Making better headlines about family separation

Catherine Baksi writes in The Times that there’s “Room for improvement on divorce”. Journalists and editors are turning to more positive language. They’ve tended to talk of “expert lawyers“, “warring parents” and “parents not seeing their children”. Now they can turn to better headlines about family separation.

The Times article, for example, draws on intelligent drama, like the BBC’s “The Split”. And it echoes recent media coverage promoting constructive change in how we support separating families.

In The Split, Nicola Walker plays Hannah Stern, a divorce lawyer, whose marriage to Nathan (Stephen Mangan) falls apart. BBC

The positive headline leads beyond the high referrals as “no fault divorce” arrives in England and Wales. It avoids the adversarial language: A few firms offer joint services for some separating couples. Then Catherine Baksi quotes James Hayhurst of The Parents Promise, of which the Two Wishes Foundation is a founder member:

We need to start thinking differently and more broadly about the whole issue of relationship breakdown and divorce. It should be treated as an urgent health and wellbeing issue — for both parents and children.

James Hayhurst, Parents Promise

Parents Promise is not alone in urging such a radical change. Mediator, Helen Adams, gave the 2022 Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture on: “Time for Climate Change in the Family Justice System”. It is a tour de force. She leads the Family Solutions Group. An event featured several speakers, including the powerful leading voice of Sir Andrew MacFarlane, President of the Family Division.

Three conditions for effective help

It’s not new to encourage separating parents to get early help. But many individuals need lots of encouragement and advice to make the move. As psychologist, Debbie Sorensen, points out, getting effective help needs a few things to be in place.

First, for a separating family, their diverging ways can make it tricky. There’s more than one person who may need help, help that is child-focused and competent to connect up the interconnected needs of the whole family. There may be two or more parents and step-parents, several children, and also the concerned wider family and others involved.

Secondly, the dominant culture needs to change its usual tune. At present, that culture firmly rates family law as the main place to go. Changing that culture means that everyone around the family thinks and talks differently. It happens when those negative articles turn positive. Early help for separating families has to be as normal and expected as children going to school and wearing car seat belts.

Thirdly, effective help needs to be readily available. There’s already a large army of professionals each working hard in a rather isolated way to offer early help. That can grow into an integrated range of child-focused help and intervention for families to expect and head for. Community child and family support services already team up to offer assessment and support for the more troubled or troubling families.

Making better headlines about family separation is key to all three of these: The individual looking for help; the cultural tune; and ensuring that effective early help is readily there for everyone.