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The intelligence of Children - How they pick up the true emotions of their parents in a Family Dispute

Canadian research released this week which is also reported today on the Daily Mail Online suggests that children as young as 18 months can easily spot when a parent is trying to cover their true emotions.

They can tell far better than previously thought and at a younger age when a parent’s real feelings do not match those expressed.

The extent to which a child is able to pick up on hostility between parents, along with any reluctance to see them visit the other parent is a very common feature of child law disputes. Many people stress that they encourage their child to visit the other parent, but do not realise how easy it is for children to pick up on when they are not genuinely in favour of it. This can lead to the child feeling confused, torn and distressed.

Many parents in Children Act proceedings are surprised by comments made by children when interviewed about the extent of their awareness of problems between parents and the effect on them. This surprise is down to the fact that parents feel they have done well at shielding children from outward disputes or hostility. 

A summary by the research leader, Psychologist Professor Diane Poulin-Dubois, of Concordia University in Canada, sums up this situation very well - 'Adults often try to shield infants from distress by putting on a happy face following a negative experience. But babies know the truth: as early as 18 months, they can implicitly understand which emotions go with which events.' Certainly this mirrors what even young children often say during contact and residence cases.

Whilst the courts take a dim view of parents consciously and deliberately giving the child a negative message about seeing the other parent, cases in which the parent tries to put on a show of support, but can’t quite hide their true feelings are altogether more complicated, and often need more detailed consideration and input.

The report should however serve as a reminder to parents caught up in acrimonious disputes that just because children do not directly witness arguments, does not mean they do not have a high level of awareness there is discord, and that a higher level of caution is often required if children are to be protected from the effects of a difficult Family Breakdown.

By Family Law Solicitor Cara Nuttall

For more information about dealing with difficult children cases, please email one of our Child Law specialists at or call us on 0800 916 9055.



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