Coping with your child's reactions

Children react to separation and divorce different ways:

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

 

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, and have trouble playing or getting on with their friends. Depending on the circumstances, some children 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. Some may have long-term difficulties that can lead to various emotional and behavioural problems.

Distracted parents


Separation can be a distressing for everyone involved. Many parents end up distracted during the process and find it hard to give their children 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 friend, health professional or counsellor. You can only be there for your child if you’re looking after yourself, and a bit of support can make all the difference. Grandparents and other relatives can also provide valuable support for you and your children.

Take the time to talk and listen


Children can usually sense problems, even if they don't fully understand them. They may search for their own interpretations, such as believing they are to blame for the separation. You can help them make sense of the situation by talking to them about what's going on.

Talk to your children about what they want from future arrangements, and reassure them that they don’t have to make the final decisions on their own. This can help them feel that their views are important, but that they are not expected to have to choose between their parents.

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

Children often feel a great sense of loss about the separation. Let them grieve in whatever way they need to. They will need time to adjust to the changes in their family relationships.

Children often go through stages of loss and grief, and denial is a common response. They may also express anger towards you. Try not to take it personally – it’s all part of the process.

A child will naturally have hopes and fantasies about the family, such as wanting you all to be reunited. Talk about these feelings, but be honest and avoid raising false hopes.

Reassure your child


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

Children are often worried that if their parents can stop loving each other, they might stop loving their children too. This fear can be more intense when there is a new partner or new children on the scene. Reassure your children that, although you and your partner feel differently about each other, you will always love and take care of them. You may need to offer this reassurance several times.

Protect children from your problems


Children need to know that it’s OK to enjoy the time they spend with their other parent. This can be hard, as they are often aware of the difficulties you are having. You can help them by reassuring them that they’re allowed to love both parents.

It can be extremely distressing for children when they hear their parents criticising or blaming each other. If you have to vent your frustrations about your ex, avoid doing it in front of your children. While it’s helpful to keep them in the loop about the changing arrangements, they don’t need to know all the details about your breakup.