How children react to separation and how to help them

The following table shows typical age-related reactions that children might have to their parents’ break-up. The age bands are not fixed and children can respond in different ways.

Remember – there’s no such thing as a typical child.

Age reactions

  • Crying, clinging, irritability.

How to help

  • Be consistent with your care for your child – be patient with them.

Age reactions

  • Behaving younger than they are.
  • Complaining of mysterious pains and being in distress.
  • Aggressive, defiant, argumentative, attention-seeking.
  • Being clingy and possessive.
  • Not sleeping well.
  • Blaming themselves and worrying about being abandoned or sent away.

How to help

  • Try to maintain routines (especially at bedtime) to help your child feel more secure.
  • If you are the main carer try not to be away for long periods as this may make them feel insecure.
  • Reassure your child that the split is nothing to do with anything they have done and that both parents still love them.
  • Tell their nursery or school about the situation and any changes.

Age reactions

  • Feelings of loss, rejection, guilt.
  • Feeling disloyal to the parent they do not live with and showing concern and longing for them.
  • Feeling disloyal to the parents they live with when they see their other parent.
  • Behaving younger than they are.
  • Crying.
  • Being sensible, appearing to cope well and being composed.
  • Thinking it is their fault.

How to help

  • Explain the reasons for any changes to their lives.
  • Avoid being angry.
  • Reassure them that they are loved, it is not their fault and that it is ok to be upset.
  • Tell their school about the situation and any changes.

Age reactions

  • Taking sides with one parent.
  • Crying.
  • Appearing to want to grow up too quickly or behaving like your parent or a replacement partner.
  • Behaving like another adult perhaps a brother or sister rather than a child.

How to help

  • Assure them that you will continue to care and look after them.
  • Be positive about the other parent.
  • Avoid arguing in front of them.
  • Tell their school about the situation and any changes to it.
  • Encourage them to mix with their friends.

Age reactions

  • Any of the previous reactions.
  • Avoiding their own feelings by distancing themselves.
  • Showing contempt to one or both parents.
  • Acting more independent than they should be or need to be.
  • Having discipline problems at home or at school.

How to help

  • Give them space to discuss their feelings.
  • Make sure you do not rely on them to give you emotional support.
  • Allow friends to visit them at both homes.

Age reactions

  • Showing extreme attitudes in their own relationships.
  • Losing confidence and distancing themselves.

How to help

  • Be honest about what happened and provide hope for the future. Just because it hasn’t worked for you, it doesn’t mean their relationships will fail.

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