Change in the context of family separation can be a challenging time for both adults and children to navigate. Many things change for a child in these circumstances – their parents no longer live together, the child may need to move house too, and daily or weekly routines will also change to accommodate the new living arrangements.
Children’s responses to family separation will be varied and diverse with differences influenced by age and temperament of the child, as well as other environmental factors. Following separation, children can experience strong emotions such as anger, sadness, confusion and frustration. Behavioural responses can include clinginess, acting out, aggression, withdrawal, or perhaps a drive to be really well-behaved. With support from parents and the broader family, children can, and do adjust to the change and continue to thrive in their development with minimal negative effects.
Central to supporting children through family separation is maintaining a sense of belonging and connection within the changing family unit, as well as stability and consistency across different environments.
Belonging and connectedness are linked to children’s good mental health. In the case of family separation, children are likely to experience a range of emotions including a sense of disconnection. All children need to feel that their world is a safe place where people will care about them, where their needs for support, respect and friendship will be met, and where they will be able to get help to work through any problems. When these needs are met, children are more likely to feel a sense of belonging.
Families can support children to cope with family breakdown through reassurance, communication and maintaining a child’s normal routine as far as possible.
Regularly reassure children that they are loved and cared for
Communicate what is happening and how it relates to the child (eg where they will be living, how they will get to school). Use a visual calendar to make this clear
Maintain children’s normal routine where possible, to provide a sense of safety and familiarity
Supporting children to feel connected to both parents following family separation is important. As children are predominately concrete thinkers developmentally, their ability for abstract reasoning is largely limited. An understanding of shared time between houses can be difficult for children. Families can support children by providing a sense of consistency when time is shared across houses. Familiar and comforting items such as a special toy can also help. Photos of family members can be used in supporting children to maintain a sense of connection in times where they are not physically with a family member.
A sense of belonging has been found to help support children’s mental health and improve their learning. Children who feel that they belong are happier, more relaxed and have fewer behavioural problems than others. They are also more motivated and more successful learners.
Being connected is also about children knowing that they can seek support when they need it, and that they will be listened to. It’s important to maintain this sense of belonging for children during a separation. Reassuring children regularly that they are loved and there is a place for them will help them through this change. Maintaining relationships will also help children transition through a separation.
Respect children’s need to continue their relationship with the other parent (unless it is unsafe), as well as with extended family such as grandparents, and support them to do so
Try to ensure that visits to the other parent are regular and predictable
Help children to see the positives (eg two homes, adults being respectful to each other) and to look forward to spending time with the other parent
Avoid criticising the other parent to the children. Sort out issues with the other parent rather than involving the children in parental disputes. Seek mediation if conﬂict persists.
Recognise that it is likely to be difﬁcult for children when a parent starts a new relationship. Counselling can help parents learn ways to make this transition easier for children and for themselves.
Parents are often managing through what may be a very stressful time for them too, and sometimes may find the normal demands of parenthood harder to cope with. It’s important to draw on the support of family and friends and for parents to allow time to come to terms with the separation. Recognising and managing their own feelings will help them support their children.