Guiding Children through Parental Separation
When parents decide to separate it is difficult for the whole family and results in many big changes. While every child will adjust to the separation differently, it is possible to help children navigate the changes well.
How children react to a big family change is related to many factors. However, research continues to show that ongoing parental conflict increases a child’s risk of psychological and social problems. It is imperative that parents do their best to keep any conflict away from children.
Dealing with Divorce from Sesame Street in Communities
Supporting Your Child Based on their Developmental Stage:
Infants-toddlers (0-3 years)
Impact: Children may be clingy and want more attention than usual, regress in behaviors (i.e. return to thumbsucking, resist potty training), and/or have trouble sleeping.
How to Help: It’s important for parents to develop predictable and consistent routines that are simple to follow at both homes (i.e. brush teeth, get in pajamas, and read books together before lights out. Have a special one-on-one time with a child and help them to talk about their feelings through books and play.
Pre-schoolers (6-9 years)
Impact: At this age, a child is likely to believe they have more control over their environment as their vocabulary and thinking become more complex. A child may have worries about the future and a sense of generalized responsibility as they may not understand the complexity of relationships yet. At this age children are also actively developing their ability to regulate emotions and may have difficulty managing their big feelings such as worry and anger.
How to Help: It is still important at this stage to have consistent and predictable routines and one-on-one time with the child. Read books to children that talk about emotions and use it as a time to check-in with your child about how they feel. Assure the child they are not responsible for the separation.
Elementary (9-11 years)
Impact: At this age, children are aware of what is going on in the home and more expanded insight. However, their value of their peers’ opinions also increase at this stage. This can mean children may worry about how the separation will impact other areas of their life besides their family life, and may draw divoirce experience from peers (i.e. a friends parents getting back together after a divorce and assuming their parents will too). Nostalgia for what was may be present along with feelings of abandonment and loneliness.
How to Help: Continue to give consistency where you can. Be direct with the child (age-appropriately) about the separation. Reassure safety and what will remain the same (i.e. you will stay at your school and have the same friends). Encourage outside school activities to keep them socially engaged and learning new skills.
Adolescents (11-18 years)
Impact: At this stage, children are focused on discovering their own identities. Even though adolescents may push against or resist parent guidance, they still desire their parents there for when they need them (even if they do not show it). A teenager may feel anger or hatred towards parents for separating. Behaviors may become unpredictable, externalizing their feelings by rebelling or they may internalize feelings by isolating themselves.
How to Help: Do to adolescents naturally exploring and gaining independence, consistency at this stage should focus on household rules and intentional time to check-in with child. Teenagers may seem more mature causing parents to confide in their child, but this is not appropriate or helpful for the child.
Books for Kids:
Brown, M., & Krasny Brown, L. (1986) Dinosaur’s Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
Holyoke, N. (2009) A Smart Girl’s Guide to Her Parents’ Divorce. American Girl Publishing Co.
Thomas, P., & Harker, L. (2014). My family's changing: A first look at family break-up. London: Wayland.
Dealing with Divorce from Sesame Street in Communities: https://sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/divorce/
HealthyChildren.org by The American Academy of Pediatrics
Cohen, G. J., & Weitzman, C. C. (2016). Helping Children and Families Deal With Divorce and Separation. Pediatrics,138(6).
Alexa Randall is Marriage and Family Therapist. She works as a post-graduate Behavioral Health Clinician embedded in a pediatric office and has a certificate in Pediatric and Behavioral Health Integration. Alexa strives to work collaboratively within the systems of families' lives to provide more holistic care using a biological, psychological, and social lens.