'How Children May React to Divorce or Separation'

When a relationship ‘dies’ the grieving process is often experienced in the same way as when a partner dies; people often say it is worse. This grieving process can last for up to two years during which time you may feel most, if not all of the following emotions; shock, denial, disbelief, blaming, anger, bargaining, depression, hopelessness and acceptance. Usually one partner knows that the relationship is at an end before the other; therefore, they will be at different stages in their grieving process.  One partner may be almost through the grieving process, whilst the other, having just found out, may still be in a state of shock. It is during the anger stage that the children especially, experience the greatest difficulty because it is often difficult for one parent not to ‘use’ the children to ‘get back’ at the other. This is a normal response but one which can be very damaging to the children because they are the ones who are ‘caught in the middle’.

Some of the following are very common behaviors and responses that have been reported to me by parents and children who have suffered the experience of divorce or separation.


  • The first thing for parents and children to remember is that YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
  • Children have a legal and moral right to have contact with both parents.
  •  Judges are very reluctant to make orders regarding contact.  An order is an order, usually with no flexibility.
  • Contact has a much better chance of working if the parents can negotiate arrangements themselves.
  • Mediation usually has a better chance of achieving a successful outcome than a court order.
  • Children are more likely to be happy if their parents are happy.
  • Sometimes either parent, or both, will fear that they may lose contact with their children altogether.
  • Children, themselves, may terminate contact with a parent, if conflict persists. They love both parents and find it very

`difficult to tolerate one ‘blaming’ the other.

  • Children usually hold on to the dream that their parents will get back together again.
  • Some children become very secretive about their parents’ separation.
  • Children very often blame themselves for the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
  • Some parents get very depressed at the thought of the ‘other’ man/woman parenting their child.
  • Some children see stepfamilies as rivals and may feel very threatened by this.
  • It is ‘normal’ for children to dislike their parent’s new partner; a new partner could be perceived as being an obstacle, which prevents their parents from ‘getting back together again.’
  • Because children may be feeling confused and afraid, they are often very angry with both parents.
  • Rightly or wrongly, children may ‘blame’ the separation on the parent who leaves home OR, alternatively, they may blame the other for ‘making’ it happen.
  • Some children think that the absent parent has left them, which may lead to feelings of guilt and rejection.
  • Children often feel threatened that the remaining parent will ‘leave’.
  • Children sometimes find it difficult to know what to say when either parent asks them questions about the other. They will often say ‘anything’ just to please.
  • Sometimes children have difficulties saying how they feel and may express this by being violent towards their siblings or school friends; even parents.
  • Children will tell you all kinds of things through other means than talk. They may draw pictures that indicate their feelings or play ‘pretend’ games. Watch carefully and you may learn a lot.
  • Children sometimes regress, i.e. Bed-wet, fall behind at school, revert back to thumb sucking, or seek some other ‘comforter’.
  • When parents separate often whole families separate too, so it is important that the children maintain their relationships with other members of the extended family (provided that there is no risk of harm to the children’s’ welfare).
  • Most children have a strong sense of fairness and for this reason they may choose to live with the parent who does not have a new partner in order to redress the balance. Alternatively, to avoid hurting either parent they may choose to live with their grandparents.


  • My child is OK because s/he is ‘getting on with it’. BUT, parents should be aware that the child who is behaving as though nothing has happened, might well be the child who is not able to cope or accept the truth
  • My child is NOT OK because s/he is behaving badly.  It is probably their child’s way of saying ‘Look at me, I’m hurting and I don’t know how to deal with it.
  • It is only the adults who can work out the problems.  Often children can suggest the most simple solution when the adults are stuck.
  • Children are resilient and not affected by their parents’ disputes. Children are very good at pretending.
  • It’s better for the children if I don’t have contact with them; I’ll let them get on with their lives.  If any form of abuse exists, this can be true, otherwise it is rarely so. Children can feel very rejected when the parent they love decides not to see them.
  • It is better to wait until the children are teenager before separating. Most children, despite their ages, feel the effects of their parents’ separation just as acutely, but they react differently.
  • Children don’t always fully understand what is going on.  However, when they are older they will make sense of it and could become very resentful towards their parents.


