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Communicating with Children after a Relationship Breakdown

Various broadsheets have today reported a recent children case in the Family Division of the High Court concerning the contents of email contact between a father and children, and the importance of parents thinking carefully about how an email will be interpreted by the child, when they write it.

Email and other forms of written contact (generally called “indirect contact”) are often used in cases when for one reason or another, it has been considered inappropriate for the parent to see the child directly, either has a long term arrangement, or as a stepping stone to rebuilding a relationship where it has broken down.

Often, if indirect contact progresses well, and the child is receptive to it, it can then be used as a starting point to moving towards direct contact. It is therefore important that the content and tone put the child at ease, rather than upsetting them or causing them to be anxious. If a parent is unable to refrain from using overly emotive wording or content, then even indirect contact can be stopped if it is proving damaging to the child.

In the case which has been reported, concerns were raised about the content of the father’s emails to his children and in particular, the use of capital letters, which made it appear as though he was shouting at the children. The result was described by the Judge as “disastrous” and did not help the already difficult relationship.

Many parents see indirect contact as their only way of explaining themselves to the child, or reassuring them how much they want to see them, however the Courts are clear that such contact is not there for the benefit of the parent, but for the child, and that any such contact must be written purely with the child’s interests in mind.

With email part of most adults’ daily lives, most usually in a business content, it can be hard for them to recognise how a more formal method of communication may come across to a child, especially if there is a history of a difficult relationship.

It is important that if appropriate, parents seek guidance from relevant professionals about the contents of indirect contact, to make sure that it is productive, rather than destructive. It may seem unreasonable or ‘nanny state’ for parents to be told how and what to write to their children, but such guidance is usually provided with a view to trying to restore and repair the relationship and is worth taking on board, especially as sometimes small changes can make a significant difference.

There are various agencies and specialist professionals, as well as CAFCASS which can assist with, monitor or help facilitate indirect contact. In addition, experienced Child Law Solicitors can also make creative suggestions for how to move forward in a way which will avoid criticism and increase the chances of positive progress.

Being restricted to indirect contact is often a disheartening and frustrating situation, but handled correctly can lead to real movement and the restoration of a full relationship.

Cara Nuttall is a Family & Child Law Solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester.

For expert legal advice call our Child Law Solicitors on freephone 0800 916 9055 or contact us online and we'll be happy to help you.

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