What happens for children when their parents separate? Children can react very differently to separation or divorce. The way they react depends on a number of things, but two important factors are the age of the child and the degree of conflict and animosity between the parents. There is no doubt this is a stressful period for children, but most recover and end up leading normal healthy lives.

Children from separated families can develop and flourish just as well as other children. Their adjustment is enhanced when parents remain sensitive to the children’s needs. Separation is often a surprise for children and they generally experience many of the same feelings as adults. Children can also grieve for quite a long time. They may be unaware of the problems their parents were having and they may feel shocked and confused when the separation occurs. They are also likely to feel insecure and worry whether the remaining parent will leave them as well.

Some children may feel that they must have been to blame. Others may feel very angry with either or both of their parents and want to blame one of them. Sometimes children become unsure about whether they can still love the parent who left, and they can wonder what is happening to the absent parent.

Although parents are often upset and confused themselves at this time, it is important to try to understand what your children are going through and to consider their feelings as well. Remember, it can be far less harmful for a child to go through family breakdown than to go on living in an unhappy family where there is extreme tension and fighting in the home.

Ways you can help your children:

  1. When you begin to accept the separation then your children will be able to do the same — it is important that you get on with your life and not dwell in the past or hang on to any anger or bitterness.
  2. Ensure your children know you both still love them and that this will always be the case.
  3. Don’t criticise the other parent in front of the children.
  4. Be positive about the other parent when talking to your children.
  5. Give your children the clear message that it is good for them to have an ongoing relationship with both of you.
  6. Let your children know that even though separating is upsetting, you are handling it and expect things to improve.
  7. Be aware that children often tell you what they think you want to hear and sometimes what they say should not be taken too literally. A young child who says, when questioned about his time with his father: “I don’t like the food my daddy gives me to eat”, may just want to reassure his mother that he likes living with her.
  8. Talk to the other parent about your children and their interests.
  9. Talk to your children’s teachers.
  10. Give your children the time to think about and express their own feelings about the other parent, even if those feelings are not the same as yours.
  11. Avoid conflict and arguments in front of your children.
  12. Avoid asking them to give messages to the other parent.
  13. Turn to other adults for emotional support rather than your children.
  14. Help your children to discuss their feelings about the separation.
  15. Reassure children that they are not to blame — sometimes when parents are fighting some of the anger is directed toward the children who may then mistakenly believe that it was because they were bad or troublesome that led to their parent’s separation.