Helping your child cope with separation and divorce


Children cope with separation and divorce in lots of different ways:

Depending on their age, children show their distress differently: babies and young children may become clingy or have trouble sleeping; older children may get very angry, have trouble playing or getting on with their friends, or might side with one parent over the other.

Children need time and help to adapt. Most children will have some difficulty coming to terms with their new family life and a few may have long-term difficulties that can lead to various emotional and behavioural problems.

  • They may feel partly responsible
  • They may feel stuck in the middle and powerless to do anything
  • They may become anxious and feel over-protective of one or both parents
  • They may grieve for what they and their parents have lost
  • They may feel relieved
  • They may feel anger and confusion


Distressed parents are distracted parents

Many parents end up distracted and depressed during separation, and find it hard to give their child the support they need. You can only be there for your child if you look after yourself.

Be honest about how you are coping. If you need help for yourself or in supporting your child, call on a friend, health professional or counsellor. A sympathetic ear and reassurance that you're doing the best for your child can make life more manageable. Grandparents and other relatives can also be important in supporting you and your child at a very difficult time.


Taking time to talk and listen

Children can usually sense problems (even if they can't hear them) and will often think the worst, such as believing they are to blame for the separation. Telling them what's going on can help them to make some sense of the situation.

Listening to what children want future arrangements to be like, while reassuring them that they're not responsible for making final decisions, will help them to feel that their views are important but that they're not expected to have to choose between their parents.

You can help your child feel more secure by helping them to express their feelings, letting them know that you understand how they feel, and making sure they feel they can ask questions if they want to will help.

Children often feel a great sense of loss and letting them grieve is an important part of helping them to deal with the situation and to move on to accept the changes in their family relationships. They often go through stages of loss and grief, and denial is a common response. Children may also express anger towards you. This is all part of the process - try not to take it personally.

A child will naturally have hopes and fantasies about the family, such as wanting you all to be reunited. Talking about these feelings, without raising false hopes, will help your child to move on.


Be reassuring

Children often feel they've done something wrong and that they are to blame for the break up. They can be reassured by hearing that they're not responsible and that, although the situation may be painful and difficult right now, you want to make things better for the future.

Children are often afraid that if their parents loved each other before and now don't, they might stop loving them too. This fear can increase if there is a new partner or new children. Children feel more secure if they are reassured again and again that they are loved, and that although you and your partner feel differently about each other, you will continue to love and take care of them.


Protecting children from your problems

Children need to feel happy about enjoying the time they spend with the other parent. This can be hard, as they are often aware of the difficulties you're having. You can help them to do this by avoiding making them feel that they should take sides and reassuring them that it's OK to love the parent who has left.

Hearing you criticise or blame the other parent can be extremely distressing for children. Avoid doing this in front of them so they don't feel burdened by information and details that they don't need to hear.

It's especially important to avoid arguing about your children with your ex in front of them.  

The content on this page is supplied by The Parent Connection.

Last updated: about 3 years ago