Parents at war

24th October 2003 at 01:00
Did you know?

* Divorce affects around 150,000 children every year, which means almost half of all children will face their parents splitting up before the end of their childhoods

* Teachers and heads are often called as witnesses during custody cases

* One London father cited the failure of the mother to read with the child, and her failure to get her to school on time and in uniform, as reasons to settle the custody case in his favour

* A leading independent school head says schools in his sector may soon struggle to cope with the pastoral needs of the growing number of children of divorced parents

Almost one UK child in two will face the crisis of parents separating or divorcing before they leave school, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Most will suffer distress and trauma in the lead up to, and during, any split, leaving some with emotional and behavioural difficulties. And if the separation is adversarial, the effect can be even more devastating and long-term. Children can get caught in the middle, often used by one parent to get at the other. But it's not just family and friends who get sucked into the battle when parents go to war; schools and teachers often become targets as well. Whether it is unwanted heart-to-hearts, after-school recriminations or full-blown arguments during parents' evening, teachers can find it difficult to remain aloof from family breakdowns.

How many children are affected?

Divorce affects around 150,000 children a year, putting almost half of all school-age children through the emotional trauma of separation. Although some splits will be amicable, many won't, and will be a source of extreme anguish for all involved. The Royal College of Psychiatrists warns in its factsheet on mental health and growing up, The Impact on Children and Adolescents of Divorce or Separation of Parents, that even if the separation is amicable, the child may suffer insecurity, fear of abandonment, anger and a sense of loss. When it is adversarial, the child may be drawn into the conflict, forced to hear endless criticism and hostility from each parent about the other, or be asked to take sides or find fault. Their daily routine may be upset and they may have to start living between two homes. The more acrimonious the break-up, the more chance it will spill over into other parts of the children's lives, especially at school.

How can teachers recognise relationship breakdowns?

Some parents will tell the school when there is marital disharmony, so teachers can watch out for behavioural changes. But some won't, and the first sign of a problem is a change in the pupil's behaviour, the sudden absence of one parent or an uncomfortable atmosphere when the parents are together. "It's not always easy to talk to parents about this sort of thing," says the head of a London secondary. "I have a way of asking at the initial interview we have with all parents and new pupils if they have anything they would like to share with me. Not all parents are open.

Recently I had one couple where the man suddenly blurted out that he wasn't sure what was happening at home. I asked if things were a bit shaky and he replied that was one way to describe it. The mother wasn't so open."

How far can it affect schools?

The first consideration during a family crisis is the child. But schools also have to consider the logistics of having a child living with one parent, between two homes or with separated parents who do not communicate with one another. "It is important to be aware of the sensitivities of the situation as this has an effect on the way teachers handle the practicalities - such as parents' evenings, reports, and school photographs," says Tom Lewis, head of counselling at the Teachers Support Network.

How far can schools be dragged in?

Teachers and heads are often called as witnesses during custody cases because they are so involved with the children. Courts will ask schools to present reports to the courts in any dispute. "These requests are common," says Clarissa Williams, head of Tolworth girls' school, in the London borough of Kingston upon Thames. "We have to present an objective report considering all aspects, including attendance, time-keeping, behaviour and commitment. It is a not a qualitative judgment, but a collection of data."

Can acrimony between parents spill over to the school?

The head of a leading independent school thinks so. At the recent annual conference of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the headmaster of Dulwich College, Graham Able, launched an attack on the "self-indulgence" of divorced parents. Mr Able, chairman of the HMC, warned that schools were coming under increasing strain as they struggled to cope with the growing number of children who have suffered emotional damage as a result of family breakdown. He said it might not be long before independent schools could no longer cope with the pastoral needs of the children of divorced parents.

When a relationship becomes adversarial, the child's experiences at school can become a focal point for the parents to get at one another. An estranged parent may start writing to the school voicing concerns about the other. "We've had letters about behaviour, attendance, dress - even about the custodial parent being too protective," says Ms Williams.

Another London school head is convinced one of her pupils is being used by the mother to enlist sympathy and attention after her distressing divorce, and to get at her ex-husband. "I believe it is a case of Munchausen by proxy," she says. "It looks as if she is using the child to gain attention.

This child has not been at school since October last year, but there is no medical evidence that she is unwell. The mother wants her work sent home, but teachers cannot function like that. Unfortunately, the father, who recognises there is a problem, refuses to get involved because of the acrimony of their marriage split and the fear of the mother's retaliation through the courts."

How nasty can it get?

Schools may be unable to avoid getting involved in parental conflict. A custody battle over one small girl in London, for instance, became so bitter her school was sucked in. The father cited the mother's failure to read with the child, or get her to school on time and in uniform, as reasons to settle the custody case in his favour. The ammunition was the child's reading record, which clearly showed which parent was putting in the effort. "He requested a copy of her record, and we couldn't refuse," says the child's teacher. "Every parent has a right to this. But we didn't really want to get dragged in." After lengthy discussions, the school decided to forward a copy, but everyone was left feeling deeply uncomfortable.

In Wiltshire, teachers of families skewered in an acrimonious divorce received solicitors' letters demanding to know exactly what had been said to each child and when. Words of comfort were being twisted and used by the parents, leaving the teachers feeling vulnerable and pushed into a corner, and the headteacher furious.

"It has caused stress and anxiety to all of those involved," says the head.