  • Possibly, your children may doubt that you love them, so it is a good idea to tell them so and offer them lots of hugs and kisses – no matter what ages they are.
  • Try to think of yourself as a parent and not a as partner.
  • Consult a couple’s counsellor if you need help to deal with your emotions – don’t use the kids.
  • Try to minimize the trauma by keeping everything as regular and normal as possible e.g. same school and, if possible, same house.
  • Children can learn the art of manipulation from a very early age and become very proficient as playing off one parent against the other. To minimize this danger - both parents should  try to keep the same house rules. These ‘boundaries’ are crucial for children’s security and they may test them to find out if everything else is still the same.
  • Try to spend ‘quality’ time with your children NOT WITH THE NEW PARTNER.
  • Be sensitive to your children’s feelings (and the other parent’s) about a ‘new partner’ and don’t introduce them too soon.
  • Try to keep the other parent informed about the children’s welfare and whereabouts
  • Nothing is set in stone.  Be patient with each other.  Changes do occur but they do take time.
  • Try to be civil to your ex-partner, especially in front of or within hearing of the children.
  • Try to separate maintenance or financial matters from the contact arrangement with your children.  Children should not be bargained for.


  • Listen to your children; they have a voice, too.
  • Allow yourself to cry – IT IS NORMAL to express painful feelings, for either sex.
  • Reassure your children that both parents still love them.  It is not unusual for children to become ‘clingy’ for fear that the remaining parent will also leave home.
  • Give reassurance to the children that their parent’s separation was not their fault.
  • Allow your children to be ‘children’ by not expecting them to take on the absent partner’s role or responsibilities.
  • Talk to your children, preferably together, and explain to them, in a non-blaming way what is happening.  Most children know instinctively when things are wrong.
  • Tell the teachers what the family situation is.  They are used to this kind of thing and will observe your children’s’ behavior and progress. Also, arrangements can be made for letters and reports to be sent to both parents.
  • Talk to others who have learned through similar experiences. However, beware of unwanted or unwise ‘advice’.
  • Encourage contact with both sets of grandparents (except where abuse exists). Positive adult relationships with children are usually very valuable.
  • Accept that children may become aggressive, moody, weepy or disruptive this often the only way that they can express their feelings.
  • Remember that the antidote to resentment is forgiveness.


  • Ignore your children if they disclose any form of abuse. Don’t question them; call the Police or Social Services.
  • Worry if you don’t always get it right.
  • Rush things
  • Ask your children to choose between either parent.
  • Split your children, unless they themselves really want it.
  • Let your child down by turning up late for contact.  Five minutes is a very long time for a ‘waiting’ child and they rarely forget this in adulthood.
  • Be violent or abusive with your ex-partner, particularly in front of the children. This is very damaging for a child – and against the law!
  • Berate your ex-partner to the children – remember they love both parents and it may backfire on you. Some children would rather not see a parent rather than listen to abuse or suffer awkward questions.
  • Involve your children in your arguments or invite them to ‘take sides’.
  • Insist on the children meeting the new partner too soon.  Six months is the norm.
  • Tell your children that they are responsible in any way for the breakdown or separation.
  • Pass hostile messages to the ‘other’ parent through your children – I have known children make attempts on their lives by this behavior.
  • Underestimate the children’s understanding of their parent’s situation. Even from a very early age, children pick up emotions and atmospheres. What your children do not know, they will guess and this can be more damaging than the truth. However, they do not need to know who did what to whom.
  • Try to ‘buy’ your children’s affection. Love is far more valuable and this behavior often antagonizes the other parent, who often cannot afford to overindulge the child.
  • Use your child as a ‘friend’.
  • Expect your children to take on adult responsibilities.

It can be very helpful to write down your thoughts and feelings as this can help to release stored up anger and, also to give an insight into what those around you may be experiencing.  Try answering the following questions – you may even want to share your answers with someone:

How am I really feeling? How might my ex-partner be feeling? How might my children be feeling? Imagine that in 10 years time you overhear your children talking to each other about the way in which you and your partner handled the separation – what would you want to hear? How does my behavior affect others? What can you do to improve the situation?

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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North Ferriby, East Riding Of Yorkshire, HU14
Written by Jo Easterbrook, Senior xRelate Counsellor FamilyMediator BA hons.Dip.PST
North Ferriby, East Riding Of Yorkshire, HU14

"If this is not a place where tears are understood, Where do I go to cry? If this is not a place where my spirits can take wing, Where do I go to fly? If this is not a place where my questions can be asked, Where do I go to seek? If this is not a place where my feelings can be heard, Where do I go t...

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