol, and the study was published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which seeks to improve the lives of children and families by putting data and evidence at the heart of the family justice system.

The study made a number of key findings, including:

  1. That separation is a process, not a single event. The families in the study described a wide range of difficulties prior to separation, and had exhausted attempts to resolve them before deciding to separate. The decision to separate therefore came after a considerable amount of emotional and relational effort had been used.

For children, the separation was never complete and evolved according to changing circumstances, such as a parent moving house or starting a new relationship, each of which had implications for the other parent.

  1. That resources make a difference to the separation process. The study found that: “Experiences of separation were significantly shaped by access to resources. Those with access to supportive, informed and well-resourced networks received good levels of support from friends and family, including getting advice or practical help, financial support, or help finding new accommodation from their wider family.”

Support from friends and family can of course be extremely important, although the only proviso we would add is that friends and family are not necessarily reliable sources of legal advice, which should always be sought from an expert lawyer.

  1. That parents’ expectations of support (counselling, going to mediation, using solicitors, and going to court) are not always matched by their experiences.

They appreciated the emotional support they received from counselling, which they valued as a space to process their feelings about the separation.

As to mediation, some parents found that it could be frustrating, for example where the mediator was not effectively able to identify and manage the power dynamic between the parents.

Some parents reported good experiences obtaining advice from solicitors, but obviously there were significant barriers to access advice, because of the cost and unavailability of legal aid.

As to court, parents reported that they avoided it if possible (contrary to the commonly held belief that many use court as the first port of call), and those who did go to court felt it was an alien and intimidating environment, with unfamiliar processes.

  1. That children want to have their voices heard in the separation. This has long been known, but it bears repeating: children should be kept informed throughout the separation process, and their views should be taken into account, especially if they are older.

But this is clearly not always happening. Children told the researchers that they had little information or participation in decisions that affected them. Further, some older children felt they had not been listened to in relation to court decisions about who they would spend time with, which left them feeling distressed.


The study made various recommendations, including:

  1. Making support more accessible, informative, realistic and emotionally aware.
  2. Developing a ‘safety net’ of support for separating families that includes authoritative information, legal advice, housing and emotional support.
  3. Giving more thought to how parents are supported to help their children through the separation process by hearing their wishes and feelings, as well as providing them with age appropriate information.
  4. Making further efforts to divert families from court, focussing more on advice, guidance and emotional support for parents and their children.
  5. Lastly, for cases that do go to court, reviewing the language and court processes to make a more positive experience, with children being heard earlier in the process, so that they feel their views have helped to influence decisions.

Ian Walker Family Law & Mediation Solicitors are award-winning family solicitors and are recognised as one of the leading law firms for family law in the South West. For expert advice, please contact the team.

For anyone going through separation or divorce, our Divorce Support Club is a free service aimed at helping people who may be finding the process overwhelming. Within the Divorce Support Club, you’ll find information across a wealth of topics to help guide you through your own situation.