Divorce or separation
for parents and carers
This webpage looks at the effect that divorce or separation of parents might have on children and young people, and offers practical advice on how to ease this.
Over half of couples divorcing in the UK in 2007 had at least one child aged under 16. This meant that there were over 110,000 children who were aged under 16 when their parents divorced. 20% of these children were under 5 years old. However, many more children go through parental separation each year that are not included in figures like this, as their parents were not married.
When parents no longer love each other and decide to live apart, a child can feel as if their world has been turned upside down. The level of upset the child feels can vary depending on how their parents separated, the age of the child, how much they understand, and the support they get from parents, family and friends.
A child may feel:
- a sense of loss - separation from a parent can mean you lose not only your home, but your whole way of life
- different, with an unfamiliar family
- fearful about being left alone - if one parent can go, perhaps the other will do the same
- angry at one or both parents for the relationship breakdown
- worried about having caused the parental separation: guilty
- rejected and insecure
- torn between both parents.
These feelings are often made worse by the fact that many children have to move home and sometimes school when parents separate, and most families in this situation come under some financial strain, even if they did not have money worries before.
Even if the parental relationship had been very tense or violent, children may still have mixed feelings about the separation. Many children hold onto a wish that their parents may get back together.
Whatever has gone wrong in the relationship, both parents still have a very important part to play in their child's life.
Emotional and behavioural problems in children are more common when their parents are fighting or separating.
Children can become very insecure.
Insecurity can cause children to behave like they are much younger and therefore bed wetting, 'clinginess', nightmares, worries or disobedience can all occur. This behaviour often happens before or after visits to the parent who is living apart from the family.
Teenagers may show their distress by misbehaving or withdrawing into themselves. They may find it difficult to concentrate at school.
Parents who are separating can help their children. They should:
- make sure that the children know they still have two parents who love them, and will continue to care for them;
- protect their children from adult worries and responsibilities;
- make it clear that the responsibility for what is happening is the parents' - and not the childrens'.
These things will help your child:
- Be open and talk. Your child not only needs to know what is going on, but needs to feel that it's OK to ask questions.
- Reassure them that they will still be loved and cared for by both parents.
- Make time to spend with your child.
- Be reliable about arrangements to see your child.
- Show that you are interested in your child's views, but make it clear that parents are responsible for the decisions.
- Carry on with the usual activities and routines, like seeing friends and members of the extended family.
- Make as few changes as possible. This will help your child feel that, in spite of the difficulties, loved ones still care about them and that life can be reasonably normal.
It is important not to pull your child into the conflict. The following tips may be useful.
- ask your child to take sides: “who would you like to live with, darling?”
- ask your child what the other parent is doing
- use your child 'as a weapon' to get back at your ex-partner
- criticise your ex-partner
- expect your child to take on the role of your ex-partner.
If you are finding it difficult to help your child cope, you may want to seek outside help. Your general practitioner will be able to offer support and advice. Some families may need specialist help from the local child and adolescent mental health service. However, if managed sensitively, most children can adapt well to their new circumstances and do not have difficulties in the longer term.
"I can’t remember when Mummy and Daddy ever really liked each other. Uma, my sister, said they did when she was little, before I was born, but that was a long time ago.
Daddy doesn’t live with us anymore so we don’t get to see him much. He’s living with Nanny until he gets his own flat; but we can’t stay over at Nanny’s ‘cos she says mean things about Mummy. Daddy rings us every night but sometimes Mummy will get cross with him and hang up before we’ve had a chance to talk.
I don’t know why they don’t like each other anymore. I sometimes think it’s my fault as things seemed to go wrong after they had me. I think Uma blames me too. I can’t speak to Mummy or Daddy about it ‘cos I’m worried they’ll say it is my fault. Even if they didn’t, I probably wouldn’t believe them.
I sometimes talk to Miss Hunter, my teacher, about my family. My friend Kate’s parents split up a few years ago so she understands too. Her family all went for some sort of counselling together which Kate said was really good as it made them all listen to each other and talk without shouting. Kate hoped the counselling would mean her Daddy would move back home, but it didn’t work out that way.
I think my family should have counselling too, not to get Mummy and Daddy back together (I don’t think that’ll ever happen) but it might make them listen to me and Uma a bit more. Especially now they are talking about where we are going to live and how often we see Daddy.
Mummy said we might have to move house which might mean changing schools. Them splitting up doesn’t just mean Daddy doesn’t live with us anymore; our whole lives are different. I don’t think they get how hard this is for us."
Action for Children - Support families through divorce, bereavement and children's behavioural problems.
Citizens Advice Bureau - Your local branch is listed in the telephone directory.
Divorce Aid - Run by an independent group of professionals it provides advice, support and information on all aspects of divorce. It has specialised sections for both young children and teenagers, enabling them to recognise and deal with emotions that arise from separation and divorce.
Family Lives - Parentline offers help and advice to parents on bringing up children and teenagers. Tel: 0808 800 2222.
National Family Mediation - An organisation specifically set up to help families who are separating. It has a useful booklist, which includes books for children of different ages.
Relate - offers a range of services to help families and couples going through separation and divorce.
The Children's Society - Produces a series of leaflets for children and parents.
The Money Advice Service - Information and advice on the financial aspects of divorce, separation or civil partnership dissolution, including an interactive calculator to help manage finances, work put what you have and owe, and consider how you might split what you have.
Rutter’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Fifth Edition (2008). Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Catherine M Lee and Karen A Bax (2000): Children’s reactions to parental separation and divorce, Paediatrics and Child Health, May-June; 5(4):217-218.
Revised by the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Family Public Education Editorial Board.
Series Editor: Dr Vasu Balaguru
With grateful thanks to Dr Margaret Bamforth.
This information reflects the best possible evidence at the time of writing.
Published: Jul 2015
Review due: Jul 2018
© Royal College of Psychiatrists