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Helping children through separation

It can be hard for children when their parents split up – and every child reacts in their own way. But there are things you can do to help your child adjust to the changes in your family. 

Talking to children

Understanding children’s feelings

Myths around children and separation

Hear from other single parents

The advice here is for parents. We also have advice for children on our page about adjusting to your parents splitting up.

Talking to children

People often worry about how the breakdown of their relationship will affect their children. Even though it might seem it’s better to hide things from them, this isn’t usually the case. Talking with and listening to children can help them adjust. It may take months or even years. But with plenty of support, most children do come to terms with their parents’ separation.

Try to be open to what your child has to say – and show that you’re really listening. This will let your child know it’s OK to talk about their emotions – whatever they are. If they don’t want to open up, let it go and try again another time. 

Family Lives also has some useful advice about what to tell children during a family breakup.

This video from Relate has some useful guidance on how to talk to children about separating.

Voices in the Middle helps young people whose parents are splitting up.  Their conversation guide has useful tips for planning how to talk to your children about separating, including advice from young people about what works. They also have lots of other short videos on questions to ask, active listening, and what not to do.

Understanding children’s feelings

You’ll be more able to help your child if you can understand how they’re feeling. And showing them that you understand their feelings and needs can be an important way to help them come to terms with the change. 

It’s normal for children to go through a range of emotions when their parents separate. They might seem angry, resentful, sad, needy, upset, or quiet. They may act out their emotions in very different ways. It’s best to try to understand and try to address what lies behind your child’s behaviour. For example, they may be showing anger because they really feel frightened.

The relationship charity Relate has lots of very useful information about understanding children’s needs and behaviour during a separation.

If you’re worried about how your child is coping

Your child may not know how to describe their emotions, or they may try not to worry you by hiding how they feel. Let them know it’s OK to be sad, angry or anxious. A hug or some quality time with you can speak volumes too.

The NSPCC has some useful tips on talking about hard subjects with your child. 

Give your child as much stability as possible. Keeping to the usual routines and activities will help your child adjust. 

If you feel your child isn’t coping well with the change to their family, it can also be helpful for you to talk to the people who see them most often. You might want to have a confidential chat with their teacher, for example. Teachers and teaching assistants can be well-placed to keep a watchful eye and reassure your child. It also helps the school to know if something is troubling a child outside the classroom.

Here are some useful resources that might help you and your child adjust to a family separation.

  • Parenting through separation is a practical guide to handling the emotional aspects of separation or divorce. It covers how children might react at different ages, tips for talking to your children, and managing your relationship with your child’s other parent. 
  • Cafcass, who represent children in family court cases, have 2 booklets for children whose parents are separating: 1 for children under 12 and 1 for older children. They both include stories from children who have been through similar experiences, games, and spaces for children to explore their feelings. You’ll find these resources for young people under the factsheets and leaflets called My family’s changing.
  • There’s a guide for parents going through divorce or separation created by YoungMinds, the mental health charity for young people. They also have separate helplines for parents and children.
  • Family Lives has a free and confidential helpline on all aspects of parenting and family life. They also offer online chat, an email support service and a forum where parents can share experiences, challenges and support.

Common myths around children and separation

There are lots of generalisations and false beliefs when it comes to separation and how it affects children. Here’s how things really are.

Myth: Shielding children from separation will stop them being hurt by it

This might seem to be the best way to deal with a separation, and might be the right thing to do in some cases. But research shows that talking to your children about your separation can help them adjust.

The only advice I would give any parent is, however hard it is, tell your children the truth.”

– Deborah

Myth: The children of separated parents don’t do as well as other children

In fact, a lot of research shows that the children of separated parents do just as well as ones in 2-parent families. Differences in how children cope are more likely to be caused by things like family finances or ongoing conflict between parents.

What’s most important is your relationship with your child. Having a good relationship helps with their mental health, self-esteem and ability to cope with when things get hard.

“My son is 14 and I’ve been on my own since I was pregnant. He’s in top sets for all his subjects, plays rugby, drums and the trumpet. He’s on the school council and everyone he meets says how mature, kind and wonderful he is. I couldn’t agree more! A huge well done to my fellow lone parents – we all do a great job.”

– Gemma

Myth: The most important thing to children’s wellbeing is the family structure

Research consistently shows that whether there are 2 parents or 1 in a family is not the main factor in a child’s progress or a family’s stability.

What matters is how good a child’s relationships are within the family, not how many parents live with them. 

“Single parents rock. Families come in all shapes and sizes.”

– Angela

“Children thrive when they’re surrounded by love and people who give them self-belief and support. It doesn’t matter who gives them this.”

– Jayne

Myth: separation always affects children negatively

The way children react to a separation varies hugely and depends on many different things. Their age, individual strengths and character are all important, as well as how the family was before the separation. 

Where there’s been ongoing and major conflict in a relationship, research shows that taking the step to separate often makes things better for the children. The key thing to remember is that every child is different, and there’s no sure way to predict their reaction to a separation.

The relationship charity Relate has lots of useful information about understanding children’s needs and behaviour during a separation.

“It’s been just over a year since I separated, and my children are happy and flourishing because I’m happier being single. Looking back, I could see how unhappy I was – and this would have had a direct effect on the children. Now there’s no more arguments. They see their dad every week, and between us we’ve made our situation ‘normal’ for the children. It works, and they have a happy and fun loving mum”

– Emma

Myth: separation affects children for the rest of their lives

How long the effects of a separation last depends on many things. Your child’s age when it happens, their personality and your family circumstances before the separation are just a few important factors.

Research shows that children may find it hard in the short term, but things usually start to improve after the first year of separation. In the long term, there aren’t that many differences between people who had separated parents and ones from 2-parent families.

Of course every child and family is different, so the impact of a separation will be different for everyone. 

“My parents split when I was 3. I think my mum did a great job raising me with my older brother. I went to an average comprehensive and did OK, then did a degree and a masters. I now have a good job, nice house, but most importantly a great family.”

– Craig

Hear from other single parents

Not only are my children doing great, but it’s been nothing but positive for me too. It gave me a push to do a degree, enabled me to find part-time work as a community development worker, and gave me a real interest in child education which I try to pass on to my children.


My son finds it really difficult to connect with men. He always feels like they’re going to abandon him. I’ve done my best to support him however he needs. We watch films like Star Wars together and I ply football with him – me and all the other dads! I try to help him understand that what he feels is justified and it’s fine to be angry sometimes.

Mum, 3 children

You may be strict on sugar and TV but they may not, which can create a very wobbly line for a child that is growing up and starting to push boundaries. I have tried involving my ex-husband in conversations but it always ends in a disagreement or fight, so I have had to just accept and embrace that this is what happens at mummy’s house and that is what happens at daddy’s house.

Mum, 1 child

After we told them about splitting up, the kids were constantly upset. My 5-year-old was crying nonstop and not coping at school. The school staff are really kind so I told the teachers. Everyone’s been keeping an eye on the girls and they’ve been amazing.

Mum, children aged 1, 5 and 10

Don’t feel you need to rush into a new relationship trying to fill the gap. Children thrive just as well, if not better, with one amazing, attentive parent.

Single mum

Date last updated: 28 June 2023

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