Separation and divorce: your child’s feelings

If you and your partner are separating, your child might be feeling all kinds of things – just like you. Strong or mixed feelings are normal.

Your child might be confused or even shocked because he didn’t see it coming. He might be sad and anxious because he doesn’t know what will happen next. He might also be relieved, particularly if there has been conflict or family violence. Some teenagers might be more relaxed, happier and healthier after a separation. It can feel like a fresh start for everyone.

It’s also common for teenagers to be concerned or feel guilty if they think they’ve added to the problems between you.

Your child might worry that she’ll lose contact with one of you, even if she doesn’t say so. Or she might not want contact with one of you because she blames that parent for the separation.

And your child might think he needs to support one or both of you, and feel resentful or overwhelmed by this responsibility.

On a practical level, your child might worry about where she’ll live. For example, your child might worry that her home will be sold, and that she might have to move away from her friends and school. The possibility that she’ll have two homes – one with one parent, one with the other – might also worry her.

All children will take time to adjust.

I couldn’t believe it when my son said, ‘I suppose this is because of me?’ I assured him that was not the case and we’d been having issues for a few years, and felt we would all be happier if we lived separately. He seemed relieved.
– Garry, 50, divorced father of four adult children

Helping your child through separation and divorce

Explaining the situation
It can help if your child understands why you and your partner are separating. A good way to tackle this is to have a family meeting to explain the separation to your child.

Your child needs to know that it’s not his fault – it’s a grown-up decision about your relationship. And if you can explain things without laying blame, your child is less likely to feel that he has to choose between you. After all, your child has the right to an ongoing relationship with both of you.

Listening and letting your child talk
Once you’ve had a say, your child will need a chance to express her feelings. This could be during your family meeting or later on, when she’s had a chance to think things over.

Talking can help your child deal with difficult emotions and fears. And when your child is ready to talk, active listening can help you work out how best to comfort him.

If your child finds it difficult to talk to you about the separation, she might be able to talk with another trusted adult – perhaps an aunt or uncle, family friend, teacher or counsellor.

Reassuring your child
Some teenagers might feel caught between their separating parents. Others might also worry that they need to look after one or both of you or their brothers or sisters.

Your child needs your reassurance that he doesn’t need to look after or be responsible for anyone else. If family members need help, they’ll get it for themselves, or from you and your partner.

Protecting your child from conflict
It isn’t good for your child’s wellbeing to be exposed to negativity or conflict between you and your former partner.

So it’s best if you can avoid talking to your child about difficulties with the separation or making negative comments about your former partner. If you need to vent any frustration, talk to a friend, family member or therapist.

If you have to discuss problems with your former partner, make a time when your child isn’t around – for example, when she’s at school or visiting grandparents. It also helps to know how to manage conflict with your former partner.

Sticking with routines
If it’s possible for your child to keep his daily routine, stay in the same house or neighbourhood, go to the same school and keep doing normal things like sport, it will make the change in your family easier for him.

Even if you and your child aren’t going to be living together full time any more, you can still stay connected. You can stay interested in your child’s life and keep doing the special things that you’ve always done – for example, kicking the footy, cooking together, watching your child play sport, seeing movies together or going shopping.

Signs your child is finding it hard to cope with separation or divorce

During adolescence, your child is going through a lot of social and emotional changes, as well as physical changes. If you and your partner separate, the ups and downs of being a teenager can get mixed up with your child’s feelings about your separation.

Your child might not say she’s struggling, but problem signs include:

  • behaviour, mood or personality changes, including getting angry, upset or tearful more than usual
  • not wanting to be around family members and not cooperating with family routines, shutting herself in her bedroom for long periods, or spending more time online
  • problems at school or with schoolwork
  • sleep problems, or eating problems like binge eating or loss of appetite
  • losing interest in activities she usually enjoys or having problems with friends or peer groups
  • taking risks like challenging school rules or not letting you know where she is, and even shoplifting, graffiti, taking drugs or binge drinking.

It can be hard to know whether difficult behaviour is just because your child is being a teenager, or whether it’s a sign your child is struggling with the separation. It could be a combination of both. Try not to jump to conclusions about what’s causing the behaviour, but be ready to listen and help.

It’s also a very good idea to let your child’s school know about the separation or divorce. Your child’s teachers might be able to watch out for changes in your child’s behaviour, or there could be things they can do to help.

There were some positives out of all this. I believe our child learned from the way we handled the challenges of the separation. He watched us compromise and solve problems. We stayed respectful and I see those skills in him now.
– Bill, 45, divorced father of one son

Extra help for teenagers going through separation and divorce

Sometimes teenagers might need extra help dealing with their parents’ separation. If the conflict between parents has been particularly intense, or is still going on, or if one of the parents has been depressed or has mental illness, teenagers might find it helpful to see a counsellor.

You can see government-funded relationship counsellors at organisations like Relationships Australia, LifeWorks and Family Relationships Online. Your GP can also refer your child to a psychologist or relationship counsellor.

If you or your child needs to talk to someone urgently, phone Lifeline on 131 114.

If your child needs to talk to someone other than you, he could call a confidential telephone counselling service for young people like Kids Helpline (1800 551 800) or go to Kids Helpline.

The effects of family violence can continue after a relationship is over. Family violence can also start or get significantly worse when parents separate. Family violence of any kind is not OK. If you or anybody you know is experiencing family violence, seek help by talking to a professional like a GP or counsellor, talk to the police or call a helpline.