Supporting children and young people through parental separation and divorce

By Melinda Phillips

In Australia nearly one in two marriages end in separation and divorce.  This directly impacts many children in our schools and adults in our workplaces, parishes and social networks, and quite possibly our own family too.  Coping with the family changes the result can be challenging for children and their parents, and for those supporting the family including relatives and friends, work colleagues and school staff.  Some knowledge and understanding of what children and young people are dealing with can help us to provide the right kinds of support, when and where it can help.


Reactions of children and young people

Children's reactions to separation and divorce are unique and varied, and can be more easily understood if we look at separation and divorce as a process over time, rather than a one off event.  The child's age, their personality, their previous life experiences, what support networks they have around them, and how well their parents are managing all impact on how children react and cope.

Some thoughts about children and young people's reactions are shared below.  These are only a general guide, as every child's experience is unique, even within the same family.  Paying attention and noticing how each child manages change is a very important role that adults can play as they guide and support young people in adapting to new situations.


Children in the preschool years may ...

•  recognise that they are seeing on parent less or differently

•  imagine fearful outcomes that seem real to the child

•  regress in some areas, e.g. toileting, language and style of play

•  show feelings such as anxiety and fear in actions e.g. clinginess and tantrums


Children in the primary school years may ...

•  understand more about what separation and divorce means in their family

•  hold unrealistic fears about the future that seem real to the child

•  blame themselves for family changes

•  experience physical symptoms including feeling sick, headaches, tiredness

•  show feelings in a range of ways - from being 'over' co-operative and agreeable to being angry and lashing out


Young people in the secondary school years may ...

•  feel a sense of loss similar to those of othe adults involved and in their extended family

•  experience the changes in their family as unique, and so feel different and alone

•  worry about the family finances

•  be unwilling to be a part of family arrangements that they feel don't suit them

•  feel angry, anxious, sad and overwhelmed

•  engage in risky behaviours as a way of dealing with their feelings about the changes


What can children and young people do for themselves?

Children and young people are often caught in the middle when the family changes.  However, there are things they can be encouraged to do that may help:

•  read (appropriate) picture books and novels to understand they are not alone and that other children are dealing with similar issues

•  talk to their parents about how they are feeling

•  talk to other interested and supportive adults and peers about how they are feeling

•  visit child-focused websites for age-appropriate information about separation and divorce - this can help allay fears and provide facts and ideas on coping.


How can parents help?

Parents may be just coping with the changes and losses that come with separation and divorce, and can feel overwhelmed in supporting their children 'the right way' while they try to manage themselves.  Importantly, one of the best things parents can do is look after themselves - parent wellbeing is key to children coping well.


Parents can also help by:

•  finding time, space and attention to spend talking and listening with their child

•  letting children and young people have a say in decision making

•  managing home routines that are constant, warm and reassuring

•  ensuring children are eating well, sleeping enough and getting some exercise

•  letting school know what is going on so that other adults can support their child

•  accepting help from others (whether to mind the children for some parent time out, someone to have a laugh or cry with, or a trusted adult for children to turn to).


How can other adults help?

There are often many adult care-givers in a child's life, including grandparents, relatives, family friends, teachers and other school staff.  Each can play a role in supporting children and young people as they manage family change.  Suggestions include:

•  provide security and support to children and young people

•  help children and young people feel competent and in control

•  maintain expectations and consistent discipline

•  keep lines of communication open

•  respond appropriately, with understanding, if behaviour issues arise.

Schools can also help by recognising that all families have strengths and working with these strengths in supporting children and young people.  School staff can also aim to maintain communication with both parents in a range of ways, and provide additional information and referral options for children and young people who need some more support.


Seasons for Growth Programs

Schools and family support agencies may also offer small group support to children, young people and their parents.  Seasons for Growth is a grief and loss education program that aims to promote the social and emotional wellbeing of young people and adults as they manage change, loss and grief.  Over 200,000 children and young people across five countries have taken part in the highly successful Seasons for Growth Children and Young People's Program, delivered in small age-appropriate groups by a trained "Companion" - a teacher or counsellor or parent volunteer.

A new program Seasons for Growth Parent Program is available from Good Grief.  Written by Professor Anne Graham, the author of the original program, Seasons for Growth Parent Program has two separate components for supporting children following separation and divorce and for supporting children following the death of someone they love.  These compact parent programs consist of 1-2 short sessions and allow parents to explore and learn about how best to support their children through these life-changing events.  


References (2013).  Fact Sheet: Dealing with Divorce and Custody.  Retrieved on 160513 from

Graham, A. (2013). Seasons for Growth for Parents: Companion Manual (Pilot Program). Good Grief Ltd.

Gray, B.P. (2001)/ Supporting Children and Families in Times of Stress.  Texas Woman's University for Texas ChildCare.

Leon, K and Spengler, L (2005). Helping Children Adjust to Divorce: A Guide for Teachers. University of Missouri.