It is normal for children to feel anxious and unsettled if you and your partner are going through a separation or divorce.
There are many ways you can help your child through this journey such as talking to them truthfully, offering reassurance, remembering to have fun, and sticking to routines wherever possible.
It can help to involve children in small decisions where appropriate, encourage them to talk about their feelings, and make time to have fun and make new memories.
These tips have been written with 1–11-year-old children in mind.
Children adjusting to a family breakdown.
Separation and divorce usually mean huge changes to the family life they have always known which will understandably upset most children. This upset may cause behavioural changes and cause anxiety and stress.
Talking with your child is one of the best ways to help them adjust to the family changes and living circumstances. There are also some practical things you can do to support them such as sticking to familiar routines.
Tips for talking with your child about the changes that separation and divorce bring.
- Keep it simple – Your child does not need to know all the details or hear conflict. But they do have a right to know what is happening, and they to know that everything will settle down and be OK again.
It is often better to explain in (age appropriate) clear, simple, and honest language your child can understand. Such as, ‘We both love you, and we’re going to look after you. But we’ve decided that it works better for our family happiness if daddy and I live separately’.
- Take your time answering tricky questions – If your child asks you a tricky question such as ‘Who am I going to live with now?’, you could reply, ‘What have you heard?’ This can help you find out what your child already knows or does not understand.
Sometimes you will not know how to answer a tricky question yet, as it may have not been finally agreed. So, give yourself time to think about your reply. If you cannot answer immediately, tell your child that you will get back to them. Perhaps you could answer, ‘I don’t definitely know right now. Your Daddy and I are still figuring that out. But I do know that you’ll definitely get to spend time with both of us.’
If your child asks you awkward questions about your ex-partner, persuade your child to talk to your ex-partner directly. If you have an amicable relationship with your ex-partner, you could let your ex know that your child has asked these questions.
- Read between the lines – Your child’s questions could be driven by specific concerns. For example, if your child asks when Mummy is going to move back home, they might just be anxious about when they will see Mummy. Ask your child what they are worrying about and reassure them with simple language that shows you understand. For example, ‘Don’t worry – you’re still going to see Mummy every week. I understand that’s really important to you’.
Whatever questions your child asks, it is important to reassure your child that you and your ex-partner love them very much.
- Keep the conversation going – Your child may dwell a lot on a particular issue, so be prepared to answer the same questions repeatedly. Try to make a regular quiet time to talk, this gives your child a calm opportunity to discuss their worries. For example, it could be after tea, just before you read together. This is also a good time to let your child know about new developments they need to know about.
- Talk about feelings – Your child will probably witness you feeling sad, angry, or upset at times as it is difficult to hide. That is natural and can even be healthy. It is important to let your child know that you love them, that your feelings they are witnessing are not their fault, and that life will get better again.
If your child sees you expressing your feelings in a calm and healthy way, it lets them know that it is OK for them to do the same. It is difficult to hear your child’s hurt or anger, but they need to talk too.
- Suggest someone else your children can talk to – Sometimes it is easier for children to talk about their feelings with someone other than their parents. You may want to encourage your child to talk to another trusted adult – a friend, a teacher, or a family member such as an uncle or grandparent. If friends and family are likely to be talking with your child, it’s a good idea to diplomatically ask them not to make negative comments about your ex-partner.
Familiar routines and rituals after separation or divorce
Routines help children feel secure, safe and in control, so sticking to routines can support your child through changes like separation and divorce.
Try to pinpoint little routines that are important to your child, such as a regular playdate with a friend or a favourite book before bed. Let your child know that these things will not change. If possible, try not to make huge changes such as your child’s school.
It is also good to maintain rituals. The way in which you wake up your child in the morning or what you say to her at bedtime are reassuring rituals that you can easily maintain.
You can always create new routines and adapt rituals too. This may be required if there are changes to childcare arrangements or your income. If your child is old enough, you could try planning some new routines together.
Decision-making with children after separation or divorce
If you can include your child in small daily decisions such as how to organise their room or what to cook for dinner, it will help your child feel like they have some control.
You can talk to older children about how much time they would like to spend with you or their other parent. It is important to carefully listen and ensure children know that their opinions matter.
Fun time with children after separation or divorce
Make time to have some fun, even if it is just a quick game of football or having a kitchen disco. It is also positive to have fun on the spur of the moment such as deciding to have a picnic tea in the park or have a water fight in the garden.
Support from childcare, preschool or school after separation or divorce
After separation or divorce, there may be changes in your child’s behaviour that are a red flag that they need more support. Teachers and nursery staff can watch out for these signs, talk to them as there might be things they could do to help.
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