Focus: Daddy's gone protesting. Mummy's gone to court. So what about the kids?

How does it feel when your parents are at war? Militant fathers can campaign and mothers go to law, but children usually suffer in silence. Here girls and boys tell Joanna Moorhead how bitter family break-up has affected them
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The Independent Online

When it comes to divorce, there are two sides to every story, right? Wrong, actually. Protests by Fathers 4 Justice may focus our attention on one area of fallout after a marriage breaks down, but when a divorcing couple has kids there are more than two sides to the tale. There may be three or four, or even five or six, perspectives on what's going on - each from a person whose life is going to be hugely affected, now and in the future.

When it comes to divorce, there are two sides to every story, right? Wrong, actually. Protests by Fathers 4 Justice may focus our attention on one area of fallout after a marriage breaks down, but when a divorcing couple has kids there are more than two sides to the tale. There may be three or four, or even five or six, perspectives on what's going on - each from a person whose life is going to be hugely affected, now and in the future.

The problem is that not all the voices are heard: it may be one of the tragedies of our age that so many children suffer in silence as their parents' relationship crumbles from under them. And it is, literally, from under them: for children, parents and family life are bedrocks.

When the ground shifts and the marriage ends, children are vulnerable in an almost unique way. Psychologists say it is like suffering a bereavement: typically, youngsters experience a range of emotions from grief and denial through bargaining and anger to depression and finally - in some cases - acceptance.

What is especially hard is that the people usually best placed to help children - their parents - may be too overcome by grief and their own problems to help. So children must sail through the most turbulent and challenging waters of their lives alone and unsupported. The typical reaction from adults around them is that "they're coping". Or "they're resilient - you know how kids are ..."

So how are the children? Less than OK, according to the evidence. Research shows that children whose parents have gone through a relationship breakdown are more likely to get depressed and anxious, and more likely to get into trouble. They're also more likely to get behind with their schoolwork, and to become alcoholics or drug addicts in the long term. They are less likely to form happy and lasting relationships of their own, and more likely to swell divorce figures in the future. The outlook is hardly optimistic.

One of the problems, say those who work with such children, is that they go through a lot more than just the one big life change that people seem to imagine. Separation and divorce are just the start of a train of huge upheavals that come along one after the other. First your parents split up: and that's hard enough to get your head round. Next, there's this new person in your life - your dad's girlfriend, maybe - and you've got to start getting used to her and working through what that all means.

Then money gets tight - so school journeys and shopping trips are severely curtailed - and your mum has to go back to work. Then mum meets a new bloke and his daughter comes to stay every other weekend, which means you suddenly have to share your bedroom with this little girl you hardly know. Later, to top it all, your dad announces his girlfriend is pregnant and you've got a new baby brother or sister on the way.

That, in a nutshell, is the reality facing one in three children in Britain today. And who's listening to their story; who's helping them through? Jewell Erickson is founder of Growing Through, a programme that gives children space to work through their feelings after divorce. She says the kids she encounters get huge benefits from being able to talk and from meeting other youngsters in a similar situation.

The trouble is that only a minority of children are given that sort of chance. For the rest, it's usually a question of bottling it up, living with the grief and hoping that, whatever else happens, your heart won't actually break.

'Why should that girl live with Dad when I can't?'

Simone, eight

I remember when we all lived together, but when I was about five my dad moved out of our house. It wasn't a big thing at the time - my mum said he'd gone to stay with grandma, and she seemed a lot happier so it wasn't horrible or anything. I don't remember ever realising that he wasn't coming back.

I do find it hard spending every other weekend with him. Sometimes he says things about my mum and asks what she's doing. He's also told me he's giving her lots of money, even though she says he isn't, and once he started showing me lots of pieces of paper from the court which I didn't want to see and didn't understand.

My mum has a new partner now. He's a really nice man and my little sister, who was just a baby when dad left, calls him daddy. I tell her not to, because I don't think I could ever call him daddy - it makes me feel bad about my real dad. Mum's having a new baby in December, but my dad says things like, the new baby won't be your real sister or brother, and your mum and her boyfriend might not want you around so much.

