Children's hearings training resource manual: volume 2

Volume 2 is a children's hearings handbook, focusing on the problems that some children face, the environment in which they live, their needs and their rights.

5 Children and Families

At the centre of the children's hearings system is the idea that children should, wherever possible, grow up and be looked after in their own families. Parents, if relevant persons, have a right to attend hearings in order to participate in decisions being made about their children, and the focus of compulsory supervision will very often be to support the family to parent the child better.

The Kilbrandon Report (paragraph 35) clearly expressed confidence in the family:

'The principle . . . is . . . intended, whe r ever possible, not to supersede the natural beneficial influence of the home and the family, but where v er practicable to strengthen, support and supplement them in situations in which for wh a tever reason they have b een we a kened or have failed in their effect'.

Kilbrandon, Lord (1964) Re p o r t o f t h e C omm itt ee on C h il d r e n and Y o un g Pe rs on s Edinburgh, HMSO

The Children's Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011, in keeping with the UN Convention, underpins the belief that children are best looked after by their parents and emphasises parental responsibilities towards their children rather than rights over them. ( S e e Legislation and Procedur e )

When problems arise in a child's life, the first attempts should be to support him or her in the context of the family. Only if this fails should alternative measures be sought. The principle which is stated in section 28 (2) of the Act is a protection against unnecessary intervention in the lives of children and families.

'the children's hearing may make, vary or continue the order or interim variation or grant a warrant, only if the children's hearing consider that it would be better for the child if the order, interim variation or warrant were in force than not'

Those involved in the children's hearings system need to be aware of their own attitudes and values. These may be very different from those of the family attending a hearing. There is a need to try to remain non-judgemental, while still retaining the idea that the child's welfare is paramount - often a delicate balance.


Families in Scotland in the new millennium

At the time of the setting up of the Kilbrandon Committee the conventional family still existed; family meant mother, father, siblings and an extended family nearby for support. In the intervening years the definition of family has changed. If we bear in mind what children need from their parents, then perhaps the structure of the family is not important, but rather how the family functions, whatever its composition.

Trends in Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation

Marriages in Scotland have levelled off at approximately 30,000 per year. However, of these marriages, 1 in 4 is between partners resident out-with Scotland, mostly at Gretna Green. Between 1981 and 2011 the average age at first marriage has increased from 27.6 to 32.6 years for men and from 25.3 to 30.9 years for women. In around a quarter of marriages, at least one of the partners had previously been divorced. Another key factor is the growing number of couples who live together before they marry.

The number of divorces in Scotland in 2011 was 9,862, just over a 3 percent decrease from 2009. Increasing levels of cohabitation may be related to the decline shown, since the breakdown of cohabiting relationships is not subject to divorce proceedings, and is not therefore included in these statistics. In 2011, 44 civil partnerships were dissolved (legally ended) in Scotland.

Source: Scotland's Population 2011 - The Registrar General's Annual Review of Demographic Trends

The Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 recognises the rapid demographic changes in Scottish society. It seeks to give cohabiting and civil partnership couples, who then go on to separate, some protection from the financial consequences, but to a lesser degree than for married couples.

From the Scottish Household Survey 2007-08, the marital status of a representative sample of all adults aged 16 and over was as follows:

  • 48% were married
  • 10% were cohabiting/ living together
  • 0% were in civil partnerships (i.e. less than 0.5%)
  • 27% were single/ never married
  • 8% were widowed
  • 6% were divorced
  • 2% were separated.

Pre-marital cohabitation has now become the norm, while cohabitation is the most common type of first co-resident partnership.

In addition to these changes in partnership patterns, the context of parenthood has also changed. In the most recent Registrar General's Annual Review of Demographic Trends for Scotland (General Register Office of Scotland 2009, p. 25), reporting 2008 data, just over half (50.1%) of all births in Scotland were extramarital, the great majority of which (93%) were registered by both mother and father and many of which were to cohabiting couples. This rate is about twice that of only twenty years ago: 24.5% of births in 1988 were extra-marital.

Source: Legal Practitioners' perspectives on the cohabitation provisions of the family law (Scotland) Act 2006.

