Supporting your child through divorce and separation
Listening to your child’s voice after separation
There is a lot happening after separating from your partner. It can often be a time of high emotion and high conflict.
While you might be doing your best to protect your child from the impact of separation, children will often pick up on many of these emotions and experiences and might need to talk about the situation. Children can feel caught in the middle between their parents.
With all that is happening during and after separation, some parents may be focusing on the routine of day-to-day parenting without really listening to what their children are telling them.
This guidance is intended to help you, as a parent or carer, think about what you can do to listen carefully and be in the best position to respond to what your child says.
We have provided some simple steps you can take to listen and respond to your child, some of which you might find easier than others.
You might also find it helpful to look at the Parenting Plan, if you have not done so already.
‘Emotional readiness’ is about acknowledging your own feelings and any negative thoughts about your child’s other parent, and then being able to put them aside so that you can put your child’s needs first and hear how they are feeling about what has happened. Doing this helps you to understand your child better and to respond in the ways that are most helpful for them.
Parents sometimes assume their children are experiencing the same things as they are, and also that their child sees things how their parents see things - from your own point of view. Unless their child is showing visible signs that they are distressed by what has happened (sometimes in behaviour) or are able to express their own feelings openly, parents often do not realise that their children are experiencing things intensely and internally.
A parent’s own emotions can be so overwhelming that, despite their best intentions, it is difficult for them to recognise and respond to how their child is feeling about what has happened.
This is why it is so important that both parents understand and manage their own feelings. Without doing so, they cannot be emotionally ready to understand and help their child cope with how they are feeling.
It is completely normal and understandable to have intense feelings of distress when you and the person you had a child with are going through the process of separating or have separated. Parents tell us these emotions can be overwhelming and may include feeling:
The range and intensity of the emotions will depend on a number of things, such as:
whether ending the relationship has happened over a long period of time or whether it has been sudden;
whether the ending has involved a sense of betrayal;
whether it has been your decision to end the relationship; and
how easily you can communicate with the other parent.
It can feel like an impossible task to be asked to put aside your own feelings and take a co-parenting approach to making arrangements that are in the best interests of your child.
Putting aside your own negative feelings about your child’s other parent will help you to pick up on the signs that indicate what your child is feeling distressed and traumatised by what has happened to their life. It will help you to listen and respond to them.
There are three steps to help you become emotionally ready to listen to your child and help them to recover from the trauma of their parents’ break-up.
Step 1 – acknowledge your own feelings
Acknowledging your emotions involves two important aspects:
accepting your emotions are human and normal; and
finding ways of managing your emotions.
During a separation, it is very common to experience negative emotions that are sometimes overwhelming. They have often built up over time. Feelings do not go away if we pretend they are not there. In our training and experience, ignoring our feelings or bottling them up can lead to them bursting out in unpredictable ways.
Accepting your own emotions – you may find it helps to keep a diary of how you feel and what triggers certain feelings.
To help your child, you will need to keep your own feelings under control so you can listen actively to your child. Putting a label on how you feel can help you feel in control. This is the first step in the process of beginning to manage your feelings in a way that is helpful for your child – and ultimately for you.
‘Managing your emotions’ means acknowledging that the feelings you have are there, but not letting them get in the way when you listen and respond to your child about how they are feeling or confusing how you are feeling with how your child is feeling.
This will help you to think about things from your child’s point of view. Managing your emotions will help you understand and respond to your child’s needs, wishes, feelings, and questions.
How will I know when I am emotionally ready? You will know you are emotionally ready when you can shift your focus away from how you are feeling about what has happened and your child’s other parent to the welfare of your child and what is best for them.
This is beyond easy! It will take time, effort, and support. Step 2 might help.
Step 2 – communicating with your child and using your listening skills
This step is about communicating with your child and using your skills.
Finding ways of staying calm when your feelings are bubbling up will help you to keep your feelings in check. It is hard to realise when you are showing signs of distress or are in a state of heightened emotions.
There are some simple exercises that can be effective and help you to put your feelings to one side and to focus on attending to your child. You might find it helpful to repeat these several times:
Relax your shoulders.
Check that fingers and jaws are not tense or clenched. If they are, shake out fingers and relax your jaw.
Check your breathing: you should be taking deep breaths from your diaphragm, rather than shallow and from your chest.
Taking a break by walking around or going outside can help you to change your focus and let go of your thoughts until you are ready to listen to your child.
