Last week’s Children’s Mental Health Week 2021 took as its theme the importance of ‘expressing yourself’. Various events and initiatives highlighted ways of encouraging children (and adults) to explore creative ways of sharing their thoughts, feelings and ideas.

It’s an alarming fact that around three children in every primary school class has a mental health problem, and many more struggle with challenges from bullying to bereavement. Another terrible side effect of the pandemic has been a severe impact on children’s mental health. Being out of school and isolated from friends, changes to normal routines and staying cooped up inside have naturally taken a toll.  Almost 15% of parents have rated their child’s mental health as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ and 31% said it is ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ than before the pandemic.

Sadly, as a family solicitor it’s not uncommon to be told by clients of their children having real difficulties as their parents go through a separation.  This is the case in normal times and it must be even more difficult for children at this point in time. 

Children are of course all different and each will react differently to their parents’ separation and the new living arrangements that come with it. But there is no doubt it will affect every child and can give rise to all manner of intense feelings, from a sense of loss and/or rejection; to fear at being left alone; to anger at one or both of their parents.  

Crucially, research suggests that how a child is likely to adapt over time is less about time simply passing and more about the levels of parental conflict both pre- and post-separation. In short, a separation in which there is very high level of conflict is likely to affect children (and the parents themselves) more severely and for longer. In fact, high conflict is also likely to undermine the quality of parenting itself - obviously damaging for the children, and especially so during a period in which children most need the best parental support. 

Parents can also unintentionally pass on to their children their own feelings of anger, betrayal and stress, adding to the worries the children already have. Clearly, parents who force themselves – in acrimonious separations - to minimise conflict and to adopt as civil and amicable a relationship as possible with their former partner are first and foremost doing so for their children’s sake.  

As a more general point the age of a child is also likely to impact on how a separation affects them. Typically, a separation will tend to intensify a younger child's dependence on their parents but accelerate an adolescent's independence. Similarly, a separation is more likely to provoke a more regressive response in a younger child and a more aggressive response in an adolescent.

Given the above, it is troubling that some 29% of parents admit they would feel embarrassed if their child wanted counselling, and 34% feel that other parents would judge them. Clearly there is still a lot of misunderstanding and stigma to be worked against.

There are many things parents can do to help their children struggling with mental health and the initiatives during Children Mental Health Week have been a great way of drawing more attention to them. Online resources and websites are an easy first stop, with guidance and useful links from bodies such as CAFCASS and the NSPCC. There are local government supported initiatives such as Kooth.com; the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS); different types of children’s counselling and therapy are available – including play or art therapy, for example - and resources such as books and toys which relate directly to the topic of parents’ separation and children’s mental wellbeing.

Hopefully, initiatives like last week’s will continue to bring children's mental health and the support available more into focus. The first priority surely is to destigmatise the whole issue for everyone, including parents themselves. Interestingly, 50% of parents said the pandemic has made them more likely to encourage their child to have counselling if they need it. Perhaps, by affecting so many, the pandemic is forcing us to look anew at 'mental health' - maybe even those who might previously have denied its importance or found it embarrassing or preferred to ignore it altogether. Longer term, it might even help the way we think about the subject? It's worth being optimistic.