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.
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81 Responses to “Helping Children Cope with Separation and Divorce”

  • Elkay says:

    Nanny, the situation you are in is common after divorce but that does not make it any easier to work through without some “issues” arising. The above article has some of the best advice, in particular that as involved adults, we must “provide age-appropriate explanations for the separation so children know it isn’t their fault”. This means that both parents must tell their oldest son that they love him dearly and that they did not want to break up the family, but it was their fault that they just could not live together any longer.

    If your relationship with the son is solid, the best thing you can personally do is to let him know that although his situation may be unfair and painful, the fact that it happened doesn’t mean God has stopped loving him. God uses all circumstances to mold your grandson into His image and He is working everything out for his good, according to His individualized purpose for him (Rom. 8:28) Try to assure him that the key to accepting the truth of God’s unconditional love is to focus on Him, not on his own unfortunate circumstances. This may be hard for a 13-year old to grasp but if he hears it coming from you, prayerfully he will tuck it away in his mind and recall it from time to time.

  • nanny says:

    I have 3 grandchildren they were all living with me but the oldest wanted to go live with his other grandpa and step grandmother I do not speak bad of the mom at all and I dont allow my son to either but hes in his 30’s and they’re just so much I can say Ive recently got him to let the children spend time with her but it’s only every other weekend then he still get’s mad exspecaily when her boyfriend doesn’t let him speak to his children and now the oldest one is acting out alot at school I love and adore these children the two youngest it doesn’t seem to bother but the oldest blames his self could you please give me some advise on how to help him he just turned 13,thank you so much in advance.

  • Jamie Jamie says:

    Hi Joann, it is often a challenge when our adult children make decisions that we don’t agree with, especially when we see potential impact on their children. You no longer have authoritative influence over your daughter but you can still have relational influence in her life. Relational influence is based on mutual trust, respect and love. Nurturing those relational characteristics are your best opportunity for being able to speak into your daughter’s decisions in life. That does not mean that you need to approve, or ignore her choices that you disagree with, but you will want to clearly communicate your appreciation and respect of her right and ability to make decisions. Find ways to express your love for your daughter. Build trust as someone she can rely on to speak truth in a caring compassionate way. Be a support for your daughter so that if painful experiences come her way she knows that she will find strength an understanding in you.

    I have to admit, I find it hard to know the best way of living out those ideals. That’s why it is a great comfort to me to know that Jesus will lead and guide me in how best to respond to complicated situations with my children as they grow and mature. I may not be able to fully know all the ethical ins and outs of an given situation, but I know that Jesus sees it all and will direct me to love in a way that is best. Have you ever experienced that kind of direction from Jesus?

    Let me pray for you: Dear Jesus, I pray for Joann as she is conflicted right now. You know the great love that she has for her daughter and granddaughter but how this new relationship does not seem to fit what she thinks will be best for either of them. She needs Your help in navigating these dangerous relational interactions. I pray that You would speak clearly into Joann life so that she would know that You are with her and that she can trust in You. Lead her as she seeks to express her love and care for her daughter and granddaughter and bind their hearts together in love and unity. Amen.

    Joann, I look forward to hearing back from you soon.

  • Chris says:

    joann…sorry to hear of this situation….its true that sin comes in many different sizes and shapes. we first ourselves must have our own sins forgiven in order to share Gods forgiveness with others. you can do that first by logging onto knowingjesuspersonally.com or by clicking talk to a mentor above if you havent begun your own personal and saving relationship with jesus already. that way as you do, you can share jesus love and forgiveness with your dauther and everyone else you might know or not know. jesus paid it all for all sin all time so each person is forgiven if they only are told and reach out to receive it. blessings to you and salvation to your daughter!

  • joann says:

    My daughter is 27 years old and just left her male fiance and moved in with her “new” girlfriend immediately and they share a bed….she had been with her fiance for 3 years…my granddaughter is 8 years old…I have a problem with this whole situation because of the situation of time and the fact that I really question whether or not my daughter is “lesbian”. I was originally told they would sleep seperately and show no affection in front of my granddaughter for “some” time…well that some time ended up being about a month….was I wrong to say something? The Girl my daughter is now seeing was one of my best friends and my age 48….I got over that..but I am having a problem with the sleeping arrangements….my daughter also stored her valentines present in my granddaughters bedroom closet and I thought that was inappropriate to let my granddaughter know about it. They say I am overreacting and that she doesn’t think anything about it…what do you think?

  • jade says:

    chill people stress aint nice i would be one to know lol :-)

  • John says:

    Aldo I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers fortunately we have dropped all this nonsense in our lives and through courage and prayer we know we’ll make it through this hard time in our lives we are back together as a family and I’m cherishing every second I thank you again and God bless

  • Aldo says:

    John, there are questions that need to be asked before anyone can offer any suggestions. What was her response? Did you agree to it? Did you pack your bags and move out?

