03 September, 2012

Relationship Separation is often a confusing time for adults.  While there can be feelings ranging from relief to shock and a sense of betrayal and failure, and everything in between, it is important to remember that children too are often left feeling bewildered and angry because of their parent’s separation, or are left feeling a whole range of emotions that they may be ill-equipped to identify, and to understand. 

Loving parents often want to ease their children’s sense of confusion, but sometimes struggle to do so while they are dealing with many emotions themselves.  There are ways however, that, even while going through a complex and difficult time themselves, parents can still put in place some good strategies that will help ensure that their children come through their separation, resilient.  It is not within the scope of this article to go into all aspects of supporting children through separation (there are many good publications that do that) but to provide a few ideas that could be of benefit to parents.

Telling the Children

One of the first tasks of separation that parents are faced with is how to tell the children.  Children need to have information that makes sense of what is happening, but in an age-appropriate way.  There is no need to go into a great deal of detail about the history of the adult relationship difficulties, rather children need clarity about matters such as where their parents will be living now, what that means for them, how often they will be seeing the non-residential parent, the availability of the absent parent by phone or other means etc.

It is my experience in my role as a Child Consultant at the Family Relationship Centre at Upper Mt Gravatt that parents are often very proactive in telling their children that while their own adult relationship had broken down, this did not impact on their feelings for their children.  While this information is reassuring for a child, it is really only half the message that children need to hear.  Children need to know that it is OK with each of their separating parents that they spend quality time with the other parent, and they need to know that it is OK with their separating parents that they love the other parent.  While this may be difficult for some adults to tell their children honestly, it is important that the adult’s feelings are not imposed on their children.

Conflict and Communication

At the Family Relationship Centre, we are often told that children are not aware of the conflict that exists between two separated parents.  From infanthood, however, children learn that their basic needs are met by their being tuned into their parent’s emotional state.  Children can be very intuitive in regard to their parent’s feelings – especially their feelings about their ex-partner.  Too often, children learn too early that to keep themselves safe emotionally they need to keep secrets – protecting Mum and Dad from information regarding the other parent, and ultimately protecting themselves from feelings of disloyalty, guilt or from feeling like they have displeased one parent.  Over time, these children can develop complex strategies in order to manoeuvre what they perceive as the dangerous territory of adult relationships.  While, for some adults, it at times may seem that it is almost impossible to hear news of the other parent in a completely passive way, parents will need to exercise some emotional restraint for the sake of their children.  Reducing conflict and increasing positive communication is the key to children’s transition through the difficult time of parental break up.

Emotional Health and Literacy

It has been consistently shown in research that the adjustment of children to divorce is strongly correlated with the psychological adjustment of parents (Hetherington & Stanley–Hagan, 1999). Children need to know that it is OK to ask for help.  In this regard, parents can lead by example.  It is not selfish for adults to look after their emotional and their own health needs at this time.  This way, parents are better equipped to support their children.  There is no failure in parents’ admission that a Professional may be needed to help their children deal with the complex changes that a marriage or relationship break up brings.  This equally applies to adults, who can often benefit from seeking Professional help. 

Parents can help their children by talking to them about things that bring them joy or comfort.  This way children can make a connection between their feelings and a variety of ways they can self-soothe.  This does not require going into a great deal of detail about adult feelings, but rather by making a simple statement like “I feel calm when I go for a walk by the sea”.  Listening to music, talking to a friend, or digging in a garden are among many ways to demonstrate to children that there are healthy ways to self-soothe.  The concept of identification of feelings and expressing them in a healthy or creative way helps children build Emotional Literacy.

Structure and Consistency

Separation can be a time of great adjustment to routine.  Structure and consistency in a supportive environment is important to children of all ages and parenting that is nurturing and also authoritative (not authoritarian) is related to child adjustment following divorce and separation (Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1989).

It is wise to, as far as possible, keep change to a minimum.  Children who are exposed to multiple stressors and change are at a greater risk of poor adjustment. 

While some change at this time will be necessary, parents can find ways to minimise these.  One way for a non resident parent to minimise change is to stay geographically close to children, so that, when they spend time with the non-resident parent, much of their environment is familiar and other aspects of their lives eg. Friends and extra-curricular activities are close.

A Final Word

The two major pointers to children’s adjustment to their parent’s separation that have continually been identified in the relevant literature are the exposure the child has to interparental conflict, and the quality of the parent-child relationship.  It is not, therefore, separation itself that impacts negatively on child well being, but the ongoing exposure the child has to conflict. (O’Hanlon, Patterson and Parham, 2007).

And finally, while divorce and separation is associated with an increased risk for children in relation to adjustment, achievement and relationship difficulties, resilience is the norm (Amato, 2001).  This knowledge must be tempered, however, with the understanding that this resilience may best be achieved where parents are committed to ending the conflict between themselves, and where they are committed to providing for their children a safe, supported and nurturing environment.

Karen Marshall, Clinical Supervisor and Child Consultant at RAQ


Amato, P.R. (2001).  Children of Divorce in the 1990’s:  An update of the Amato and Keith (1991) Meta analysis.  Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 355-370.

Hetherington, E.M. & Stanley-Hagan, M. (1999).  The adjustment of children with divorced parents:  A risk and resiliency perspective.  Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40, 129-140.

Hetherington, E.M. & Stanley-Hagan, M., & Anderson, E.R. (1989).  Marital transistions:  A child’s perspective.  American Psychologist, 44, 303-312.

O’Hanlon, A., & Patterson, A., & Parham, J (2007).  Managing the impact of separation and divorce on children.  Overview of the literature. The Australian Psychological Society Ltd