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Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board

North Wales Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service




Divorce and Separation

Divorce is one of the most stressful things that can happen to any family.

Some families get through relatively smoothly, but many others struggle with the emotional and practical upheavals that divorce brings.  Children can get caught in the cross fire and almost always have to adapt to confusing changes in circumstances and lifestyle.  Their feelings may go unnoticed at a time when adults are inevitably engaged in coming to terms with the major hurts and transitions in their own lives.

Although every child is different and will respond to this new set of circumstances in their own way, it may be helpful to note some of the more common reactions described below:

Some children may appear to be unaffected at the time but can have a delayed response that doesn’t show up till much later on.

There is much however that parents can do to limit the stress on children, and as a by product, reduce the pressures on themselves.  No one wants to see their children suffering unnecessarily and all parents want to do the best they can to help their children adjust to the changes.

The following tips have been gathered from parents who have been through divorce and have learnt what works to reduce the stress experienced by children and what doesn’t.

What works?


Tell them what’s going on.  Fear of the unknown is an important cause of stress and one that can be reduced by a calm explanation of what is happening now and what is likely to be happening in the future.  If possible both parents should sit down and have this conversation with their children.  Take your children’s views and opinions into account and acknowledge them.  At the same time make it clear that the responsibility for decisions lies with you, the adults, not them; children as young as nine as well as older and teenagers need to be included in the decision making process and know that their opinion counts for something.

Encourage them to ask questions and answer them as honestly as you can.  Be open.  It’s not necessarily the truth that hurts, rather the interpretation that’s put on it.  For example, a young child may hear the words that mummy and daddy are separating and immediately make an assumption that it is his or her fault.  It’s only by being open about what’s happening that this very common misunderstanding can be avoided.

Involve Others

Talk to other people who are involved with your children - teachers, parents of friends, youth club leaders and so on.  If people know what’s going on they will be more likely to understand and to be supportive to your child.

Get support for yourself from friends and family, not from your children!

Acknowledge Feelings

Encourage children to show their feelings.  Crying is OK. Being angry is understandable.  Encourage them to talk about their feelings and be prepared to accept whatever flack may come your way!  Feelings are complicated and it’s very likely that a child will be deeply angry at a parent they also love dearly.  Accepting that feelings are normal is an important part of defusing their power to hurt.

Many children and young people, adults too, find it difficult to talk about feelings and can express themselves better through drawing pictures, art making, writing or music.  Encourage whatever works.  It’s possible you’ll discover things about your child and yourself you didn’t previously know.

Stick to routines whenever possible

The need for security lies at the heart of our emotional health and wellbeing.  Reassure your child or children frequently that you love them, remind them that they are important, and that you are there for them.  Give lots of hugs and physical contact.  If you are the parent that will be visited rather than resident, make it clear routines have a big place in making children feel safe and secure.  If it’s possible, discuss routines with an ex partner, if it isn’t, try not to interfere.  You’re only responsible for what happens in your own home.

Looking for Positives

For many families, the separation signals the end of rows, arguments and often years of unhappiness.  It is a time for new beginnings as well as for letting go.  Having a positive attitude is catching.

What doesn’t work

Let them know they’re safe

Let them know you love them