Every child reacts in their own way when their parents separate. Whatever their response when family life changes, support is out there. You may worry about the negative impacts of a separation on your child and think it would be better to hide it from them. However, in some cases, talking to your child can help them to adjust.
Relate counsellor Paula Hall gives practical tips on how to talk to your children about separation and divorce.
Understanding your child’s feelings
You may find that it’s easier to support your child if you can understand the feelings they are experiencing after a separation. Relate have lots of information about dealing with children’s feelings and behaviourafter separating that may be helpful.
Busting the myths around separation and your children
There are lots of generalisations made about separation and its impact on children. It can be easy to believe these assumptions, so we had a look at what the research actually says.
Here are some myths that surround separation:
Tips from single parents
Helping my son trust men
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 play football with him – me and all the other dads! On Fathers’ Day we always make a card and it’s for whoever he wants it to be for – one year it was a teacher at his school, another it was our neighbour. I just try to help him understand that what he feels is justified and it’s fine to be angry sometimes.
Mum, 3 children
Let some things go
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 the 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 in mummy’s house, and that is what happens in daddy’s house. Yes this is insanely frustrating, but honestly my advice would be to let it go. As long as your child/children are happy, being spoilt a few days a week isn’t the end of the world as long as they know the rules and boundaries in your house.
Mum, 1 child
Ask school to keep an eye on the kids
After we told them about splitting up, the kids were just constantly upset. My 5 year old was crying nonstop and not coping at school. The school staff are really kind so I straight away went and told the teachers. Everyone’s keeping an eye on the girls and they’ve been amazing.
Mum, 3 children aged 1, 5 and 10
Your kids will still thrive
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.
Try to put your feelings aside
I try to be as calm as possible, talking to my ex about contact with my daughter. I have even invited him to her birthday. It’s going to be a really difficult period having him there but at the same time she wants him there, so you have kind of got to do the right thing by your child.
Myth: Children of separated parents don’t do as well as other children
It is sometimes suggested that children of separated parents don’t achieve as much as children of two parent families.
However, there is lots of research showing that children of separated parents do just as well as those of two-parent families.
Where there are differences, this is more likely to be caused by other factors such as family finances or on-going conflict between parents. This is why Gingerbread campaigns for single parent families to be treated fairly and have the same opportunities as other families.
“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 is on the school council and everyone he meets comments on how mature, kind and wonderful he is and I couldn’t agree more. A huge well done to my fellow lone parents we all do a great job.”
Myth: family structure is the most important factor
Research consistently shows that family structure– whether there are two parents or one – is not the main factor contributing to children’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. This is the case for children of all family types – whether they live with one parent or two.
“Single parents rock. Families come in all shapes and sizes”
“Children thrive when surrounded by love and support and people who give them self-belief and support. Irrespective of who gives them it”
Myth: separation will always have a negative impact on children
Research shows that how children react to separation varies and depends on lots of different factors. Their age, individual strengths and character are all important, as well as your previous family circumstances.
In some cases, where there has been ongoing and severe conflict in a relationship, research suggests that taking the step to separate may help to improve the situation for children.
The key thing to remember is that every child is different, so there is no sure way to predict their reaction to a separation.
“It’s been just over a year since I separated and my children are happy and flourishing because I am happier being single. Looking back I could see how unhappy I was and this would of had a direct effect on the children; now there’s no more arguments. They see their dad every week and between us we have made our situation ‘normal’ for the children and it works and they have a happy and fun loving mum”
Myth: separation negatively affects children for the rest of their lives
How long the effects of a separation last for can depend on lots of factors such as the child’s age when it happens, individual strengths and your previous family circumstances.
Research shows that children may experience short-term negative effects – such as shock or anger – but these effects start to decline after the first year of separation. In the long-term, research suggests that there are very minimal differences between children of separated parents and those of two-parent families.
It’s important to remember that every child is different, so how long a separation affects them for will vary from child to child.
“My parents split when I was three. I think my mum did a great job raising me with my older brother. I went to an average comprehensive and did ok, then have done a degree and masters. I now have a good job, nice house, but most importantly a great family.”
Myth: shielding children from separation will stop them being hurt by it
It might feel like the best way to avoid any negative effects of a separation on your children is to shield them from it.
While it may be appropriate to do this in some circumstances, lots of research shows that talking to your children about the separation can help them adjust better.
“Not only are my children doing great but it’s been nothing but positive for me too. 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.”
Looking after yourself
There’s lots of help and support available for single parent families, and it’s important to make sure that you’re looking after yourself and your own wellbeing as well as your children’s.
It can sometimes be helpful to read through stories from other single parents to hear how they have dealt with the ups and downs of single parenthood.
You might also want to share your experiences and get support from other single parents who have been through the same situation.
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