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Coping with your child's reactions

A woman holds a child

Children react to separation and divorce in different ways. They may:  

  • feel somehow responsible for what has happened;  

  • want to try and ‘put things right’; 

  • feel caught in the middle of the tension or conflict; 

  • feel powerless; 

  • feel lonely and ashamed;  

  • become worried and feel protective of one or both parents;  

  • grieve for what they and their parents have lost;  

  • feel relieved;  

  • have bad dreams about losing a parent; and/or  

  • feel angry and confused.  

Depending on their age, children show their feelings of distress differently. Babies and young children may become clingy or have trouble sleeping. Older children may get angry and have trouble playing or getting on with their friends. Depending on the circumstances, some children might side with one parent over the other.  

Your child will need time and your help to adapt to this major change in their life. Most children will have some difficulty coming to terms with what has happened. Some may have long-term difficulties that can lead to various emotional and behavioural problems. How you understand these risks and work together with their other parent will make all the difference.  

Becoming distracted

Separation can be a distressing time for everyone involved, for you, your wider family and friends, but most of all for your child. Children tell us that it can feel like their world has fallen apart. Many parents end up distracted during the process and find it hard to give their child the support they might need. Be honest about how you are coping. If you need help for yourself or in supporting your child, call on a trusted friend (one who will not ‘take sides’) health professional or counsellor. Members of your wider family can also provide support for you and your child. You can only be there for your child if you look after yourself. The right support for you through such a difficult time can make all the difference. Grandparents and other relatives can also provide valuable support for you and your children.  

Taking time to talk through what has happened and listening to how your child feels 

Children of all ages sense the problems that led to your separation, even if they do not fully understand them. They will try to make sense of it for themselves if you are not open with them. This can include believing they are somehow to blame for what has happened. You can help them make sense of what has happened by being open with them in a neutral way about what has happened, reassuring them that they are loved and telling them that things will be okay.  

It will help if you talk to your children about what arrangements they want and reassure them that they do not have to make the decision, but that you and their other parent will make the final decisions as you have done when you were together. This can help them feel that their views are important, but that they are not expected to have to choose between you.  

You can help your child feel more secure emotionally by encouraging them to talk about their feelings and ask questions, and by avoiding expressing any resentment or hostility you may be feeling to their other parent.  

Children often feel an enormous sense of loss about the separation of their parents. It is important to give them space to grieve in whatever way they need to. The grieving process goes through different stages from denial, to anger, to despair, to acceptance and adjustment. They are likely to feel angry with you both while they come to terms with what has happened and get used to the adjustments to their life. It is important to try and not to take their anger personally. It is part of the process. They will be worried about what their friends will think. They will need time to adjust to the changes.  

Some children have hopes and fantasies about reunification, getting back to how they were. Talk about these natural feelings but be honest and avoid raising false hopes.  

Reassuring your child  

Children often feel they have done something wrong or that they are to blame for your breakup. You can reassure them by explaining that they are not responsible and that you and their other parent are going to do all you can together to make things as easy as possible for them in the future.  

Children are often worried that if their parents can stop loving each other, they might stop loving their children too. They can lose trust in us. This fear can be more intense when there is a new partner or new children on the scene. It is important to their emotional wellbeing and their mental health that you reassure your child that, although you and their other parent feel differently about each other and can’t live together, you will always love and take care of them. You may need to offer this reassurance several times as they adjust and learn to trust you again.  

Protecting your child from your negative feelings and problems 

Children need to know that it is alright to enjoy the time they spend with their other parent. This can be hard for you. It can also be hard for them, as they are often aware of the difficulties you are having and do not want to be disloyal to you. You can help your child by reassuring them that it is okay to love both their parents.  

Children tell us how distressing it is for them when they hear their parents criticising or blaming each other. They can feel like they are being torn apart. If you need to express your feelings of frustration and anger about your child’s other parent, it is vital to their welfare that you do not do it in front of your child. While it is helpful to keep them informed about what has changed, they really do not need to know all the details about your breakup.