Divorce and separation are major events in a child’s life, but most children, with the right support, can manage during the separation. Here are some ways you can help your child through this challenging time.
Separation and divorce are common in Australia. About 1 in 5 children experience the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
Most children of separated parents adjust well, although they may be slightly more likely to have behaviour problems, anxiety or depression than children of intact families.
That doesn’t mean parents should try to stay together no matter what. Conflict between parents can be very damaging for children, both before and after separation. If there is a lot of anger, any verbal abuse or physical violence in the home, children may do better if their parents separate. This will reduce the child’s exposure to conflict and in turn give them the space they need, away from issues that the parents may have with each other.
How can divorce affect children?
The way in which a divorce or separation affects your children – and the way they respond – will depend on the situation, their age, their development and the sort of person they are. Every child is different.
Children who are naturally anxious might find adjustment more difficult than children who do not suffer from anxiety. Experiencing conflict which is centred on the children is also likely to affect their ability to adjust, particularly because many children blame themselves for parental conflict. Divorce can also mean big changes to children’s lives. They may be anxious about living in 2 homes or joining a blended family, worried about not seeing their parents, or unsettled as they adjust to the new arrangements.
Families are the centre of children’s lives. When the family unit is broken, the child may experience grief. Loss of a family which they believed to be intact can be very difficult for them to understand and accept. In some situations however, 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 in order to deal with them. Some children experience a regression in behaviour, becoming more clingy, wetting the bed, not wanting to go to school, 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 for them, especially younger children, to understand when a marriage is over. Responding to a 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. 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.
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 (as well as 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 and will put pressure on them to come up with an answer which they believe you want to hear.
Be respectful about the other parent: It is harmful to children when parents attack or criticise each other. Children should never have to take sides or to be your go-between. They have a right to love both of you and shouldn’t have to choose between you. Minimise arguments and find a way to communicate respectfully with the other parent, making 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, it’s possible to maintain your child’s regular routines to help 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, keeping things calm and focused 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 some time out to have fun. Go for a walk, a bike ride, put some music on and dance, go see a film together, or do something spontaneous.
Seek support: If you are worried about your child, seek professional help. It’s also important that you are getting help for yourself, not relying on your child for emotional support. Read more here about being a single parent.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is going through a divorce, there are a number places you can go for help:
- What about the Children? (Relationships Australia)
- Family Relationships Online
- Family Court of Australia
- call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: December 2019