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Helping children adjust after separation or divorce

1-11 years

It’s normal for children to feel unsettled if you’re going through separation or divorce. You can help your child cope and adjust by talking honestly with your child, reassuring your child, sticking with family routines, and making special time for your child.

Talking to your child about separation and divorce

Separation and divorce usually means big changes for your family life. Your child might feel upset by the changes. You might even see some behaviour you don’t like. It’s normal and OK for your child to feel upset, and it’ll help him to know that this is a tough time for everyone.

Here are some tips for talking with your child about the changes that separation and divorce bring.

Keep it simple
Your child doesn’t need to know all the details. But she does have a right to know what’s happening, and she needs to know that things will be OK again.

It’s best if you can explain in clear, simple and honest language your child can understand. For example, ‘We both love you, and we’re going to take care of you. But we’ve decided that it works best for our family if Dad and I live apart’.

Take your time with hard questions
If your child asks you a hard question like ‘Am I going to live at Dad’s house as well as here?’, you could ask, ‘What have you heard?’ This helps you find out what your child already knows or doesn’t understand.

Sometimes you won’t know how to answer a tough question, so give yourself time to think. If you can’t answer straight away, tell your child that you’ll get back to him. You could say, ‘I don’t know. Your Dad and I are still working that out. But I do know that you’ll get to spend time with each of us’.

If your child asks you tricky questions about your former partner, it’s good to encourage your child to talk to your former partner directly. If your relationship with your former partner is OK, you could let your ex know that your child has asked some questions.

Read between the lines
Your child’s questions might be motivated by specific concerns. For example, if your child asks about when mum is going to move back, she might be worrying about when she’ll see mum. Ask your child what she’s worrying about, and reassure her with simple words that show you understand. For example ‘Don’t worry – you’re still going to see Mum every week’.

Keep the conversation going
Your child might keep thinking about an issue after you’ve finished talking, so be prepared to answer questions more than once. Setting up a regular time to talk can give your child a chance to discuss his concerns. For example, it could be after dinner, just before you read a book or play a quiet game together. You can also use this time to let your child know about new developments.

Talk about feelings
Your child will probably see you feeling sad, angry or upset. That’s natural and even healthy. It’s important to let your child know that you love her, that your feelings are not her fault, and that things will get better.

Seeing you express feelings in a calm and healthy way lets your child know that it’s OK for him to do this too. When your child expresses feelings, reflecting back what you think he’s feeling also gives you the chance to explore and understand his feelings better. You can say things like, ‘I can see you’re upset’ or ‘I understand this makes you feel sad’.

It might be difficult to hear about your child’s hurt or anger, but she needs to talk too.

Suggest someone else to talk to
Sometimes it’s easier for children to share feelings and thoughts with someone other than their parents. It’s important for your child to talk so encourage him to talk to another trusted adult – a friend, a teacher, an aunt, uncle, cousin or grandparent.

I couldn’t tell my two eight-year-olds that their mum was leaving because she’d met someone else. I kept my explanations rather vague to suit their age. Over time they gradually understood. The other guy wasn’t living there initially so there was time for them to adjust to me living elsewhere first, then to his presence in the family later on.
– Jamie, 34, separated for one year and co-parenting twins

Other ways to help children cope after separation or divorce

Keep familiar routines and rituals
Routines help children feel secure, so keeping up routines can help your child cope with changes like separation and divorce.

Try to identify small routines that really matter to your child, like a regular play day with a friend or a special book before bed. Let your child know that these things won’t change. If possible, try not to change big things like your child’s school. The same surroundings, friends, teachers and routines all help.

It’s also good to maintain rituals. The way you wake your child in the morning or what you say to her at bedtime are reassuring rituals that you can easily keep up.

You can always create new routines and adapt rituals too. This might need to happen if there are changes to child care arrangements or your income. If your child is old enough, you could try working out some new routines together.

Let children make some decisions
If you can involve your child in small day-to-day decisions like how to arrange his room or what to have for dinner, it’ll help your child feel like he has some control. With older children, you can talk about how much time they’d like to spend with you or their other parent.

Create some fun
Take time out to have some fun, even if it’s just putting on some music and dancing together. It’s also good to do a few things on the spur of the moment – for example, having dinner as a picnic in the park.

Let your child’s child care setting, preschool or school know
After separation or divorce, there might be changes in your child’s behaviour that are a sign she needs more support. Her teachers can watch out for these signs, or there might be things they could do to help.

The effects of family violence can continue after a relationship is over. Family violence can also start, or get significantly worse when parents separate. Family violence of any kind is not OK. If you or anybody you know is experiencing family violence, seek help by talking to a professional like a GP or counsellor, talk to the police or call a hotline.

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Last updated or reviewed
02-02-2016

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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