Parental separation and divorce

Many children in Britain will experience the separation and divorce of their parents by the time they are 16.

When the parents' relationship breaks down, it is usually painful for everyone in the family. It's very important to try to minimise the stress and bitterness that can result, particularly when children are involved. It is easy for parents to be so distracted by their own feelings about the situation that they lose sight of how it may be affecting their children.

Research shows that the children of parents that separate can experience poorer outcomes than other children. However, some of the difficulties can be offset by the way parents deal with the separation.

Good, continuing communication and contact between children and both parents appear especially important in assisting children to adapt. Clear explanations about 'what' is happening and 'why' can help, as can reassurance for younger children that they are not being abandoned and that a parent can still be a parent even if he/she leaves the home to live elsewhere. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

Importantly, although experiencing a parental separation can be very upsetting for children, parents can help prevent the experience being traumatic for their children.

So what is meant by trauma?

Traumatic stress is brought about when children cannot adequately express what they are feeling about what is happening for them. Children may often feel anger or fear but are unable to talk about their feelings to either parent maybe because of a divided loyalty or a belief that they won’t be listened to. It is this sense of powerlessness along with the often on going acrimony between their parents that can lead to traumatic stress.

Trauma is determined by the child’s experience of the event, not simply the event itself. Different children in the same family may have a dramatically different emotional reaction to the numerous changes related to divorce. Your attitude shapes your children's attitude. Your words and actions can either expose your children to unnecessary emotional pain or help them develop in positive ways. (

Parental separation is like bereavement and children often find it difficult to cope with the strong emotions that arise from such a loss.

Symptoms of distress following a parental break up can include:
•Behavioural problems
•Lack of concentration
•Falling out with friends
•Low self esteem
•Guilt (thinking it is their fault)
•Increased dependency
•Minor health problems

What can you do?

Advice is always easier to give than to take, especially in the case of a difficult separation. However, the one thing most parents have in common is the love for their children and in not wishing anything to upset and harm them. You may having extremely strong negative and confused feelings towards your ex partner – anger, jealousy, sadness, each of which can feel overwhelming, but it is important to remember that these are your feelings and not those of your child.

Interviews with children around the time of separation show that most wish their parents had stayed together and hope they will get back together. They are likely, in the short term, to experience unhappiness, low self-esteem, problems with behaviour and friendships, and loss of contact with a significant part of their extended family. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

Children love both parents and, as the research shows, may wish their parents had stayed together. Making children chose by being negative about your ex partner or expecting them to take sides can cause long term damage. Try and put yourself in their position – the two people you love most in the world, the two people who have been your world, want you to take sides – how would you feel? If you add the fact that children cannot assert themselves like adults and do not easily understand what is happening, you can start to see that they are in a ‘no win’ situation.

The answer then is to remain focussed on what is in your child’s best interest and try not to:
•Argue with your ex partner in front of your children or on the phone.
•Talk with your children about details of your ex partner’s negative behaviour.
•Expect your children to take sides or talk negatively about the other parent
•Use you child as a ‘go between’ or use them as the only means of communication with your ex partner

Parents need to communicate

Ideally, children need both parents and separation when you have children means that there will always be a link to your ex partner through your children. In such circumstances, parents have a choice – you can either maintain the acrimony, with the risks to your children’s and your mental health, or you can find a way of communicating, albeit about the decisions you both need to make about your children.

Remember, help is available (see the links below):

Family mediation is a way of resolving disputes after separation or divorce. In mediation, couples are helped to look for their own solutions to their disputes.

Family mediation is also increasingly being used to solve other types of family problems, such as disputes between a parent and child.

Both parties explain their concerns and needs to each other in the presence of a qualified family mediator.  The mediator is impartial, which means that they are not on anyone's side.  They are there help both parties, unlike a solicitor who only works for one party in each case.  Sometimes the mediator will suggest a way of solving a problem to help them to reach an agreement acceptable to both, but they will never tell either party what to do.

The mediator can give information about law but cannot give anyone advice about what to do. We would recommend that you go to see a solicitor who can give legal advice.  The solicitor can help you before, in between sessions and when agreement has been reached so that you know that whatever agreed to is fair to you.

Relate - Relate for Parents puts the emphasis on the children. If you and your partner are separating Relate can help you to deal with the process positively and learn how best to help the children through the experience. It can help you shield them from negative emotions and plan important contact with the parent who is no longer at home.

Counselling – can take many forms and can be provided to both parents (as with Relate) or individually. Sometimes, the feelings experienced during and following a separation can feel overwhelming and disabling:

•What did I do wrong?
•What’s the point in going on?
•What’s wrong with me?

These feelings can affect your job, your social life and can get in the way of being the parent you want to be. If this is how you feel you may want someone to talk to who will listen, someone who will not make judgments about you. This is where counseling can help. To help find a counselor please click here.

If you would like more advice on how to safeguard children when dealing with separation and divorce please click on the following links:

NSPCC Children and parental separation
Relateline 0845 130 4010 (Monday - Friday, 9.30am-4.30pm) Telephone helpline service from Relate. Users can talk to an experienced Relate counsellor for up to 20 minutes and all calls are confidential.
Parentline 0808 000 2222 Free, confidential 24-hour helpline for parents and carers.
It's not your fault - NCH (National Children's Homes) Website for children whose parents are splitting up, with separate advice sections for children, teenagers, and parents.
Helpguide - a free resource for a range of health issues with useful advice for parents experiencing separation (American)