Helping Children Cope with Separation and Divorce

Written by Information Children

As difficult as separation or divorce may be for a couple, it can be very troubling for children.

Virtually all children whose parents are separating experience painful feelings such as fear, loss, anger, and confusion. However, children can and do recover. In fact, most children of separated parents grow up relatively healthy and well-adjusted. Parents can play a crucial role in helping their children cope with the crisis of their parents’ separation. With understanding and guidance, children can learn to deal with the emotional trauma of separation and the healing process can begin.

Feelings of sadness and loss

During the elementary school years, children typically experience feelings of sadness and a profound sense of loss in reaction to their parents’ separation. Strong feelings of grief and sorrow are common, and children often long for the non-resident parent and the security of their old family. Some children even feel embarrassed or ashamed about their family’s situation. Though it is less common in older children, feelings of responsibility and self-blame for the separation may occur. While some children express their anguish outwardly (i.e. crying), others struggle to hold their emotions inside.

What can parents do?

  • help children express their feelings verbally and non-verbally (i.e. art, music, writing)
  • acknowledge children’s emotions and help them understand what they are feeling
  • reassure children that their feelings are normal and okay
  • provide age-appropriate explanations for the separation so children know it isn’t their fault
  • help children meet other kids whose parents have separated so they know they’re not alone
  • consider enrolling children in a separation/ divorce support group

Anxiety and fear

Fear and worry are also common reactions among elementary school children with separating parents. The safety and security of family routines are often disrupted when parents separate, which may leave children feeling scared and insecure. Some children experience an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of the many changes in their lives. Younger children may even be afraid that their parents will abandon them or stop loving them. The conflict that children often witness between parents during this transition is also extremely stressful and can result in anxiety. Sometimes children at this age will talk quite openly about their concerns. However, nervous habits such as fidgeting or nail biting and physical symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches are also common. Among older children, withdrawal from friends and social activities is another sign of worry or fear.

What can parents do?

  • avoid conflict in the presence of children
  • minimize disruptions in family routines
  • tell children what changes to expect in their lives: where they will live, who will care for them and so on
  • reassure children that you love them and will continue to take care of them
  • allow older children some input into custody/ visitation plans but maintain ultimate responsibility for making decisions
  • provide steady and predictable parenting
  • set aside special time with each child
  • encourage children to express their worries, acknowledge and validate their feelings
  • teach children relaxation and coping skills

Anger and aggression

Angry feelings are also common among elementary school children whose parents are separating. Sometimes children are outraged at parents for separating and may berate or scold parents for their actions. They may express their anger by blaming parents for causing the separation. Older children may try to initially hurt parents through verbal attacks expressing their anger. Children’s anger at parents may take more subtle forms too, such as uncooperative behaviour, arguing about rules, or complaining about chores. Sometimes children’s anger shows itself in aggressive behaviour and fights with other children or siblings as well.

What can parents do?

  • let children know it’s okay to be mad
  • teach children healthy ways to express anger (e.g. talking, artwork, sports)
  • be firm when children’s angry behaviour is inappropriate and encourage better ways to cope with their feelings
  • remind children how to deal with frustration and conflicts with other children
  • let school teachers and other caregivers know about the separation so they can help the child cope.

Virtually all children experience some difficulty adjusting to the changes brought on by parental separation. In most cases, the emotional wounds heal over time and children recover from the crisis. If a child’s distress is extreme or persists for an extended period, professional counseling or intervention can help. By being aware of the ways that separation can affect children, parents can take steps to ease the difficulties children often face, and help them cope more successfully.

Recommended books:

  • Helping Your Child Through Your Divorce by Florence Bienenfeld
  • When Mom and Dad Separate by M. Heegaard
  • Helping Children Cope With Divorce by A. Teyber.

63 Responses to “Helping Children Cope with Separation and Divorce”

  • Elkay says:

    Holly, you are fortunate to have this opportunity to love your younger sister and show her what loyalty in friendship looks like. The article suggests that because of separated parents, your sister may have insecure feelings and these are awakened when you have to leave and go to your home. You are certainly correct to assure her of your love and also tell her how much you enjoy being with her so she will know you want to be with her again soon.

    While you are apart, you might call her once in a while and/or write her a letter talking about when you will see her next. Over time, as she sees your continued dependability, she will become less and less fearful. Do continue to encourage her to express her feelings and validate them by sharing your desire to not leave also.

    At some point, you might want to tell her about her “best possible Friend, Jesus” maybe using a children’s Bible Story book or the like. She needs to know that Jesus is always present in her life and that He has promised never to leave her and to always be by her side (Heb 13:5, Voice).

