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Putting the children first: the benefits of literature for children affected by divorce

Date:2 FEB 2016
As January turns to February, initial decisions about separation taken at the beginning of the year are starting to sink in, and their effects are being felt throughout the family.

The impact of family separation and breakdown on the children involved is profound. Both parents have a responsibility to try to alleviate this, and support children through the changes that they will inevitably experience.

Resolution's publication Separation and Divorce: Helping Parents to Help Children, written by Christina McGhee, is a useful starting point for parents trying to help their children to come to terms with what has happened and what this will mean for the future. It contains a useful section dedicated to setting out how children of different age groups, from infants to teenagers, experience divorce and separation and how this might be expressed, as well as tips for how to talk to children about divorce and how parents can manage their relationship after separation. It also features a useful digest of a large range of resources available to children, parents and families.

As well as divorcing parents equipping themselves with useful resources like Christina McGhee's book, it is also a good idea to stock up on a number of books that can be shared with children which can help them to understand how separation and divorce might affect them and, in turn, helping them to process how they feel about it.

An essential book for primary school aged children is one not explicitly about divorce, but about feelings. The Great Big Book of Feelings by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith is a great prompt to help children express how they might be feeling about the changes taking place in their lives, and open up discussions on these difficult subjects. With colourful illustrations the book explores every emotion in individual double-page spreads, explaining what each feeling means and giving examples of times that the feeling might arise as well as suggesting things that a child might want to do to make themselves feel better. The book spans a range of ages, and could be read with a smaller child or independently by an older one.

For parents looking for a straightforward way to help their children understand what a divorce means, Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown is a good place to start. It is part of a wider series, Dino Tales: Life Guides for Families, and its comic-strip style explains why a divorce might come about, what it means, and what its consequences might be. Although first published in 1986, it remains at the top of recommended reading lists for children affected by divorce with good reason. It is clear and straightforward, and should help to make any child feel that there is nothing at all unusual about the changes going on around them.

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Whilst Dinosaurs Divorce touches on children having two homes, there are a number of books for which this is a central theme and can help children to process the practical implications of these changes. For pre-school children, Two Homes by Claire Masurel expresses in a very simple way the important practicalities for small children of having two of everything, and being loved by each parent no matter whose house they are in.

For older children, Jacqueline Wilson's The Suitcase Kid tells the story of Andy, a child dividing her time between her two parents and their new families and the tension that this causes. The story focuses on Andy wanting everything to go back to how it was before the divorce, and the book is sympathetic in its explanations of why this can't happen. It encapsulates perfectly a child coming to terms with the fact that some changes in life cannot be undone; a useful novella for independent readers nearing the end of primary school.

Finally, a list of children's books to read on divorce would not be complete without mentioning Kes Gray's Mum and Dad Glue. This book is often cited by family lawyers, and hearing a child read it aloud is an emotive tool for any parent going through a separation and the professionals that work with them. The book begins, 'My mum and dad are broken, I don't know what to do', and goes on to detail a child's search for the special type of glue that will mend his parents' relationship. The search is fruitless and ends with the child being told by the owner of a glue shop that the type of glue he is looking for does not exist.

While the book's messages are very important, it should perhaps be approached with caution. More than half of the story centres on the child's thoughts about mending his parents' relationship and his search for the 'glue' to do so; this might lead some children to expect that this is possible and to feel let down when it is not, although it concludes by emphasising that it is the parents' love for each other that has broken and not their love for the child. Every parent going through a separation should read this book, but possibly not every child. Suitable for children aged 5 and up, it is one to be read in conjunction with an adult rather than independently.

The books mentioned above are the mere tip of the iceberg. There are many books and other resources, including online support, which can help children experiencing a family breakdown. What works or helps one child might not necessarily help another; therefore, the choice of resource should be individual to suit the needs of the child in question. For children struggling to come to terms with the changes in their family, further support and advice might be necessary.