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Helping your child cope with separation and divorce

When parents split up, there will be many changes that happen during and after the separation that children will be anxious about. It is likely they will worry about how often they will see both parents, where they will live, if they will need to move schools and if there will be enough money for them to continue doing the activities they enjoy. It is important that you consider how these things might change in your family life and how you can best prepare your children.

Your child's reaction to the separation

Children will have different reactions to the news of your separation, depending on their age, personality and if they had already been aware of difficulties in your relationship. Signs that your child may be finding your separation or divorce particularly difficult to cope with include them:

  • Becoming withdrawn.
  • Regressing to younger behaviours, such as bedwetting.
  • Believing they have caused the separation.
  • Staying out all hours and avoiding coming home.
  • Being distracted from doing school work.
  • Getting into trouble at school or with the police.
  • Experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
  • Bullying and becoming aggressive.

What you can do to help

While it is likely that all children will find it hard when their parents separate, there is a lot you can do to minimise their emotional distress. The most useful of all is to be in agreement with your ex-partner about how to support your children through this time. This includes how you will both explain the separation to your children and agreeing on discipline and routines in both parents' households as much as is possible.

Below are some further suggestions of how you can support your children:

  • Reassure your child that they are still loved.
  • Be as honest as you can with them about what is happening.
  • Avoid blaming your ex partner and try to work together.
  • Agree an explanation for your separation or divorce and stick to it.
  • Explain to your child that the breakdown in the relationship is about you as a couple and not their fault.
  • Listen to how they feel.
  • Give them enough information. What they will want to know will depend on their age and maturity. Younger children often prefer a simple explanation.
  • Try not to overload them with your worries.
  • Plan and agree visits with the parent they don't live with and stick to them.
  • Support them to keep in touch with relatives and close family friends.
  • Make sure they have all the essential things they need in the house they are staying, such as clothes, toiletries and equipment for school.
  • Tell their school about the separation so that their teacher can support them.

What you can suggest they do

There are also more practical things that older children can do for themselves, which can help them cope with this change to family life:

  • Talk to someone they trust from outside the home like their teacher, a school counsellor, a youth worker or a family friend.
  • Take up a new interest, activity or sport.
  • Keep in touch with their wider family like their cousins or grandparents.

Support when there are problems between parents

There will be some family situations where it is not possible to co-parent harmoniously, especially when the separation is very recent. You can seek advice and information from charities or contact local services for support. It is especially important to get outside help when there is a risk of harm to the children or one of the parents. Listed below are services that can help families:

  • Relate (Dealing with children's feelings and behaviour) has information for families in a variety of circumstances that has led to separation.
  • Surrey Family and Mediation Service can help separated parents to come to an agreement about practical matters affecting their children, such as visitation of the non-resident parent.
  • Surrey Against Domestic Abuse is a service that supports adults and children who have experienced domestic abuse. When there has been domestic abuse in a family, there can be difficult decisions to make about what is in the best interests of the child, such as maintaining contact with the abusive parent.
  • Cafcass looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings and will advise the court on the best interests of the children.

Where you can get help with contact

If there has been a significant breakdown in communication between you and your ex-partner, you may wish to access support to help your child spend time with both of you.

Child Contact Centres allow parents or family members to visit and spend quality time with a child that does not live with them. The National Association of Child Contact Centres explains the difference between supervised and supported visits. Families might also be able to use a contact centre to facilitate drop off/pick up of their child when custody of the child is shared. In most cases, parents will not need to see each other as arrangements can be made for a volunteer, friend or staff member to help with the handover.

Find your nearest Child Contact Centre can be used to find a local registered Child Contact Centre.

To use a Child Contact Centre, families usually need to be referred by a service or professional, such as Children's Services or a solicitor. Some centres will accept referrals from parents directly. You should phone the centre you are interested in using to check how you can be referred to them.