Separation is a stressful time for everyone, especially children. How children respond and adjust depends on:
- Their age
- Their personality and temperament
- Family relationships prior to separation
- How parents cope themselves
- The nature of the separation – Was it amicable? Have children been exposed to high levels of contempt and conflict? Are parents able to communicate respectfully with each other?
While many parents struggle to manage their own emotions around separation, it is important that parents remain child-focused and prioritise the emotional needs of their children. Shock, sadness, worry, fear, insecurity and confusion are some common emotions children experience. Some parents notice a change in their children’s behaviour as they grapple with their feelings about the separation and the changes to their family’s situation.
How to help your children post-separation
- Reassure your child that the separation is not their fault and that both parents still love them
- Provide a non-blaming separation story to explain that you’ve both decided to live separately because you aren’t getting on, but that you’ll always be their parents. Your child will probably need to hear this ‘story’ several times, especially if they’re younger
- Let significant others such as family, friends and teachers know about the separation so they can support your child
- Try and maintain normal routines as much as possible and prepare your child for any changes that will take place
- Provide simple, age appropriate answers to your child’s questions about the separation. It’s okay to ask for time to think about a question when you don’t know how to respond by saying, “That’s a good question, let me think about that and get back to you.”
- Allow your child the space to grieve and express strong emotions
- Find a way to communicate with the other parent so children are not used to pass on messages between parents. Emails or text messages can be used if phone calls and face-to-face communication becomes reactive
- Use neutral or positive language when speaking about the other parent in front of your child, and be mindful of your tone and body language
Research tells us that a major factor in how children adjust to the separation is the level of conflict which exists between the parents.
Ideally, parents should aim for a ‘co-operative’ parenting style which involves developing a good working relationship with the other parent. This includes keeping the focus on the children, remaining flexible and continuing to act as a ‘team’ when it comes to parenting. If this is not possible, revert to a ‘business-like’ relationship where parents communicate in a respectful manner with one another.