Separation and divorce are common in Australia. About 1 in 5 children experience the breakdown of their parents’ relationship before they turn 18.
While divorce and separation are major events in a child’s life, with the right support, most children adjust well to separation in the long term.
Only a small percentage of children develop significant problems that affect them long-term. They may be slightly more likely to experience behavioural and interpersonal problems, and anxiety or depression.
In most cases, it’s how parents cope with the marital breakdown that impacts children. Conflict between parents can be very damaging for children, both before and after separation.
In a home where there is a lot of anger, verbal abuse or physical violence, children can internalise a chronic sense of fear and not feeling safe. A separation will reduce your child’s exposure to conflict and give them safe space away from the issues that the parents have with each other.
Generally, it’s immediately before and after separation that children are most upset. Sadness and fear are normal emotions. If able to be safely expressed, they allow you to make sense of a difficult situation. In most cases, your child will adjust to their new situation over the next year or two.
How can divorce affect children?
The way a divorce or separation affects your children — and the way they respond — will depend on several things. These include:
- the situation
- the age of your children and their development
- the children’s individual temperaments and personalities
Every child is different.
Many children blame themselves for parental conflict. Children with anxiety worry more about this and what will happen to them in the future.
Divorce can also mean big changes to children’s lives. They may be anxious about:
- where they will live
- living in 2 homes
- joining a blended family
- not seeing their parents
- new arrangements
- their parents feeling sad forever
Families are the centre of children’s lives. When your family unit is broken, your child may experience grief. Loss of a family can be very difficult for them to understand and accept. But if there is extreme conflict, there may be an element of relief.
Children experience the same complexity and range of emotions around divorce as adults. But they do not have the same tools to express themselves or cope with the challenges.
Your child may experience overwhelming emotions and start behaving differently to try to cope with them. Some children experience a regression in behaviour.
- become more clingy
- start wetting the bed
- not want to go to school
- have emotional meltdowns or throwing tantrums
It’s normal for children of parents going through a divorce to fantasise that their parents will get back together. It is hard, especially for younger children, to understand when a marriage is over. Responding to your child's belief that their parents will get back together when this is unlikely can be very challenging.
How to support your child
There is a lot you can do to support your child at this time.
Talk with them: You don’t need to give your child all the details, but it’s important to tell them truthfully what’s going on. Explain things in a way they can understand and reassure them that everything will be OK and that you both still love them.
Let them know they are not to blame. Children may worry that if mum and dad can stop loving each other, can they stop loving their children. Reassure them that this will never happen.
They might ask you some difficult questions, so think carefully before you answer, and be prepared to answer the same questions again and again. Try to keep the conversation open and easy.
Encourage them to talk about their feelings and to share their concerns, remembering that younger children can have difficulty expressing themselves. Help them to put their feelings into words — and ensure you listen to them. Listen to understand, not to merely respond.
Never quiz your child about goings-on in the other parent’s house: Your child needs to continue to have supportive, loving relationships with both parents. And also with other adults like grandparents, extended family and friends. Asking them about what happens in the other parent's house will lead your child to feel torn between parents. You will put pressure on your child to come up with an answer which they believe you want to hear.
Be respectful about the other parent and avoid conflict: It is harmful to children when parents attack or criticise each other. Conflict is the strongest predictor of poor child adjustment after separation, in particular if the conflict is severe (such as verbal abuse or physical violence) or if the conflict is about them.
Children should never have to believe that they caused the conflict. They should never have to take sides or to be your go-between. Minimise arguments and find a way to communicate respectfully with the other parent. Make sure they are kept informed about developments in your child’s life, such as school, health issues, events and social occasions.
Maintain your child’s routines: It’s important to keep changes and disruption to a minimum. Even if they are living between 2 homes, try to maintain your child’s regular routines. This helps them feel safe and secure. You can make sure they go to bed at the same time and keep their regular activities and play dates. Your child will feel more secure if the things that are important to them don’t change. If both parents are carers, work out a co-parenting schedule and routine. Keep things calm and focus on practical matters.
Involve your child in decision making: Even though you’ve separated, you will both still be parents and involved in each other’s lives for years to come. You can still be a family, even after divorce.
Ask your child for their opinions and acknowledge their feelings and needs. Let them know their view counts.
Make time for fun:: When everyone is upset and stressed, it’s important to take time out to have some fun. Go for a walk, a bike ride, put some music on and dance, go see a film together, or just do something spontaneous.
Seek support: If you are worried about your child, seek professional help.
It’s also important to get help for yourself. Do not rely on your child for emotional support. Read more here about being a single parent.
Where to get help
Going through a separation or divorce can be a painful and stressful experience. If you or someone you know is going through a divorce, or if your child needs support dealing with your separation, there are several places you can go for help.
- What about the Children? (Relationships Australia)
- Family Relationships Online
- Family Court of Australia
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: June 2022