    If nothing else you should learn a lesson from this: namely,”for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20)

    John, you need to make this a matter of prayer. And get as many strong Cristian friends and acquaintances as possible to be praying for you. Let’s pray:

    Father God, You have heard and know the cry of John’s heart to return home to his wife and children. Lord, we ask that You make a way for that to happen. Let not the enemy be successful in placing a wedge of separation between him and his family. Touch all their hearts with Your Holy Spirit, and cause a renewed love for one another to spring up, in Jesus Name I pray, amen.

    John,if you would like to speak with a mentor one on one, click on the Talk to a mentor button at the bottom left of this page. A mentor will be happy to discuss your problem with you.

  • John says:

    Hi I’m the parent of two small boys 2 and 5 the previous years have been really hard on me and my wife for reasons of debt and my recent lack of employment to name a few. The stress of life basically. sometimes I’m mad about the little things and threaten to leave when I’m mad just to get a response from her this time I got the response I didn’t want “ok” we have been away from each other for a day or so and she claiming all she needs is time which is fine but I don’t want it to turn into something permanent I’m concerned with my children for the fact that I’m unable to see them because of the pain of not being able to stay with them saying goodbye until next time is too hard on them as well as me can anyone help give some advice on what I should do and how I should handle the situation I’ve bombarded her with texts and calls which I know was probably a bad idea but blinded by emotion I need her in my life can someone help

  • megan says:

    thank you I think this will relay help me and my child

  • Chris says:

    zia ud din khattak….i regret to hear of your situation….emotional scars can be very deep in a persons heart when they have lacked a parent in their lives without understanding why or being told lies. lies are not hard to believe so many times. in order for your daughter to find inner healing she first and foremost needs healing from God her father before she will find healing with you her earthly father. that means you too need to have a healed relationship with our heavnely father in order to minister his healing to your daughter. if you have never found the love of forgivenes of jesus christ in your own life, log onto knowngjesuspersonally.com or click talk to a mentor above. as you do, your own life will be healed and you can help your daughters to be healed also through prayng for her in jesus precious name. praying you find the peace you need today through christ, blessings!

  • my daughter was taken away by her mother, when she was 6 month old.I tried her best to see her but in vain.Finally after 30 years somehow she met with me and then after 2 meetings she left me and using harsh words,she is innocent but remain without father for 30 yeaRS.hOW TO MANAGE THIS CRISIS TO OVERCOME HER eMOTION AND GIVE HER LOVE AND PEACE

  • Aldo says:

    MrsAnnie, I was referring to your writing articles like the one above. It would be a blessing to you, and to those ministered to by them. Give it a try, and see if it can be your forte.

  • MrsAnnie says:

    Thanks for the suggestion Aldo. I don’t know if children’s poetry would qualify for what they may be looking for. I appreciate it anyway.

  • Aldo says:

    Mrs. Annie, I suggest that you go to the powertochange.com Home Page, click on Careers, scroll down to The Life Project, then click on Writer/Editor.

    It’s my understanding that they are seeking those Christians who can write articles such as you have in your book.

    May God continue to bless your efforts to minister to the hurting and lost.

  • MrsAnnie says:

    Elkay, that’s true. My granddoll is only 4 yrs and can’t fully grasp what’s going on right now. My son who was a hands on dad, took care of her for over a year on his own. He was instantly turned into a part-time dad by the courts, with only 6 days out the month to spend time with her. when the mother got involved. That little time makes him a recreational dad. Quality time is so hard. He didn’t get good legal representation at all! His attorney told him to go have another child! I’m a mother and I feel sorry for fathers. The good ones really seemingly get the same treatment as the deadbeat dads. My book encourages friendship between parents, so that the legal system can’t dictate how often a parent be it father or mother, can see their child. If there’s friendship between the parents, then no matter what is on paper, they will be more willing to share in the upbringing of that child’s life. There needs to be change in this regard. Co-parenting needs to be done fairly and as equal as possible, so that while the parents can’t live together under roof, by the child being able to see both equally, they won’t care that they’re not under the same roof. Grandparents also take a big hit in this. What are our rights? I love and miss her so much. I saw her come in this world. We taught her everything she knew, before going to pre-K. I hope I can get this book in as many hands as possible. It’s a simple yet powerful poetic letter to parents to just be friends. Please spread the word. Thank you.

  • Elkay says:

    Mrs Annie, most unfortunately, my wife and I divorced when our children were 6-12 years old and now, 30 years later, I can say that the most important thing is to spend time with them, much time, in the years afterwards. It is very hard to convince them that they are not in some manner responsible for the divorce and so you must make every effort to be with them, lengthy, lovingly and reassuringly.

  • MrsAnnie says:

    This little girl and my granddoll were my inspirations for writing this.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nB7IJ7RndVA.
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/B018II0TAG

    “In America, there is one divorce approximately every 36 seconds*. That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces a year.” (McKinley Irvin Family Law)

    Children are affected in many ways. This children’s book is a letter written to parents through a child’s eyes, to express how divorce makes them feel. It encourages friendship between the mother and father, for the sake of the children.

  • 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 :)

  • 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.

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