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Helping Children Cope With Separation and Divorce

The physical leaving of one parent, whether as a result of death, divorce or abandonment is very traumatic for any age child. It results in serious emotional stress for the children.

  • They feel torn apart because they feel they are expected to take sides especially if the remaining parent talks badly (in the presence of the child) about the absent parent.
  • They feel responsible to “look after” the remaining parent and brothers and sisters, especially if they are the eldest and when the remaining parent are in severe distress, emotionally or financially.
  • Children have different reactions to and different understanding of divorce, depending on their age.


Children between 5 and 10 years of age suffer more openly. They become very distressed, experiencing: loss, rejection, guilt and loyalty conflicts.

  • They fear that they will never see the other parent again.
  • They hide their feelings but act aggressively towards the remaining parent. They also tend to be aggressive with the brothers and sisters and other children at school.
  • They find it difficult to concentrate at school and the schoolwork suffers.
  • They fantasize (dream) about their parents getting back together again.


Children between 9-12 years are more realistic and have a clearer understanding of what is happening.

  • They can be very angry toward the parents. They have a very strong sense of right and wrong and they therefore tend to judge their parents.
  • They struggle with feelings of shame.
  • They become anxious about the resulting lack of stability in their lives. This anxiety and stress are expressed in the form of physical illness such as headaches and stomachaches. Disturbing behaviour such as lying and stealing are common symptoms of this distress.
  • They feel powerless and lonely
  • They feel very responsible for the well being of the remaining parent and will often take on the role of the other parent. (This must not happen.)


  • Tell the truth about what is happening

e.g.  “Mommy and Daddy have not been getting along for some time now and have decided that it will be better if we part.” Children do not need to know all the painful reasons for the divorce.

  • reassure them of your love and that they will still have both parents but that they will no longer be living together – the parent may have stopped loving the other parent  but that you will not stop loving them
  • Make it very clear that the divorce is not their fault – it is not happening because of something they have done.
  • Make it clear that there is nothing they can do to save the marriage.
  • Explain in detail what changes will take place -this will help them to feel more secure – not knowing what is going to happen is scarier for children than knowing the truth.
  • Help them to express their feelings about the divorce or separation.



Try to change as little as possible, the circumstances under which they live, e.g.

  • if at all possible, try and keep their living arrangements the same or keep them at the same school
  • do not relax discipline because you feel sorry for them

Do not put the eldest child in the role of the parent who has left-children, like you, need adult support and comfort.

Fouzia Ryklief – Social Worker

The Parent Centre

Helping Children Through Positive Parenting

One thought on “Helping Children Cope With Separation and Divorce

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