  • Holly Rowland says:

    Hi. I am an 18 yr old sister of 3 girls, aged 6, 5 and 3. Their mum and my dad separated last year and my dad has moved to England. The girls are living with their mum, my step mum, and I now live with my own mother. I see them once a week. The oldest, aged 6, gets very upset and cries when it gets close to the time I have to go. She cries and says that she wishes I still lived with them, asks me why I don’t live there and why dad lives in England. She says that goodbyes are always so hard for her. My heart breaks everytime. I tell her it’s okay to be sad and that I live in a different house because I have exams for school this year, I tell her that me and dad love her so much and that she can talk to me anytime. Last time when she was upset, I asked her to draw a picture of her being sad . I heard this helps to express emotions. Is there anything else I can do, or anything I can improve? My other 2 sisters don’t seem to be upset by the change. I love them all so so much and want to do everything I can to ensure they are healthy and happy. I want to prevent any psychological issues of abandonment developing when they’re older. Thank you for reading.

  • Aldo says:

    Kerrin, it is a sad situation that you are describing, but God is able to change it. You need to make it a matter of prayer, and really believe that God will do what you ask. Let’s pray:

    God Almighty, You know and have heard the cry of Kerrin’s heart for the well-being of her child. Lord, we ask that You would do whatever needs to be done to quiet the critical attacks of Kerrin’s mother-in-law, especially in the presence of Kerrin’s son. Lord, Your Word tells us that the battle is Yours not ours (1 Samuel 17:47), so we are looking to You to bring forth the victory, in Jesus’ Name we pray, amen.

  • Kerrin says:

    I need my son to see his dad as soon as possible so they maintain a good relationship, I put a family officer in place to arrange this as we do not see each other anymore, they are taking ages putting this in place. How long does it take and how do they arrange this?

    Also my husbands mother interferes and discusses me in a bad way in front of my son who’s 4, I want my son to not be affected by our break up as much as possible and she has no right to speak like this in front of him with her one sided arrogant views, how do I make this clear to my husband so that he stops it as he listens to everything the woman puts in his head. I do not talk badly about my husband at all in front of my son and encourage the fact that he loves him very much but mammy and dad can’t live together anymore, as it is not right to mess with a child already feeling the strain from the split up and I won’t have her ruining all I am trying to do to do this the right way for the best interests of my little boy. Advice needed on this.

    Kerrin Neath :)

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Emma, We are concerned about the safety and privacy of all its users, particularly children. For this reason, TruthMedia will not be able to help you with your request. We recommend that you talk to your parents or legal guardian about this situation. If that is not possible, then please contact a pastor or Christian counselor in your area.

    Passed by the U.S. Congress in November 1998, the Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) <> requires operators of online services or Web sites to obtain parental consent prior to the collection, use, disclosure, or display of the personal information of children 12 years of age or younger.

    Be assured that the prayer team at The Life Project will be praying for you.

    Helpful Resources:
    Get some counseling right now by contacting AACC for a referral to a Christian counselor near you at or New Life at 1-800-NEW-LIFE or the nearest mental health agency.

  • Aldo says:

    Loopyloo, if you would like someone to chat with one on one, just click on the Talk to a mentor button at the top right of this page. She will be happy to discuss any issues you have, or just to pray with you.

  • Aldo says:

    Loopyloo, I do not think that you are fighting a loosing battle. In fact, I believe that the court will find in your favor. What I suggest you do is make this a matter of prayer, and try getting as many other Christian people praying as possible. Let’s pray:

    Father God, You know what is best for the child in this situation, and we ask that You would bring it to pass. Lord, touch Loopyloo with Your Spirit, and grant her the faith to trust in You, in Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

  • Loopyloo says:

    Sorry I meant to say every other weekend fri from school until sunday 6.30pm not monday

  • Loopyloo says:

    I’m a single mum of a very clingy 5 yr old and my ex is taking me to court for midweek overnight contact. I have offered him every other weekend fri-mon, half of all school holidays, alternating xmas/bday/special days and any nights after school until 6.30pm. I feel very strongly about a child especially at 5 years old in his first year at school, retaining a routine and stability on a school night. I believe he should go to school from his own bed. The school agrees, every mother I know agrees but am I fighting a losing battle?

  • Chris says:

    cheese bucket…i am sorry for your situation…obviously seperation does speak of a more hopeful situation however its difficulty for you as an offspring in terms of real life may be the same. as in any relationship problem, the basis is always a relationship problem with christ, in this case with either your mothers relationship to jesus or your fathes or both. in luke 2 we see how jesus life would reveal what was really in our hearts. problems seem heavy but when we take them to jesus he will carry them for us. problems show us where we are in terms of our faith in christ and his promises also. i would encourage you to not focus on the problem your parents are going through but rather focus on jesus. if you dont have a personal relationship with jesus you can find out how to by logging onto or by clicking talk to a mentor above. as you find your strength and refuge in christ, you will be able to help your parents to do the same. if you already do know jesus personally, be sure you get spiritual support from your pastor and church. if you dont have one let me know. jesus bless you with his peace today!

