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Coronavirus #2: Keeping in mind the children of high conflict separated parents

In a new series of expert blogs, the Anna Freud Centre shines a spotlight on those children who are particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis. As leading specialists in their fields, they call on colleagues and wider society to keep in mind these children and young people - and to act on the opportunities which exist to support them in these uncertain times.

In the second of our new series of blogs, Dr Emma Morris of the Anna Freud Centre urges professionals to keep in mind the children of separated parents during the coronavirus lockdown. While the challenges are many, this should not lead to a loss of support. We can play a huge part in helping parents mediate, mobilising networks and checking in with the child.

The current lockdown is likely to impact on many children and young people’s mental health in different ways, with some groups more vulnerable than others. One group of children who are particularly at risk are those of parents in conflict. A recent, comprehensive review of the literature on the impact of parental conflict on child development concluded that parents who engage in frequent, intense, and poorly resolved interparental conflicts put children’s mental health and long-term life chances at risk1.

Parental conflict is likely to be exacerbated in the current climate, as families share the same space under increased stress and uncertainty about the future, with reduced support from friends and extended family. Their children - similarly under increased stress - lose safe refuges (such as school and activity clubs) and the support of their social network. Since the coronavirus lockdown, we have also seen a surge in domestic abuse2. It is an incredibly worrying picture.

But what about the children of separated parents?
For the majority of children, parental conflict ends - or is at least reduced - with the separation of their parents. However, for a significant minority of children, parental conflict continues. In these families, children often become the focus of their parents’ arguments about the quality of each other’s care, contact arrangements and the child’s residence. The child can be placed in the position of providing ‘evidence’ for each parent’s assertions.

Any professional who has supported families in this situation will have seen first-hand the adverse impact this has on children, who can tie themselves in knots around loyalty and identity - while also trying to bury feelings of fear, loss and guilt. So what about these children during the coronavirus lockdown? It’s true that their parents are not having to co-habit, and that they are likely to be shielded from exposure to domestic abuse, but it is unlikely that they are safe from parental conflict.

High conflict separated parents are also facing increased stress and uncertainty with little outside support, which is likely to impact on their ability to manage existing conflict. The government has advised that the children of separated parents can travel between both homes. However, anxiety about coronavirus infection may have an impact on already strained contact arrangements, leading to anger, frustration and maybe even breakdown in contact.

For these children, protective factors, escapes and support networks are also reduced - or, most likely, inaccessible. The pandemic may intensify a child’s anxiety about an absent parent, or their extended family, but issues with parental communication may prevent them from receiving the reassurance they need. These children often feel like they have to ‘choose a side’. Current fears around safety may activate their attachment system, leading them to seek closer proximity to their main carer, but resulting in the other parent feeling rejected or suspicious that their child has been influenced against them.

So what can we do for these children?
Professionals working with these families will already be thinking through the many challenges that are likely to come with offering remote support. There are challenges around potential miscommunication and confidentiality (including the risk that digital sessions may be recorded by one parent and used as later ‘ammunition’ against the other parent). There are further challenges around not being able to provide a ‘neutral’ space in order to work with the child, and that it may be more difficult to access the support of colleagues (which is often essential when working with families in this position).

However, the bigger risk is that we replicate the pattern of so many parents in this position - losing the child from our mind - for fear of the complexity involved in providing support. We need to guard against this. In fact, there are many things we can be doing during lockdown:

  1. Mediating: Helping parents with communication, mediating between them.
  2. Mobilising: Helping reduce the stress by providing ongoing support and mobilising the networks around families.
  3. Protecting and promoting: Helping parents to hold on to the importance of protecting and promoting their child’s relationships with both parents.
  4. Checking in: Reassuring children that we have not forgotten them, regularly checking in with them.

In short, to protect these children at this time, we need to keep them and their needs alive - both in the minds of their parents, but also of their broader networks, of professionals, and of our wider society. We need to raise awareness of the potential risk to them in the current situation. We may not be able to make any therapeutic gains during this lockdown period, but we can help these children feel safer, while we wait it out.

Dr Emma Morris is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at the Anna Freud Centre. She is a Senior Clinician for STAMS (the Specialist Trauma and Maltreatment Service), Project Lead for the Contact and Residence Disputes Team, and Clinical Lead for Mentalisation Based Treatment for Children (MBT-C).


1 Harold, G, Acquah, D, Sellers, R & Chowdry, H (2016) What Works to Enhance Inter-Parental Relationships and Improve Outcomes for Children? Department for Work and Pensions