Implications for Children and Young People

As a consequence of the 'fluidity' of these relationships many young people experience change in their family household and parenting arrangements while growing up. Over a quarter of children born to married parents now experience the separation of their parents by the age of 16. In any one year, approximately 8000 children under the age of 16 live in families where parents are divorcing. Figures for relationship breakdown amongst the 1 in 5 adults who cohabit but remain unmarried are not available so it is likely that many more children live through family dislocation every year.

The 'cool with change' research project reported in 2006 on research conducted among Glasgow school pupils aged 10 - 14 in ethnically and socially diverse areas:

Parental separation, death and re-partnering

Either separation or death or re-partnering


Parents separated


Mother has new partner


Father has new partner


Mother died


Father died


other changes

one parent away for a long time


have a very ill relative


someone close has been ill for a long time


someone close has died


moved school


moved house


moved town


left home as an asylum seeker


Young People's Perspective on Family Change

Moving between two households on a regular basis is now a common experience for children whose parents have separated. In a recent study over half the children regarded this with some positive feelings or no major negative ones. Another study noted that many children experience 'highs' and 'lows' as a result. Some talk of missing out on spending time with friends at weekends. Others talked of missing Mum or Dad when at the other's house but emphasised benefits such as two Christmases.

One other recent study found that being part of a step-family seems to be helpful for younger children but harder for older children to adapt to. Another study highlights that children see the role of the step-parent in very different ways. Some stressed that the step-parent should be a friend, others said a parent. Many said that they found being disciplined by a step-parent hard to take.

Contact with a non-resident parent can be difficult and compromised by violent or other unacceptable forms of behaviour. In some cases children talk about making the decision for themselves to reduce or stop contact based on a growing realisation of the inappropriateness of the parent's behaviour. This once again emphasises the need to take the views of the child into consideration.

Other difficulties children highlighted included:

  • money being short
  • mother / father spending time in prison
  • on-going family feuds
  • not seeing estranged family members.

Research suggests that family separation and the re-partnering of a parent are both best understood as a process. When the event is fairly recent children tend to talk about initial problems which in many cases are eventually resolved.

Initially children experience their parents re-partnering as a loss in that they often found that they enjoyed less parental attention than previously. This meant that they could dislike new partners out of jealousy rather than because they were intrinsically unlikeable.

Children Living in Re-Ordered Families

Children whose families undergo a series of disruptions and changes are more likely to experience social, educational and health problems than those whose families remain intact. A study by Monica Cockett and John Tripp of Exeter University, based on interviews with children and parents in contrasted family settings concludes that:

  • Children whose families have been 're-ordered' by separation or divorce were more likely than children from intact families to have encountered health problems (especially psychosomatic disorders), to have needed extra help at school, to have experienced friendship difficulties and suffer from low self-esteem.
  • Where children had experiences three or more different family structures, the 'outcomes' were generally worse than for those living (for the first time) with a lone parent or in a step-family. These children were more likely to describe themselves as - 'often unhappy' or 'miserable.
  • Although severe marital conflict and financial hardship were associated with poor outcomes for children, family re-organisation(s) appeared to be the main adverse factor in children's lives.
  • Only a small minority of children - one in sixteen - had been prepared for an impending separation or divorce by explanations from both parents.
  • Fewer than half the children in re-ordered families had regular contact with the non-resident parent - usually their father. Half the children without any reliable contact did not know where their non-resident parent was living.
  • A significant minority of children in re-ordered families had made their own arrangements to keep in contact with their non-resident parent, because the parents themselves had been unable to reach agreement or were not talking to each other.
  • Children who had experienced a series of family disruptions were not only least likely to have contact with their non-resident parent, but also received less support from extended family networks.

What happens to children when their parents separate?

Children can react very differently to separation or divorce. The way they react depends on a number of things, but two important factors are the age of the child and the degree of conflict and animosity between the parents.

There is no doubt that this is a stressful period for children, but most recover and end up leading normal, healthy lives. Children from separated families can develop and flourish just as well as other children. Their adjustment is enhanced when parents remain sensitive to the children's needs.

