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Melanie Gill: Penelope Leach teaches a harsh truth. Family break-up hits the children hardest


Over the last two weeks, I have watched and listened to the furore surrounding Penelope Leach’s new book Family Breakdown.

Leach’s concern for children who “are being used as weapons in the marital war when actually they are its victims” has hit a very raw nerve.

More than half of all children by the age of 16 are affected by the current epidemic in relationship break-up (not marriage break-up because, as she points out, not all parents are married in the first place).  So perhaps it is no wonder that even before publication, Family Breakdown became the target of angry parents and psychologists.

The book’s aim was to set out – without apology – the pain all children feel when their parents separate, whatever their age. The howls of anger and vitriol aimed at her, and that greeted the organisation which developed the book (Mindful Policy Group) could not have demonstrated its need more. It cannot  be brushed under the carpet, however uncomfortable its message.

It was Penny’s scientifically demonstrable assertion that a mother is mainly the primary attachment figure with whom a baby is better off in the first year of life (even babies can be harmed if they are shuttled around and taken from their primary caregiver) that provoked the most uproar and was taken completely out of context. Yet this had to be stated: separation is a source of  pain that lives on in many adults – who may themselves end up separating from their own children and partner; sometimes barely seeing their children for months, years, sometimes never again.

It is this continuing pain that can overwhelm rational thought. Whether the hatred of an ex-partner, or grief from feelings of childhood abandonment, the pain can be displaced onto anyone else who dares question these deeply held feelings of injustice. With such large numbers of people involved in separation – adults and children – this impacts on us all.

That is why this book is so incredibly important for parents right now. It is literally the first attempt in the UK to draw attention to crucial developmental information about the need for early and consistent attachment in relation to later parental separation; information that is missing from the Government’s repertoire on children, and, as the backlash demonstrates, from society’s understanding too.

In fact ignorance of how we develop generally as humans is ubiquitous. Because of that ignorance we don’t see – or want to see – what actually goes on in the internal world of our children. Many adults have no awareness at all that their children have an internal world, or that it translates their experience completely differently to that of adults.

Children do not communicate their perceptions and feelings in adult language – they can’t and don’t – while parents wrapped up in their own conflict fail to see, let alone understand their pain.

So how many parents really enter their children’s world, as they split up? or are able to put aside the powerful emotions that play out, even in those separations that appear amicable and business-like? How many look into how they are being perceived by their children, how their children are experiencing the situation?

How many will realise that their adored child is about to discover, probably for the very first time, that the people they love most are all too capable of hurting them.

How many have any idea of what goes on in children’s imaginations as they watch the two people they love most in the world force one of the most traumatic of life experiences onto them – their separation from one of their attachment figures, in too many cases for years, unfortunately in others, forever?

In Penelope Leach’s book, for the first time, we are provided with a robust evidence base on all of the above. It gives parents the potential with which to prevent the extreme levels of misery, unhappiness and consequences of their separation; it enables and encourages adults to break through into better, kinder, warmer and more supportive relationships with ex-partners and to continue to ‘mutually parent’ children.

Family dynamics are predicated on attachment relationships. When the parental dynamic goes up in smoke, those crucial attachments are damaged and sometimes smashed; the wreckage always includes a negative change in the future psychological state of the children involved.

There is no way round this. There is no get out of jail free card that can re-translate the basic biology of human relationships. Evolution cannot be thrown aside, even for the clear pain felt by parents entrenched in acrimony.

That is why we at the Mindful Policy Group say clearly that denial and ignorance of attachment is the fundamental organising principle of all human development are no longer acceptable. It is akin to standing fiddling whilst Rome burns. Family courts and parents need this knowledge desperately; don’t take my word for it, listen to judges like Sir Paul Coleridge (the recently retired family court judge and founder of the Marriage Foundation) who wrote the foreword to Penny’s book.

Family Breakdown in fact was inspired by a trip of two of the directors of the Mindful Policy Group to the Association for Family and Conciliation Courts conference in Chicago. Here they found that there were judges, law professionals, psychologists and child professionals committed to changing how children are perceived and understood during parental separation and who recognised the impact on them. All wanted families to suffer less; they all realised it is a no brainer.

How they are doing it is by embracing the neuroscience with open arms. This is the way to become child focused and more collaborative. So the knowledge is coming. It will cause distress to some. It is hard for some parents to accept. Yet it is while we are children that we learn how to become parents; if our childhood is suffused in emotional pain how are we then to create the stability and love all children need consistently?

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Melanie Gill
Melanie Gill
Director, Mindful Policy Group

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