As difficult as separation or divorce may be for a couple, it can be very troubling for children.

Virtually all children whose parents are separating experience painful feelings such as fear, loss, anger, and confusion. However, children can and do recover. In fact, most children of separated parents grow up relatively healthy and well-adjusted. Parents can play a crucial role in helping their children cope with the crisis of their parents’ separation. With understanding and guidance, children can learn to deal with the emotional trauma of separation and the healing process can begin.

Feelings of sadness and loss

During the elementary school years, children typically experience feelings of sadness and a profound sense of loss in reaction to their parents’ separation. Strong feelings of grief and sorrow are common, and children often long for the non-resident parent and the security of their old family. Some children even feel embarrassed or ashamed about their family’s situation. Though it is less common in older children, feelings of responsibility and self-blame for the separation may occur. While some children express their anguish outwardly (i.e. crying), others struggle to hold their emotions inside.

What can parents do?

  • help children express their feelings verbally and non-verbally (i.e. art, music, writing)
  • acknowledge children’s emotions and help them understand what they are feeling
  • reassure children that their feelings are normal and okay
  • provide age-appropriate explanations for the separation so children know it isn’t their fault
  • help children meet other kids whose parents have separated so they know they’re not alone
  • consider enrolling children in a separation/ divorce support group

Anxiety and fear

Fear and worry are also common reactions among elementary school children with separating parents. The safety and security of family routines are often disrupted when parents separate, which may leave children feeling scared and insecure. Some children experience an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of the many changes in their lives. Younger children may even be afraid that their parents will abandon them or stop loving them. The conflict that children often witness between parents during this transition is also extremely stressful and can result in anxiety. Sometimes children at this age will talk quite openly about their concerns. However, nervous habits such as fidgeting or nail biting and physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches are also common. Among older children, withdrawal from friends and social activities is another sign of worry or fear.

What can parents do?

  • avoid conflict in the presence of children
  • minimize disruptions in family routines
  • tell children what changes to expect in their lives: where they will live, who will care for them and so on
  • reassure children that you love them and will continue to take care of them
  • allow older children some input into custody/ visitation plans but maintain ultimate responsibility for making decisions
  • provide steady and predictable parenting
  • set aside special time with each child
  • encourage children to express their worries, acknowledge and validate their feelings
  • teach children relaxation and coping skills

Anger and aggression

Angry feelings are also common among elementary school children whose parents are separating. Sometimes children are outraged at parents for separating and may berate or scold parents for their actions. They may express their anger by blaming parents for causing the separation. Older children may try to initially hurt parents through verbal attacks expressing their anger. Children’s anger at parents may take more subtle forms too, such as uncooperative behaviour, arguing about rules, or complaining about chores. Sometimes children’s anger shows itself in aggressive behaviour and fights with other children or siblings as well.

What can parents do?

  • let children know it’s okay to be mad
  • teach children healthy ways to express anger (e.g. talking, artwork, sports)
  • be firm when children’s angry behaviour is inappropriate and encourage better ways to cope with their feelings
  • remind children how to deal with frustration and conflicts with other children
  • let school teachers and other caregivers know about the separation so they can help the child cope.

Virtually all children experience some difficulty adjusting to the changes brought on by parental separation. In most cases, the emotional wounds heal over time and children recover from the crisis. If a child’s distress is extreme or persists for an extended period, professional counseling or intervention can help. By being aware of the ways that separation can affect children, parents can take steps to ease the difficulties children often face, and help them cope more successfully.

Recommended books:

  • Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce by Florence Bienenfeld
  • When Mom and Dad Separate by M. Heegaard
  • Helping Children Cope With Divorce by A. Teyber.

Written by Information Children

Information Children, part of Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, is a non-profit organization in existence since 1979. They provide information, support and referrals to parents and anyone involved in the care of children. Visit their website for more information.