  • cheese bucket says:

    my parents are separating not divorcing… it hurt any advice tracey?

  • Kate says:

    Hi Tracey,

    Wow, you’ve been through a lot, as has your son. My heart goes out to you. I don’t have any straightforward answers to offer to your questions, but I am glad you took the time to share here. The situation you are facing is tough and complex. It would be great if you had a support network, perhaps some other moms who can mentor you? Any divorcecare groups in your area? Try doing a search. Your son might also benefit from counselling, of course with some research first to find someone who you can trust and is supporting. At the very least I’m sure you could borrow some books from the library about coping with divorce for yourself and for your son. Plus, you can always connect with one of our mentors through this link:

    One thing we can always count on is God’s unconditional love. Have you perceived God in your situation?

    I pray today that you would be comforted in your tears and grow wiser by your experience. Don’t give up, keep taking it day by day.


  • Tracey says:

    Hi, I just found your page while I was looking for information for helping my son. I will explain…I am 39 years old. My son is now 10 1/2yr old. When my son just turned 8yr old, my ex had a child he wasn’t sure he had or not contact him thru facebook. The kid, more man in age kid at heart, was 22yr old, married and living on his own with his wife. We then found out he was autistic. He was having a ton of problems with his marriage, they never should’ve gotten married but everyone really didn’t have a choice so they let it happen, anyway he was having issues and we realized we didn’t know enough of his past to help because he tends to tell “stories” and we were not sure if they were all always true. I suggested my ex get in touch with kids mother who he had not spoke to in 22 years. She broke up with him when she was 8 months preg and said she lied child wasn’t his and her family refused to allow him to see baby later on and being 16yrs old my ex stopped trying when he was threatened. Anyway, he got into contact with her and came home very excited that conversation went really well. At this time, my ex and I had been together almost 10 years. It was just me, my ex and our son who was 8yr. My ex had 2 other boys 22yr and 18yr who I thought I was close to esp the 18 year old. They both lived with their separate mothers. The autistic son started having all kinds of legal issues and problems with local police due to relationship with new girlfriend. I suggested when it was time to go to court that both his mother and father go to show judge he had a lot of support. I was babysitting at the time so I couldn’t go. Well during this time he started spending more and more time with his ex dealing with son’s legal problems. I wasn’t worried for one moment because I trusted my ex 120%! One night he came home and I had noticed him pulling away recently and we argued and out popped “I don’t want to be with you anymore”. And that was it. I tried marriage counseling and he lied to therapist and because he is a very charming “salesman” she believed him and basically told me that I just needed to accept his leaving. And that was it!! She even lied to me and snuck around arranging appointments with him alone and then when we were supposed to come together, she slammed me with this…I did not handle breakup well at all. My life was shattered. We all stilled lived in house…myself, my ex, our son and his “new” son (her son). Oh and he was lying to me the entire 4 months saying we broke up because of me. I wasn’t the woman he fell in love with, I wasn’t attractive anymore, etc. Needless to say, it was because of her. She lived with her parents, no car, and worked at staples. We weren’t rich but comfortable. She saw him coming. Needless to say, she no longer works at staples. I finally moved out of the house because I couldn’t take it anymore. I got involved with a guy who was basically equally lonely and unhappy. We had to live in a hotel for awhile but I kept in constant contact with my son. and visited with him every week. Finally we got a regular schedule and things became routine. We eventually have gotten a apartment and we both working now. Not even 2 months after I left, maybe a month and half, my ex got married. I heard it from someone else as a rumor and I laughed never thinking it was true. He agreed it wasn’t true….until one weekend he said my son couldn’t come because of cub scout stuff and then sent a text that weekend saying he lied that he was getting married that’s why zak wasn’t here with me. So since getting apartment, my son is with me every weekend and vacation. He adores my boyfriend…even got him #1 dad stuff for Christmas. He seems happy at my ex’s but makes comments about not being allowed to eat “normal” food or fitting in with the “new” family (my ex, her, and their son). The only reason I agreed to leave my son in the first place is so he could stay in school. After the year was over my ex moved them to a lower class area (I grew up there so I know the area quite well and NEVER wanted my son there) and made him change schools. Sorry if this is too long and confusing but I am leaving a lot out too…LOL. Anyway my concern is my son never got angry at his dad for ruining our lives. It was like he just went with the flow and never had emotions one way or another. It scares me cause now I see anger in him that’s not normal for him. The little boy of 8yrs old is gone forever and I see him “hardening”? If that’s the right word? I did not handle well at all in the beginning and I still cry to this day at certain things (my son hates me working cause I was always a stay at home mom)….what can I do? How should I handle this? Thank you very much for your help….

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