"It has placed the selfishness of the parents against the experiences of the children."

Do schools have to communicate with both parents?

Yes, if they demand it, otherwise letters can simply be sent to the parent who has custody. "Most communications with parents are sent home by pupil post," says David Dempster, principal teacher of physics at Boroughmuir secondary school in Edinburgh. "But if parents are separated, and both request we send any letters to them, we would have to post them to the non-resident parent, and that has cost implications."

Byrchall high, in Ashton-in-Makerfield, Wigan, has a policy that the non-resident parent has to write to the school requesting any communications be sent to them separately. "It means double the workload," says Sue Joyce, deputy head in charge of pastoral care. "But if they want it, we send it."

What are the worst flashpoints?

Pick-up and parents' evenings are the most volatile times. Estranged parents can turn up at the end of the day hoping to see their children, which puts the school in a difficult position. "Sometimes violence may have been an issue and there is a court order restricting access to the child," says Monica Galt, head of King's Road primary school in Old Trafford, Manchester. "You have to know exactly what the legal situation is. If an estranged parent were to turn up, we would keep the child in school and phonethe other parent. Or perhaps we would let the child leave early to avoid any chance of a confrontation." She also warns that it may not be the parent, but another relative. In extreme circumstances, the police may have to be called.

But the first sign a teacher may get of disharmony is parents' night, when the absence of one parent, or a tense atmosphere, reveals the state of the relationship. "You can sense the tension the minute they walk in the door," says Margaret, a teacher at a school in the London borough of Westminster, who has had parents engage in screaming matches during a parent conference.

"They can be on the defensive straight away, and act aggressively."

Body language can also say a lot. There may be lack of eye contact, they will sit as far apart as possible and turn away from one another, or there may simply be a chilling silence between them.

How can you avoid these situations?

Schools, especially primaries, where parents usually collect their children at the end of the day, can help avoid conflict by limiting access to the playground. Where there is only one pick-up point, teachers will be able to watch carefully for surprise visits. "We have had estranged parents coming during the day requesting to see their child or claiming to have lost the house keys. We always call the other parent to check, and will call the police if it isn't resolved amicably," says Clarissa Williams. "If a parent feels excluded, that inflames the situation, so I try to give them as much information as possible. It's positive that they care about the child to try and see him or her at school."

Separate meetings can resolve the difficulty of putting two warring parents together, although it inevitably means more work for the teachers.

How can it affect teachers?

Dealing with battling parents can be extremely stressful for the class teacher, and many headteachers will have systems in place to protect them.

"We have a procedure where I or my senior management team deal with volatile situations. We are like a conduit so the class teacher is protected from as much stress as possible," says John McNally, head of St Bernadette's primary school in Birmingham.

It may also be difficult to remain objective. Some teachers may have known the family for years, as the children have passed through the school. "It can be upsetting for the teachers to witness the break-up of a family they have known for a long while," says Monica Galt. Some may even be past pupils. Tom Lewis says it helps to keep personal feelings in check.

"Teachers can often find themselves drawn to sympathising with one parent over the other. But they need to remain neutral."

It may also be difficult, when just one parent comes, to avoid unwelcome heart-to-heart chats, where the failings of the other parent are laid out on the desk. Sue Donovan, head of Holmewood nursery school, in the London borough of Lambeth, where contact with the parents is on a daily basis, says parents commonly try to enlist a teacher's sympathy when relationships break down.

"They start telling you things which are simply not appropriate," she says.

"I advise my teachers to try to avoid such heart-to-hearts, especially when the child is close by."

Can schools refuse to co-operate with difficult parents?

They can, but it's rare. "If we have a persistent problem, I will arrange for the parents to come for a meeting and I will talk to them about their behaviour and how it affects their child and his or her teacher," says Ms Galt. "I would never break off communications, because that can just inflame the situation. If you have an irate parent, particularly a father, giving him a chance to discuss the problem with me allows a release for his aggression. If you don't meet them, they just get more angry." Mr McNally agrees: "I try to make time immediately to see any emotional parent, otherwise they sit and fester over their grievance."

What should teachers do if a parent starts getting physical or abusive?

"Never shout back or be aggressive," says Mr McNally. "Try to stay calm and talk quietly to the individual. If it is getting out of hand, send for the headteacher."

Can heads warn other teachers when a pupil's parents are splitting up?

Most schools will treat any revelations by parents as confidential, and inform teachers on a need-to-know basis. It is usual for the senior management team to be told, and any teacher with pastoral responsibility.

But if the estranged parent is known to be aggressive, heads will decide to inform class teachers. "I tend to give them the bare minimum so they can watch the situations without knowing too much detail," says Ms Galt.

Mr Lewis adds that all teachers should be sensitive when talking about families and relationships anyway, regardless of the experiences of their group, so knowing the details of each child's family life should be unnecessary.

Is there any training for dealing with difficult situations?

Most schools have procedures for teachers to follow in volatile situations, including the headteacher taking on responsibility for managing difficult individuals.

* The Impact on Children and Adolescents of Divorce or Separation of Parents factsheet, and others relating to mental health and growing up, are available on the Royal College of Psychiatrists website:

Follow the mental health information route to factsheets. The one on divorce and separation is sheet 15. l Teachers Support Network:

Main text: Su Clark. Illustration: Michelle Thompson. Photograph: Alamy

Next week: Child development

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