I miss my dad lots, especially at school when everyone else has their dad there and mine isn't. He's got a new girlfriend, and she's got a little girl the same age as me. My mum says they're going to move in together. I get really upset thinking about it: why should that girl get to live with my dad when I can't? It's so unfair.

'I worry so much. I did start cutting myself'

Cora, 14

My mum and dad split up when I was five but they got back together again, so when mum said she and I were moving out when I was seven I wasn't that worried - I thought they'd work things out, just like last time. But we never went back.

The worst thing for me was trying to see my dad: I was too little to see him on my own, but my mum never wanted to have anything to do with him - and then he got a new girlfriend, and she didn't want me to see him either. My mum and his girlfriend used to argue about it, and looking back I don't think my dad did enough to keep us together. In the end, they moved away and I didn't see him for a few years. Since then I've seen him a bit, but every time after he's been around he just disappears again and I've got nothing, no contact number, nothing. It feels like a new rejection every time and I hate him for it.

Another really bad thing is that I've got no one to talk to about my dad: my mum gets upset if I even mention him. In a way, looking back, I feel as though my childhood ended when I was seven: since then I've been worried all the time - about my mum because she's depressed and hasn't got enough money, and about my dad because he's usually not around and I don't know whether he's safe.

I know a lot of kids just wish their parents had stayed together: I don't feel that, mostly because I remember their fighting and how they'd hurl plates at one another, and that was very frightening - and I got hurt too, sometimes. But it just goes on and on and on: you think if your parents divorce that would be the end of it, but it isn't.

I've been in hospital because I've been self-harming, cutting myself, and even though I've stopped doing that at the moment I'm still not back at school and I'm seeing a psychiatrist. Everything seems so complicated: my dad has a new baby boy now with his girlfriend, and I've seen him a couple of times. I really love him, but I know they're all going to move away soon and then that'll be it, they just won't be around any more and I'll be left again.

And I worry about the future: I had a boyfriend recently but it all went wrong and I was thinking, it's just like my mum and dad. Even if I do find someone I want to marry, what would that be like? My mum and dad would be rowing right through my wedding day and it would all be ruined ...

'I cried a lot. I lost all my confidence'

Rose, 15

I was so happy at primary school, but then my parents split up just as I was going into secondary school and it was the worst time. I lost all my confidence and I found it hard to believe things would go OK. My parents splitting up had been such a shock - they'd kept their arguments hidden - so I started thinking anything could just change, overnight.

When they sat me and my brother down to tell us, I remember crying so much I thought I'd never stop. Then when dad moved out, I felt so angry with him: I thought he was the one with the problems (I can see now it was about both of them).

I was supposed to see dad every other weekend, but he didn't stick to the arrangements and that was bad: sometimes I thought I'd rather not see him at all than not know what was going to happen and when. In the old days, my mum had always been at home when I came home from school but now she had to go out to work and I hated coming home to an empty house - my mum always used to give me a cuddle when I got in and we'd have a chat about my day.

Things are a bit better now, but I still find it hard that my dad was supposed to be this authority figure in my life ... and he's let me down.

'I hope Mum finds someone new who is not mean and won't run away from us'

Jonah, eight

I only knew that my dad had left six days after it had happened. He used to work a lot, so sometimes I didn't really see him. Then mum told me that dad had gone away. At first I thought that he was coming back. I can't remember when I realised he was gone. I didn't cry when she told me.

He left just before my birthday, when I was nearly seven. It made my birthday bad because we were all sad. Six months later we got involved with each other again when I went to a café to meet him. I was nervous so I couldn't look at him or talk to him. Mum said the words for me that I wanted to say.

I have only seen dad once. I think that is probably because he is far away and every time we called him he didn't pick up the phone. And we didn't know where he lived.

It was a sad life at first, but things have got back to normal. I feel that it's a bit hard for my mum with lots of kids and only one person to do everything. I think she'll get another husband; I just hope it's a good one. I want someone who's a good sports person so that we can play football and one that doesn't run away like dad did. I want him to have a good personality and not be mean.

Sometimes when I go to sleep at night I think about my dad - that's really the only time that I do. I just wonder what he's doing and if he's got a girlfriend or something. If my dad doesn't come back then I want a new one.

All names have been changed