You can practice listening actively to your child no matter what they are telling you. You can do this with some of their day-to-day worries or triumphs before talking about the bigger things. Listening actively means:
not thinking about your own reaction and/or just waiting to express a counter-argument or explanation you might have in response, while your child is speaking. If you are preoccupied with your own response, you cannot be hearing what your child is saying; and
asking the other person whether you have actually understood or taken in what he or she has said: “Is this correct: I think you have said…”, and then it is helpful to repeat back to your child what you have heard your child say in their words, rather than what you think it might mean. Your child then has a chance to correct you if you have not understood what they are trying to tell you.
‘Seeing things differently’ is about considering the situation the way your child does and keeping your own feelings about the other parent separate. Young people who have gone through this this have titled their book of their experiences, ‘In Our Shoes’.
A helpful tip when listening to your child is not to jump in too quickly with a response or answer – leave a little space and try to see things from your child’s point of view.
Step 3 – giving your child effective reassurance
You may be feeling out of control yourself about what has happened and what is happening. Your child will be feeling like this too. So, it is important for you to support and reassure them.
An essential aspect of giving your child reassurance is staying calm (again!). This can be done using the skills outlined in step 2 and by truly listening – not just waiting for your turn to talk or interrupting.
Additionally, being able to see things from your child’s perspective and shifting the focus from how you are seeing things will be helpful when reassuring your child.
Reassurance is essential for your child’s emotional wellbeing and mental health. Not providing your child with reassurance could result in them experiencing feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and anger. As a result of these, they can potentially become rebellious, withdrawn, or silent, and their true worries and emotions can become hidden. This is an unsafe space for your child.
However, you can prevent this by reassuring your child. Reassurance works if it is:
possible – you can only reassure a child about what you know you can make happen – ideally together with their other parent;
a real example of how things will be and how it will work – make your explanation realistic and specific, such as “Your dad will be moving to X at X time and you will be seeing him on X day this week,” rather than: “Things will be fine and you will see your dad soon, so don’t worry about it.”; and
honest and ongoing: for those things you are not yet sure you can make happen Your child will be helped best by you saying “We don’t know yet, but we will work on it” – and keeping them updated as and when you can give your child more information, such as you want to move house to an area where they can still attend the same school and keep their friends, but you do not know if that is possible yet. You will update them as soon as you know.
What real reassurance should be about
Here are some guidelines for reassuring your child:
Reassure your child as far as you honestly can about what will not change: such as school, friends, routines, etc., or be clear what the changes will be and how you will support them through it.
Depending on their age and understanding, involve your child in making choices about the changes that will take place.
If known, reassure your child about how and when they will remain in contact with their other parent and other family members important to them, like grandparents and in what way (email, video call, visits, etc.).
Try to make sure that you deliver on what you have said will happen (such as when contact will take place; whether it is overnight; how their new bedrooms should be decorated; what the new routines will be like, etc.) or if you have not been able to make it happen be honest about it and explain why.
It is important to be accepting when communicating with your child rather than being dismissive. Below is a table of dismissing and accepting statements.
|Dismissing (what not to say)||Accepting (what to say|
|“You don’t need to be angry. There’s nothing to be scared about.”||"Children do feel angry and also scared when their parents split up. Acknowledge that this is how they feel."|
|“Oh, come on. It’s not that bad. Look at all the fun we’re going to have together. Loads of people go through this and they don’t feel like that: get over it!”||“It looks like you’re feeling worried. I’m happy to try talking about it with you – that might help.”|
|“You’re overreacting.”||“It sounds like this is really making you sad.”|
|“Don’t worry! There’s nothing to worry about.”||“I understand that. Which parts of [whatever the worry is centred on, such as the separation or a house move] do you think will be difficult?”|
|“No – that’s not the right way to think about it.”||“That’s an interesting thought. Can we try to see why you’d think that?”|
|“You can’t possibly wish for that!”||“I can see why you might want that; let’s think about how you see that working, or not working.”|
Accepting statements do not make a judgement. The dismissing statements make a judgement, put down, or minimise how your child is feeling and give the child the message that the feeling is not alright to have and should go away or be ignored. This can result in them hiding or suppressing their feelings, which in turn can result in emotional harm and behavioural difficulties.
It is important to be accepting in these circumstances even if the child’s wishes cannot in the end be met – at least they will have felt heard and understood.
