Helping your kids cope with separation and divorce

By Nicole Pierotti

When parents have separated, children no matter their age often struggle to cope.  For children, it is a great loss, loss of a parent, loss of a life, and they then grieve for all these losses.  You, as a parent can make the effects less painful using the following tips….

Patience, reassurance and really listening to them can help your children learn to cope with the changes in their life.  Routines are essential as this reassures children that you care, and gives them the feeling of security and stability.

You and your ex-partner may have separated and divorced and ended your intimate relationship however you need to be aware that as parents you will continue to parent your children and have a relationship together as parents, the challenge is defining this ‘new’ relationship and taking it from an intimate to a friend relationship.  This new relationship will continue for many years.  If you can work this out it will save your children a huge amount of distress.  Both parents need to focus on their childrens well-being.

What I need from my mum and dad: A child’s list of wants

  • I need both of you to stay involved in my life. Please write letters, make phone calls, and ask me lots of questions. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I’m not important and that you don’t really love me.
  • Please stop fighting and work hard to get along with each other. Try to agree on matters related to me. When you fight about me, I think that I did something wrong and I feel guilty.
  • I want to love you both and enjoy the time that I spend with each of you. Please support me and the time that I spend with each of you. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides and love one parent more than the other.
  • Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth.
  • When talking about my other parent, please say only nice things, or don’t say anything at all. When you say mean, unkind things about my other parent, I feel like you are expecting me to take your side.
  • Please remember that I want both of you to be a part of my life. I count on my mum and dad to raise me, to teach me what is important, and to help me when I have problems.

Source: University of Missouri

  • Listen and reassure

Your children need to express their emotions, thoughts and feelings about the changes in their lives.  Listen, really listen to them, you know the difference to having meaningful time together, try not to get defensive or feel guilty.  Try instead to reassure your child – reflect their feelings, listen to their fears, straighten out any wrong assumptions and love them.  They need to be reassured that the divorce wasn’t their fault.  Children will look for evidence like, ‘if I wasn’t naughty the day before dad left, he wouldn’t have gone’ type statements and correct them with simple facts.

  • Listen. Encourage your child to share their feelings and really listen to them. They may be feeling sadness, loss or frustration about things you may not have expected.
  • Help them find words for their feelings. It’s normal for children to have difficulty expressing their feelings. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk.
  • Let them be honest. Children might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. If they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a harder time working through them.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismissing them. You can also inspire trust by showing that you understand.

Show your children love, they will heal, if they have all the love they need.  Have a look at what you say, what you do, and be sure to be consistent with your love.

  • The comfort of routines

Children feel safer and more secure when they know what to expect next. Knowing that, even when they switch homes, dinnertime is followed by a bath and then homework, for example, can set a child’s mind at ease.  Routine provide security and a sense of love.

Maintaining routine also means continuing to have rules, rewards, and discipline with your children. Resist the temptation to spoil kids during a divorce by not enforcing limits or allowing them to break rules.

  • Know when to seek help

For some children,  divorce has few problems, while other children have a very difficult time. It’s normal for children to feel a range of difficult emotions, but time, love, and reassurance should help them. If your children remain overwhelmed, though, you may need to seek professional help.

What is normal?

Although these strong and difficult feelings can be tough on children, the following reactions are considered normal for children.

  • Anger. Your kids may express their anger, rage, and resentment with you and your spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy.
  • Anxiety. It’s natural for children to feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives.
  • Mild depression. Sadness about the family’s new situation is normal, and sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become a mild form of depression.

It will take some time for your children to work through their feelings about the separation or divorce, but they should improve over time.

Red flags for more serious problems

If things get worse rather than better after several months, it may be a sign that your child is stuck in depression, anxiety, or anger and could use some additional support.

Watch for these warning signs:

  • Sleep problems
  • Poor concentration
  • Trouble at school
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Self-injury, cutting, or eating disorders
  • Frequent angry or violent outbursts
  • Withdrawal from loved ones
  • Refusal of loved activities

Discuss these  warning-signs with your child’s doctor, teachers, or consult a child psychologist for guidance.

References:  Harvard Health Publications,  University of Missouri

Nicole Pierotti

Written by Nicole Pierotti

© Copyright 2012. No reprinting or publishing without permission from writer. For permission or further information contact

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