Listening to your child after separation

Separation is usually emotionally difficult for parents and for your child, but being able to listen really well to your child might be the key to helping them – and you. However hard you try, it is very likely that your child will pick up your anxious, distressed or negative feelings. These feelings can get in the way of listening, but only by listening well and openly to them can you find out what is actually worrying your child. But when your own feelings could be a mixture of anger, sadness and worry, it is not so easy to set those feelings to one side and really listen to your child. Their feelings could be different to yours, and how you respond can significantly affect their wellbeing.

What can help you is to develop your emotional ‘readiness’ – to really listen and respond. This means acknowledging your own feelings, and any negative thoughts about the other parent, and then being able to set them aside so that you can really listen to your child. Then you can understand them better and respond in the ways that most help.

Step 1

It is very common to feel a range of negative feelings during a separation, for example, worry, anger, sadness, fear or powerlessness. Sometimes these can seem overwhelming. Feelings don’t go away if you pretend they are not there – sometimes this can lead to them coming out in unpredictable ways.

Identify some of those feelings for yourself, accepting that they can be distressing and also seeing that they are normal feelings in the early stages of a separation. You may find it helps to write them down.

These are the feelings that you will need to keep in check while listening to your child. Putting a label on how you feel can help you feel in control.

Step 2

This step is about communication skills. Staying calm will help you to keep your feelings in check, to put your feelings to one side and start to focus on listening to your child.

Learning to listen is a really important skill, so take some time to think about and practice the listening skills – you can practice listening with your child, whatever they are telling you, and you can do this with some of their day-to-day worries or triumphs before talking about the bigger things.

Seeing things differently is about seeing your child’s perspective and keeping your own feelings about the other parent separate. A really helpful tip when listening to your child is not to jump in too quickly with your own theories or solutions – leave a little space and try to see your child’s point of view.

Step 3

This is about reassuring your child – they might feel powerless about what is happening. However, reassurance works only when it is:

  • possible – you can only reassure your child about what you know you can deliver on
  • a real example of how things will be and how they will work – make it real and concrete
  • honest and ongoing. If there are some things you are not yet sure you can deliver, the best way to help your child is to say ‘We don’t yet know, but we will be working on that’, and keep them updated on when you can give them at least some information.

When reassuring your child, look at the areas where things will not change. This may be the relationship with both parents, or school, friends or routines. Spell out possible changes and how you will help them through these. Try to agree and stick to a plan for contact with the other parent and with grandparents or other important people in their lives. Depending on their age and ability to understand, involve your child in expressing their view about what any changes will look like. Make sure that you do what you have said will happen.

Some tips that can help:

  • Help your child to put a name to a feeling. Sometimes putting a name to it can make an overwhelming feeling seem more under control.
  • Look at your child’s body language and behaviour – this might help you to offer a good guess about how they might be feeling. You can suggest a possible feeling, without any judgement, and help your child to put a name to how they feel. This helps to make it OK to talk about how they are feeling – you have the words and a safe place to talk about them.
  • Once you have labelled a feeling together, reassure them that it is a normal feeling in the circumstances.
  • To spot a child’s difficulty in expressing distressing feelings, look for changes in their behaviour, trouble at school, falling out with friends, or being unusually quiet.
  • Look out for your child ending conversations about separation or the other parent too early – this might mean that there is more that your child needs to talk about.
  • If you need some help with how your child is feeling, talk to your GP, school counsellor, or other health worker.

It is best if parents can cooperate about listening to their child, and respond with realistic and long-term plans. However, sometimes a child needs to talk things over with someone else and a school counsellor may be best placed to do this.

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