Helping your children to cope post-separation

The Parents Plus Parenting When Separated programme offers important tips for helping children to cope when the relationship between their parents breaks down and there is a separation. If you are finding parenting challenging because you are going through or have gone through a separation you can talk to one of the Family Support Workers on the team at the Donegal Parent Support line who have experience running the Parenting When Separated programme. Freephone 1800 112277 Monday – Friday 9am to 3pm or PM the Parent Hub Donegal Facebook page with your name, number and brief description of the issue you would like support with and one of the team will be in touch.

How children cope post-separation

Common reactions – the conflict leading up to separation, the separation itself and coming to terms with the new living arrangements are all hugely stressful for everyone in the family, including the children. How children cope can vary greatly depending on their temperament, personality, age and individual needs. However, it is normal for children to experience a range of emotions in relation to their parents’ separation. Some of the most common reactions and emotions are outlined below.


Children of all ages may be angry with parents for allowing the separation to happen


Most children, at some point, question whether they may have caused their parents’ separation. This is especially true if they have heard parents argue over anything related to them.


It is common for all children to experience some level of sadness at their parents’ separation. Much like any grieving process the sadness diminishes slowly over time and they become accustomed to the new arrangements.


Children often worry after a separation about many things such as:

  • “Will my parent(s) be OK?”
  • “Is the family financially stable?”
  • “If they can leave each other does that mean they can leave me?”

Missing Parents

They miss the parent who is no longer at home full-time and they find the dramatic change to their day-to-day lives upsetting. This is often especially noticeable at the handover because this provides a reminder to the child of how much they miss the other parent. However, this does not mean that over time they cannot adjust to the changes.


Emotional reaction in children often present themselves as a change in the child’s behaviour.

  • A previously compliant child may become more challenging towards the house rules
  • A chatty child may become more quiet and sullen
  • A child who previously was an excellent student may become more distracted and less focused in class.

How can parents help children?

While children may go through a stressful time during parental separation, the good news is that there are positive things you can do which can help them to cope better. According to research studies, how well children cope depends largely on how their parents manage the separation. In addition to personally coping yourself, there are four main things you can do:

Listen to and focus on your children’s needs

Tune in

  • Take time to tune in to how your child might be coping
  • Look for any clues as to how they might be feeling
  • Notice any changes in their behaviour

Reassure them that they are loved

  • Children often worry that if their parents can leave each other perhaps they can leave them
  • Reassure your child that you love them and that you will be there for them
  • Show this to them with your actions as well as your words


  • Listen carefully, and non-judgmentally, to your children so that you can understand how they are coping before you decide how best to help them
  • Be prepared to listen to things that might be hard for you to hear.
  • Remember the more you can calmly listen, the more supported your child will feel.

Share information

When information is not shared with a child they may become more anxious and imagine things to be much worse than they are in reality

  • Share information with your children about what is happening
  • Keep them updated on plans and arrangements and answer any of their questions that you can.

Work constructively with the child’s other parent

Research tells us that the single most significant factor that supports children’s wellbeing post-separation is the establishment of a successful co-parenting relationship between the parents. Though this can be initially hard, parents who can learn to co-operate about child-related issues alleviate stress from children and promote positive family relationships going into the future.

Seek agreement and cooperation

  • Try to reach agreement with your child’s other parent, especially about important parenting issues, such as contact, education, etc
  • Respect that each parent will do things differently and that this is OK

Keep communicating with the other parent

  • Take on the responsibility to communicate directly to the other parent about making contact and other arrangements
  • While children’s views should be considered they should never be given responsibility for arranging contact or used as ‘go-betweens’ for passing on information
  • Make sure that you as a parent pass on any relevant information to the other parent about important things such as school, activities, illness, medications, holiday, etc

Share parenting responsibility

It is best for children when both parents take responsibility for the ‘discipline parts’ as well as the ‘fun parts’ of parenting

  • Take responsibility for homework and routines within your own home
  • Set aside times for fun, talking and playing games together

Maintain the quality of your parenting

Rules and routines

Post-separation, clear rules and routines are more important than ever for children. Good routines:

  • Provide reassurance that the world can be a predictable place
  • Help children manage their feelings of upset
  • Help children learn over time that they are expected to behave in a certain way

Avoid burdening children with adult responsibilities

  • While children in the house may have an increased number of chores post-separation, they should not be given excessive responsibilities which stress them, for example, taking over responsibility for minding other children etc
  • Avoid sharing adult problems with children such as, financial worries or relationship problems etc.

Keep promises

  • Do not make a promise to your child that you think you will not be able to keep and try to keep all contact arrangements
  • If you do make arrangements that you end up having to change, make sure that you give your child advance notice

Minimise the life changes your child experiences

When parents separate, much of the trauma that children suffer is not directly due to the separation itself but rather due to the life changes that often occur, such as:

  • Living in a different house
  • Moving far away to a new area
  • Changing schools
  • Losing contact with friends
  • Loss of a pet
  • Losing contact with extended family members (e.g. grandparents)

Keeping things as stable as possible for children

You can reduce a lot of stress for your children by keeping as much stability as possible for them post-separation. You may think that moving to a new city will be a fresh start for you and your family. However, it is more beneficial to children if things in their lives can be kept stable at least for the first few years after the separation. If some changes are inevitable (and they often are) try and maintain other sources of stability in your children’s lives. For example:

  • You may have to move house but your children could stay in the same school
  • You can try and live as close to the original home as possible
  • You can make an effort to ensure they see their grandparents just as frequently as before
  • You can keep them in similar extracurricular activities and in contact with the same friends

You can look on the Parents Plus website for further resources, just click the link

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