Publication date: June 2014
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Cover of Family Breakdown

Childcare expert Penelope Leach shows that we can make the divorce process better for children

Family Breakdown:
Helping children hang on to both their parents

Fewer than half of today’s children will celebrate their sixteenth birthdays with their parents still together. Divorce has become commonplace. But commonplace does not mean unimportant, especially when children are involved. All too often, children are seen as weapons in a marital war rather than as its victims.

Having families split up with mothers and fathers living separately from each other is always deeply disruptive, almost always sad and sometimes tragic for children of all ages from birth to adulthood. This fact is such a hard truth that it is usually offered well-diluted with reassurances about children being 'resilient' and quickly 'getting over it'. But the message is vital and the reassurances are false. Children are no more likely than parents themselves to 'get over' parental separation in the sense of forgetting about it or it ceasing to be important to them.

The message of this book, however, is that we can do better by children whose families break up. I do not suggest that parents should stay together 'for the sake of the children'. A miserable partnership is unlikely to make for good parenting. But parents who divorce can do so better from the child’s point of view than is usual right now, and everyone involved with them, from family court judges, solicitors and social workers to organisations and individuals offering advice and support can help them do so.

As a family breaks up, the needs of the children should be the priority, and thanks to new research into child development, especially attachment science and emotional and social development, we know far more than earlier generations about what those needs are. I hope this book will help parents to face up to the enormity of the change their separation is bringing upon their children and offer ways in which they can choose to handle it so as to soften the impact on them.

Parents divorce each other, not their children. We can – and must – establish that the end of partnership is not the end of parenthood. Divorce may never be ideal for a child, but we can make it better.

Penelope Leach is a research psychologist and one of the world’s leading experts in child development. Her bestselling books on child-development for parents include Your Baby and Child and The Essential First Year. She is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a Visiting Professor at Winchester University and a Senior Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London and at the Tavistock & Portman NHS Trust. She has been Vice President of the Health Visitors' Association, President and Chair of the Child Development Society and President of the National Childminding Association. In all these roles she has always been a powerful advocate for the needs of children and families.

Penelope has felt strongly about the impact of divorce on children ever since her own parents separated when she was a child. She is a founding director of the Mindful Policy Group, a multi-disciplinary group of experts dedicated to the creation of a more humane, caring and psychologically aware society, especially with regard to how children and families are treated. Her profits from this book will go to MPG:

The very best way to manage the break-up of a family with minimal long-term harm to children is to set yourselves to support the relationships each of you has with each of your children, and protect them from the failure of the relationship between the two of you. That’s not an easy thing to do, and if you are a mother or father reading this when you are almost overwhelmed with hurt and fury at the children’s other parent, it may seem downright impossible. Some people do manage it, though, and it is the most important effort you can make for your children right now because it will affect every aspect of their lives both during and after your separation and divorce.


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