Separation is often a surprise for children and they generally experience many of the same feelings as adults. Children can also grieve for a long time. They may be unaware of the problems their parents were having and they may feel shocked and confused when the separation occurs. They are also likely to feel insecure and worry whether the remaining parent will leave them as well. Some children may feel that they must have been to blame. Others may feel very angry with either or both of their parents and want to blame one of them.

Sometimes children become unsure about whether they can still love the parent who left, and they can wonder what is happening to the absent parent. Although parents are often upset and confused themselves at this time, it is important to try to understand what your children are going through and to consider their feelings as well.

How do they behave?

Children do not always communicate with words. Their response to their parents' separation may be expressed in behaviour. Some children become very withdrawn and avoid talking about the separation or the absent parent. Others (particularly if they are younger) may become very 'clingy' and not want to let the parent they are with out of their sight. These children feel they have 'lost' the departing parent and are determined not to lose their remaining parent.

Others may 'regress' in their behaviour - they may act younger than they did before the separation, talk in baby talk or fall back in their toilet training. Some may have nightmares, others may become rebellious, difficult to handle or aggressive with other children and even their parents. These are some of the ways children might show their distress. This is their signal that they need special attention. With time most of these behaviours disappear. However, if they persist over a long period of time it is best to seek help.

What happens to children at different ages when parents separate?

Birth - 2 years

Children in this age group are highly dependent on their parents. If one parent has taken on primary responsibility for care of a child, it is almost certain that a strong physical and emotional dependence will develop between them. Lengthy separation from this parent can be a source of intense emotional distress. A child at this age has a very different concept of time than does an adult. For very young children a few hours will seem to be a very long time and this needs to be considered when making parenting arrangements. In this age group, children are likely to fret for the absent parent with whom they need frequent, short periods of contact to continue the relationship.

A high level of conflict between the parents can make visits extremely stressful for a child of this age. For this very young group, it can be helpful if parents stick to a routine and, where possible, provide reminders of the other parent such as photographs. It may also be useful if some special toy or blanket travels with them between households.

2 - 5 years

Children in this age group begin to be a little more independent of their parents. Separation can be a major crisis for these children and they can react with shock or depression. For instance, children in this group may show distress by a change in sleeping habits, toilet habits or deterioration in language skills.

In this age group also, children differ from adults in how they perceive time. They have less time distortion than infants, but still experience a short time as being much longer than it is. If conflict between the parents is high, the child may not cope easily with overnight periods away from a parent who has day-to-day care of them.

Pre-school children understand the world through very different thought processes than older children. They often fantasise what they do not understand and are likely to make up things from bits of their own experience. They are also often confused by time and days. A calendar showing when they will be with either parent can be helpful. They are sensitive to criticism of their other parent and may perceive this as criticism of themselves.

5 - 8 years

Children in this age group are beginning to be able to talk about their feelings. They often have an intense wish to restore their parents' relationship and say and do things they hope will bring this about. They often want to stay at home to be near the parent with whom they spend most of their time.

Similarly, they feel reluctant to leave the other parent at the end of a visit and may exhibit behavioural problems which are noticed by friends, teachers and parents.

Children in this age group can have difficulties expressing their worries and tend to demonstrate them through their behaviour which can be difficult to understand. It may be helpful if both parents, or adult friends or relations, invite children of this age to express their emotions about the separation, particularly of their desire to get their parents back together. Children should be discouraged from taking responsibility to contact arrangements or for the absent parent.

8 - 12 years

Children in this age group are able to speak about their feelings. They experience a conflict of loyalty to each parent and, if the conflict between the parents is high, they may try to cope by rejecting one parent. They are also beginning to experience the world outside their family. They join clubs and go to birthday parties. When making parenting arrangements the child interests and activities should be taken into account. This allows them the opportunity to join in the social and sporting activities which are an important part of their development. Where possible, it is beneficial for children to continue their activities regardless of who is caring for them.

12 - 16 years

In some respects, adolescents are often independent of their parents, even when their parents are not separated. They need to be given time and space to work out their own reactions to their parents' separation. If pressured by either parent, adolescents are likely to react with anger and rejection.


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