COVID-19 is responsible for a rise in divorces, but this has also had a huge impact on children

There has been a huge surge in divorces during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many couples have struggled with the strain of spending time indoors together and this has been especially hard when they are also living with children.

The stress, lack of breathing space and restricted movement brought about by the pandemic has played a huge role in causing marriage breakdowns amongst couples of all ages – from newly-weds to long-standing relationships. Unfortunately, this situation is particularly hard on couples with children.

Children have faced huge challenges during the pandemic. Not only has schoolwork been disrupted, but kids have missed out on developing social skills, seeing their friends and extended family, and doing activities that are major contributors to their development into adulthood.

At the best of times, a child confronting the possibility of their parents’ divorce can be heartbreaking so, at a time such as now, it can have the potential to create even more ramifications. However, if the relationship has no chance of survival, and it is the right thing to do, we’re here to give you the proper information you need to navigate this issue as deftly and sensitively as possible to the benefit of the spouses and children involved.

The mental health crisis during COVID-19

Even before the pandemic, many have stated that we are living through a mental health crisis. So for an event to come along that changes so many of our lifestyles, it’s completely understandable as to why so many people – particularly couples – have seen their mental health suffer greatly during this time.

Mental health problems reported by people during the crisis have included, but not restricted to, the following:

  • Depression,
  • Sleep disorders,
  • Anxiety,
  • Stress,
  • Panic attacks,
  • Impulsivity,
  • Irrational anger

Aside from those who were infected with the virus, and may also be dealing with ‘long-COVID’ symptoms, people waiting for other healthcare services from the NHS have seen huge delays in the provision of this service. All of this serves to ramp up even more stress – especially when one is already worried over their health. This has lead to many going private and perhaps even spending money they don’t have.

Money has been another huge trigger point and this is especially true when it comes to couples. A loss of work or an inability to do work due to the stress of the situation has left many people facing pressure and poverty which, of course, leads to mental health problems which can be shared between couples.

It has been estimated that there has been an over 8% drop in the amount of funding provided to mental health services in the UK since 2010 despite the need for these services having approximately increased by about 20% since that time. In fact, during the pandemic, a whopping 1.6 million additional people were added to an already extensive NHS waiting list for mental health services.

As such, the pandemic has made an already deepening crisis hit new lows and has left many with mental health problems without the proper support in place to help them get through their conditions. Should you be feeling particularly low from the possibility of an imminent separation,  we encourage you to reach out to one of the many support helplines in the UK for those dealing with immediate mental health problems.

A rise of marital disputes during the pandemic

It’s unsurprising that such a rise in mental health problems would lead to an increase in relationship breakdowns. Whether it is was a new partnership or a long-standing marriage, couples at both ends of the spectrum have been feeling the pain of lockdown and restrictions. This trend has been observed all across the world with stats from the UK, Sweden, China and the US suggesting that, much like the virus, breakdowns in relationships during lockdown do not respect borders.

It’s not often the case that a new problem has arisen; rather, it’s that a long-standing issue has been brought to the fore due to each partner being exposed to the other for longer than normal periods of time. While more women appear to be initiating break-ups – a side-effect of historic, gendered expectations of childcare and housework – this can also be true of all genders. Marriage rates have also gone down.

The marriage problems generally stem from not only longer-standing issues, but poor mental health, too. An increase in anxiety and anger can lead to situations boiling over and even, in some cases, lead to domestic abuse. On top of that, job losses and reductions in pay have also increased tensions in housesholds.

If you’re just looking at information right now, it’s worth keeping a cool head and considering if you have explored all your options for resolving the conflict (if possible). Being more mindful of your own bad habits and your mood can make a difference. Additionally, becoming more adaptable and understanding of your partner’s problems can really help close any gaps that have been created during the pandemic. However, this should never be at a risk to you, or your child or children’s, health and well-being.

Despite the increase in enquiries and information gathering, other facts – such as the cost of divorce mirrored with the precarious financial situation caused by the lockdown – may also come into play and effect what court of action you take. Thankfully, there are ways around lengthy and costly court cases by utilising mediation as the first step.

Mediation is a great way to come to amicable agreements with your spouse/partner over what you want to do. It not only leaves the door open for the divorce to be mulled over, but it can be the best way to deal with things when children are involved. Whether you’re just making enquiries or not, we can help you with that here at Foys.

How the COVID-19 has affected children’s mental health

In addition to adults suffering from increased mental health problems, there has been a huge surge in the amount of children needing a referral to NHS mental health services, too. This is due to the situation having an impact on children’s ability to do schoolwork, seeing their friends and family and even just to play without having to worry about things.

We also know that increased strain between parents, as well as difficulties in the ability for some parents to home school their child with the proper effectiveness, has also caused difficulties. But, on the flips side, some children escaped the stress of peer pressure and even bullying by being at home.

Even in the year before the pandemic, NHS referrals had increased by 35% while the number accessing services only increased by 4% over the same period. Additionally, a study in mid-2020 found that there had been a huge 50% increase in significant cases of mental health problems and conditions amongst children when compared to the same period three years earlier.

However, a study team at the Children’s Commissioner’s Office surveyed 2,000 young people aged between 8-17 years old in England during Spring/Summer 2020 found that, surprisingly, children had been getting progressively less stressed as the lockdown continued. The answers also seemed to demonstrate that many children enjoyed having their own space away from the crowds.