By listening, you are not promising anything except to understand better. This:
makes it clearer for the child how to communicate effectively with you;
takes into account the child feeling worried or scared; and
shows how to talk with acceptance rather than being dismissive.
This openness to hearing your child’s voice, even when they might fear that what they need to say might be hurtful or upsetting, is the necessary step for your child to know that it is acceptable and safe to feel all the upsetting, confusing, and worrying feelings that they may have.
Remember, sometimes what your child needs or feels is not obvious to them. Being a parent is really hard anyway. It is even harder when you are separating from their other parent.
Children may or may not ask directly or clearly for what they need. They may, instead, hide their feelings and they may or may not realise they are doing this.
They may feel worried and insecure and not know how to label how they feel, and consequently may answer either shortly (such as “I’m fine”), or deny their feelings (such as “No, I’m not worried or angry”). Or they may:
‘act out’ by becoming rebellious or change the way they normally play so that it is angrier, or begin to shift their social groups to people with whom they feel they have emotions in common, so they are in an angrier or rebellious group;
become more withdrawn, unwilling, or unable to share their thoughts and feelings; or
become more helpful and ‘good’ so as not to disturb the atmosphere with either parent or to be so ‘good’ in the hope that perhaps the separation will mend.
The gender of your child or how they identify can be an important factor here, as can their age and stage of development.
In general, boys tend to ‘act out’ in their behaviour while girls tend to ‘withdraw’ or try to be more helpful. This is not always the case of course. Younger children might display their feelings through symbolic play, such as drawings or imaginative play, which may feature sadness or anger.
All children benefit from their parents or the adults they trust helping them to figure out what their feelings are so that these feelings do not come out in ways that harm themselves or others.
Here are some ways children may express disturbing feelings indirectly:
|Can't think of anyone else beyond the separation/divorce.||Skip school.|
|Have nightmares.||Drink too much.|
|Get really mad at people for little things.||Use drugs.|
|Wet the bed.||Break the law.|
|Become babyish.||Sexual promiscuity.|
|Don't want to be far from home.||Decline in behaviour or results at school.|
|Refuse to play with friends.||Withdraw to their rooms more than usual.|
|Are angry at their parents.||Are angry to parents and adults.|
|Destroy their own property (toys for instance).||Don't sleep.|
|Over or under eat.|
How to open up a conversation with your child who is not expressing their feelings directly
Use open-ended, non-judgemental questions: “I noticed you’ve been quieter than usual and I’m just wondering if you’re feeling sad? I can imagine you might be – I could be wrong though.”
Accompany this with assurances of how you will listen to your child’s answers to allow them to feel open when expressing their feelings. With younger children, making a drawing of their family and talking about it can help.
Here are a few tips about talking to your child about how they feel:
Try to move from the general to the specific, such as “What is it about us moving house that is worrying you?”
Stay calm (even if you are not feeling calm) using the skills outlined in step 2 above.
Try not to jump in with what you think too quickly – listen and wait until your child has finished speaking before checking out that you have heard them and then giving them your views.
It might be that your child has had time to think but has not been able to pinpoint why they are feeling sad, angry or worried. It is okay for you to offer some suggestions if you have an idea why they might be feeling like that, such as “Do you think you are worried because you will miss your dad?”
There is a chance that your child may not want to talk about it but giving them the invitation to talk and open up will help, even if they have not done so or are ready to.
Non-verbal communication is good too – a hug can go a long way.
If and when you have uncovered an issue (such as worries about moving house) it might help to do some problem-solving together. You could do this by thinking of some solutions with your child, helping you to come up with a practical plan together.
While listening to what your child wants plays an important part in helping you reach wise and safe decisions for them, remember that you are the adult. Your child should never be put in the position of having their word be the final one, but their voice does need to be heard, understood, and considered, most of all by their parents.
Parents, as adults, are the people who need to take responsibility for making final decisions together, and where they are not able to do this independently, the courts will make the decisions.
It is important to remember that it is damaging for children to be put in the middle, in the position of judge, spy, or parent.
You need to take care that your child does not get caught in the middle or feels pressured into taking sides. This can be extremely upsetting for children and can damage their relationship with both parents. This can very often be obvious to the professionals working with you. In extreme circumstances it can be seen as ‘alienating behaviours’.
Except in the exceptional circumstances in which their welfare and/or safety is in jeopardy, it is the right of every child to preserve and maintain consistent, loyal, and loving relationships with both parents. Unless there is a risk of harm, the decision of their parents to separate should not put the child’s continuing relationship with both parents at risk of breaking down.
