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.

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

  • 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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