Helping children through separation

Your decision has been made: you are going to separate, or perhaps a separation has already occurred. You, your ex-partner and your children are preparing to experience a period of great change in your emotional life, your lifestyle and financial matters. This is a time when responsibilities alter and are re-evaluated. Things will never be the same again, but there are many things a parent can do which have been proven to help children adapt.

Firstly, it is essential that children understand what is going on. Children who do not understand exactly what is happening are much more likely to develop severe negative reactions than children who are told exactly what is going to happen and why. It is important to answer children's questions honestly, but with one important exception - it is best not to blame your ex-partner for the troubles, regardless of how much you feel that he or she is worthy of blame. It is important to tell children that they are not to blame, even though they may think that the divorce or separation is partly or totally their fault. It is important to say this even if your children do not appear to blame themselves. Children need to be told that the separation has nothing to do with how they behaved and that this was a decision made by two adults based only upon problems the adults were having.

You will need to make practical arrangements about visits, with whom the child will be staying, how to contact each parent, and so on. As soon as these arrangements have been made, it is important to explain them clearly and answer all your child's questions. Very often, children are as disturbed by practical matters as by the emotional impact of the change. The more you are able to explain details of the practical arrangements and give the children time to prepare for any changes in their living situation, the better.

It is also best to try to make changes one at a time, rather than changing everything at once. For example, if children have to move house but can still attend their old schools until the end of the year, this is better than changing homes, friends, contact with parents and schools all at the same time. Although parents might want to 'get everything over with' all at once, gradual changes in the situation are usually better for the children.

It is important to listen carefully to how your children feel and what they think about the separation. Children need to be encouraged to express these feelings because they very often have false ideas about what is going to happen, why the separation has occurred and how their parents feel about them. It is important to correct these false ideas and to understand what is really bothering your children.

Most children hope that their parents will get back together again. Even if your child does not say this, it is important to say to your child that, although it is normal to wish that your parents will get back together again, this is a final decision (if you truly feel that it is a final decision).

It is common for children to feel afraid of being abandoned by one or both parents after a separation. This can even happen with a  parent who is constantly present if a child feels that the parent they knew has changed, is not as happy, feels stressed or just seems more distant. For this reason, it is important for parents to take care of their own emotional needs during a divorce or separation (Read more).

It helps if you can talk about your children's feelings and express your understanding of them. It is not necessary to change the feelings, even feelings such as anger, frustration or sadness. Just saying that you understand and that it is good to talk about those feelings can be very helpful.

Children who get support from more than one source may have an easier time of dealing with a divorce or separation, and so they should be encouraged to talk to friends, grandparents, cousins, neighbours or anyone else with whom they feel comfortable.

There are many good children's books about divorce and children often find reading them helpful. You can read the book with your child and talk about it, for example discussing how the story in the book is similar to or different from your own situation. Sometimes, even if children say that they do not want to read a book on divorce, they may read it secretly if it is left around the house for a while.

Many communities have programmes to help children whose parents have separated. These programmes are often useful and allow children to better understand that divorce and separation is increasingly common and that all children experience the same difficulties and can find solutions to their problems.

(Written by Sarah Dufour, Ph.D and Brian L. Mishara, Ph.D)

Children’s reactions to separation or divorce
‘Immediately after a divorce or separation, it is common for children’s behaviour to change.’ Read more...
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Parenting after separation or divorce
‘No matter how difficult it is to maintain a good relationship with your ex-partner, this is one of the best ways to ensure that your children adapt well.’ Read more...
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Taking care of yourself
‘Parents who adapt well to a divorce or separation are more likely to have children who adjust well.’ Read more...
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Separation & divorce links

> Click here for a list of websites that provide information and resources to help parents help their children to cope with separation and divorce
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