How to Behave in Front of Children During a Divorce

Family | 1st August 2017

During a divorce, the priority should be the welfare and wellbeing of children. Too often we see them used as a pawn in a messy break-up.

It’s important to recognise from the outset that children react to stressful situations in very different ways to adults. They do not have the same frame of reference to work from, so to them the feelings of abandonment, confusion, loneliness and even anger are new and often completely overwhelming. Often, children will blame themselves for the break-up of their parents’ relationship, and it can be very difficult to convince them otherwise.

Because children can find it difficult to express their emotions in terms that an adult will understand, they can also ‘shut down’, and keep their feelings hidden. So it’s not unusual for parents to underestimate the impact their marital issues are having on their children. Little Johnny probably isn’t ‘fine’ by any stretch of the imagination – he’s hurting badly, and unable to communicate how he’s really feeling.

Parents should try to keep the confrontation to an absolute minimum, especially in front of the children. If you have to have a row, then do it where your children can’t witness or hear it. And don’t underestimate how quickly children can pick up on an ‘atmosphere’. Children are extremely empathic, and can be effected just as much by frosty silences as they can by mum and dad’s screaming matches.

Have a plan

A parenting plan can help make the transition period much smoother, and give you both a point of reference that’s agreed and in place before you start divorce proceedings. At this point, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A third party can often mediate between two partners to ensure the welfare of the children remains a priority from start to finish. Remember that this part of a divorce can become highly emotionally charged, so a mediator can often help to keep a sense of perspective and to calm the situation.

Parental responsibilities

While mothers have parental responsibility from birth (unless the child has been put up for adoption) the situation can often be less than clear for fathers. If you were married at the time of the child’s birth, then you have parental responsibility. However, if you were not married then it will depend on the date of birth of the child. If the child was born after 1st December 2003 and the father is named on the birth certificate, then they have responsibility.

Who should the child live with?

In most cases, the parents will decide who the child should live with on a permanent basis, while granting the other parent contact. If this can be agreed amicably, then there should be no need for a court order.

However, if the courts become involved in the arrangement, then they will look at a number of factors before embodying the arrangements into an order. The order is known as a ‘Child Arrangements Order’. This can cover with whom the child lives (residence) and what time they spend with their other parent (contact).

How the courts act

Throughout the procedure, the wishes of the child should be carefully considered, and is the top priority as far as the courts are concerned. The older the child, the more likely they are to have an influence over whom they live with, and what contact time with the other parent is appropriate..

The courts will use the Children’s Act 1989 as their check list when dealing with any break up that involves children. But it is still a parent’s responsibility to make sure their child’s welfare is a priority when away from the courtroom and lawyers.

This includes providing a safe and secure environment that a child can feel at ease in, with the emphasis on ‘secure’. The upheaval that a divorce causes can put enormous strain on a child’s perception of stability, and can be unsettling. The relationship with your partner may have come to an end, but you will remain parents to your children for their lifetime.


This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

Vanessa McMurtrie

Partner, Family

Vanessa trained and then qualified as a solicitor in 1991 with Hart Brown working in the Cobham office, family department for a decade. She then worke...