Here are some helpful tips to avoid ‘coaching’ or pressurising a child:
Try to make sure that you understand your feelings and have been able to ‘park’ them (see ‘Being emotionally ready’) before talking to your child.
Try to make sure that your child knows that both of you are listening and are talking to each other about what you are hearing.
No matter how hard you try, children will pick up on the negative feelings expressed by their parents during and after their separation. This will make your child feel anxious or distressed. It is important that you listen to your child to ease as much of their worry as possible.
Before you sit down with your child, it is important to privately acknowledge the negative feelings you have towards your child’s other parent and set them aside. This way you can understand your child’s feelings better and respond in the best way for them.
Here are three easy steps to help your child feel as comfortable as possible when talking about how they feel about your decision to separate:
Talking to your child about their other parent, before you understand how you feel, can be counterproductive. One way you can process your feelings is by writing them down, which can help you feel more in control.
Another way could be having a conversation with a trusted friend, family member, or professional. Remember that having negative feelings is normal, but you do not want to influence the way your child thinks about their other parent because that is not good for your child now or in the long run.
Staying calm is one of the most important things to remember when talking to your child. You do not want them to feel like they cannot talk to you without you becoming agitated, or that they are part of the problem.
Keeping your shoulders relaxed and breathing deeply can help. Keep in mind that your child might have a different viewpoint to you, and that it is important for you to respect their point of view.
If they say something you do not expect, try to react as little as possible. Responding negatively to something your child says can stop them from talking about their worries or problems in the future. Not being able to talk to you about how they feel is very harmful for them.
Try and let them talk as much as possible and help them by reflecting back to them what you have heard and by asking questions in response.
Try to keep questions as neutral as possible. For example, “Would you like to spend equal time with mummy and daddy?”, rather than, “You’d rather spend more time with me, wouldn’t you?”
The final step is to end the conversation by reassuring your child. It is good to prepare what to say in advance so that you do not promise something you cannot make happen.
Try to reassure them about the things that you know will stay the same. For example, if they are worried that they might have to change school, but you know they will not have to, use this as a reassurance.
However, if spending lots of family time with both parents is not possible, do not give them false hope.
It is important to be accepting when talking with your child rather than being dismissive.
|Does their body language give any clues about how they are feeling?||Your child’s body language can offer you a better idea of how they are feeling. For example, if they are finding it difficult to look at you, they might be feeling nervous. When you are having a conversation with them about your separation, keep an eye on any changes in body language, like crossed arms, to identify if your child is struggling.|
|Have they been acting differently; for example, misbehaving at school, or falling out with friends?||This might mean that they are finding it difficult to express distressing feelings about your separation. If you notice these changes in behaviour, it might be helpful to have a conversation with your child, and reassure them about how much you love them.|
|Are they avoiding conversations about your separation?||Again, this might be a clue that your child is not finding it easy to process your separation and might need some help in expressing their feelings.|
|Are they not responding to you?||This is normal. Sometimes children want to talk to an independent person about their feelings, to avoid upsetting you. Contacting your GP, your child’s school counsellor, or other health professionals, can help if you think this might be the case.|
Remember to use open-ended, non-judgemental questions and accompany this with assurances of how you will listen to your child’s answers.
Children go through a wide range of emotions when their parents are separating. They may experience periods of unhappiness and low self-esteem, and many will express their unresolved feelings in behaviour.
Low self-esteem is often connected to feelings of sadness or anxiety and can lead some children to withdraw socially. Children with low self-esteem may focus on the negative, worry about the way they treat others, find it difficult to accept compliments, and feel reluctant to do things.
Understanding the impact of your conflict on your child
Being in the presence of conflict can have a negative effect on a child’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. It is always best for your child if you and their other parent can keep any residual conflict away from the children.
What’s the solution?
Most children of separated parents tell us they find it easier to settle back into a normal pattern of development when their parents maintain a good relationship and communicate well with each other.
You can take steps towards improving communication with your ex-partner with our free online Parenting Plan.
However, it is important to note that other factors, such as the child’s temperament or other stressors, may make things harder for the child to settle back into their routine.
Talking to your child
If you are worried about how your child is coping with your separation, make some time to talk to them. Find out how your child is feeling and reassure them that they are not to blame for the breakdown between you and their other parent.