But, as we know about the leftover vegetables on dinner plates, what children say is good for them – despite many kids being more articulate and sharper than us adults – isn’t necessarily good for them. While major stress levels decreased, the level of persistent stress in children stayed at close to roughly one-quarter of all those surveyed. Additionally, another study found that 80% of children who already had mental health needs saw their stress worsen during lockdown.

Managing a divorce involving children

Given the increased strain that children have been under, particularly kids already living with mental health problems, a divorce of their parents can be devastating news. That is not to say that you shouldn’t go ahead with the process, as you must also look after your own physical, mental and emotional well-being (as well as everyone else’s in the household), but it’s good to be aware of how you can help a child cope with divorce proceedings.

Children are often far more perceptive than we realise and, just like us adults, many can pick up on cues that something isn’t right. Or they know when there’s tension in the air between parents. Noticing these feelings, which sometimes can remain unsaid, can be very stressful for children and it’s not uncommon for them to end up (often secretly) blaming themselves for it being bad.

This is why it’s so important to try and keep everything as ‘normal’ as possible. Let them know that they are loved by both parents while not going so far as to be dishonest about the situation. Being honest about what is happening can be very important in how they deal with the news. A divorce is something that can’t be hidden from a child so there is no point in shielding them now in order for them to be devastated and surprised later.

They may have questions and it’s important to let them ask both parents what they need to know and so they are aware that they aren’t alone in feeling sad. This is why it’s also important to avoid blaming your partner in front of the child. You want to keep things as friendly as possible as the child is still almost assuredly going to be a huge part of both parents’ lives going forward.

How the divorce process works for couples with children

There is a step-by-step that can be followed in order to find the best results for the child or children where divorce is concerned. It’s important to note that birth mothers, in almost all cases, will have automatic responsibility for the child; however, the parental responsibility is shared between partners until the child is 18.

Trying to find an arrangement that works for both parties, the resident (the parent the child lives with most of the time) and the non-resident parent, when it comes to contact periods (which is when the non-resident parent sees the child) can often be difficult at the best of times. However, this can be even more heated during an ongoing pandemic.

However, it should be noted that contact with a child or children depends on each parent’s individual circumstances and whether or not the child is at risk of emotional or physical abuse, or any other type of detriment to their well-being. A parent cannot force a child to see their non-resident parent should they not wish to but this must be the child’s decision alone and not the resident parent’s decision.

This process is generally achieved through discussion between the parents and need not involve the stressful, costly and time-consuming courts. However, if relations are not good, both parents can work through a representative to achieve the best result for the child or children.

However, when there are disagreements involving children, a trained mediator can be appointed to independently help forge an agreement that is signed by the parents and legally bound. In such cases, you may not need to worry about cost if your income is low as it may be possible for you to apply for legal aid.

However, if mediation fails, then the process must progress a step closer to the courts. The last stop before this juncture, which should always be a last resort anyway, is your closest Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) office. This is a more formal, and final, attempt to achieve a resolution through mediation between the parents that, primarily, meets the best interests of the child and, lastly, of the parents.

If this cannot be achieved, then a Child Arrangement Order (CAO), pushed through by the courts, is the final step to resolve any conflict involving parents and children. The couple must show that they have tried mediation and that the process failed. It should be noted that as the courts are dealing with a backlog of cases brought on by the pandemic and lockdown, this may take some time to achieve which should serve as further motivation for mediation. It is expected that the family courts will not be able to return to their pre-COVID waiting times until 2023.

Once awarded a CAO, should a parent breach this order then they can be taken to court. There should be no attempt to deny contact between the child and a parent. The only exception is if the resident parent believes the child could be harmed by the process and they are willing to demonstrate in the courts that this was a justifiable action to take (should they need to do so).

In the case that no order was put in place, it is still possible for a parent to refuse access to a child but only if it is in the child’s interest and not that of the parent who is refusing access. Should the parent who is being refused access feels unfairly treated, they can take legal action against the other parent.

Lastly, but not least, there are no rights afforded to other family members – including grandparents – to see the child or children. However, such arrangements are generally made on an informal basis and with the consent of both parents. Should a parent feel that a child is unsafe around certain family members of their ex-spouse or ex-partner, they should consult a family lawyer to achieve the best path forward.

These are some of the reasons why it is so important to have a good family lawyer on your side. This can make all the difference in helping you achieve the most favourable result for the child or children and all involved.

Foys seeks the best outcome for children

Family law can be a very complex area of law without even considering the ethical ramifications and the emotional baggage that can come along with each individual case. However, our varied team of qualified lawyers and solicitors cover all areas of family law and we have portions of our team who specialise on matters pertaining to divorce cases with children.

They don’t just offer a tailored, specialised service for this particular area of family law, our team are also incredibly sympathetic and easy-to-talk-to at all times. They will make it easy for you to understand each possible path and any potential pitfalls that could lie ahead.

Areas of family law that Foys specialise in includes:

  • Divorce/annulment,
  • Child custody,
  • Spousal supports,
  • Visitation rights and child support payments,
  • Drafting legal documents (e.g. property arrangements)

We want to ensure that your child or children have the best possible future and so everything we do will keep their best interests at heart, as well as the interests of your side of the dispute. You needn’t worry about paying any initial fee to consult us either – we offer a FREE initial consultation to all of our clients and, if possible, we will try to help you secure legal aid to help fight your case.

To get in touch with our family law team today, get in touch with us on 01302 32713 to book your free consultation or get in touch via our contact form.