How to help your child cope with separation or divorce

Are you worried about the impact of your divorce or separation on your children? Read advice on how to help them cope, according to their age group.

With the UK divorce rate estimated to be around 42%, it is common for children to split their time between parents, or live with and spend time with one parent. 

As an experienced family lawyer, I regularly help my clients navigate their way through separation and divorce. And what I tend to see is backed up by research; while separation and divorce does not harm children, conflict and tensions will be harmful.

So it is essential that parents prioritise their children and address their questions about family dynamics and how their day-to-day lives will change following a separation with care and sensitivity. 

Obviously, the age of the children will have an impact on how things are addressed and so I have provided a guide on how to support your children on separation depending on their age.

How to help children aged 3 to 7 cope with separation or divorce

If your children are very young, of key importance will be to ensure that stability and structure is maintained and that the children are not exposed to any discord. If the children are going to be moving between homes, ensure that they travel with any support/comfort items such as a favourite teddy, picture book etc. 

For some young children, it may be the first time they have been separated from one of their parents, so ensure that your child is aware of what the routine is and try to support and encourage them to go with the other parent – positive language could make all the difference, for example, “have a lovely time with…” 

In time, your children may start to ask questions about why they travel between homes and why their parents are not together. Such questions need to be responded to with an appreciation for the child’s age and understanding. Relationship breakdown is a complex idea to explain to a very young child so keeping your answers open and straightforward may be the best approach.

How to help children aged 8 to 11 cope with separation or divorce

For this age group, there will be more of an awareness of the separation and your children may well have friends who also have separated parents. They may have heard stories from these friends about their own experiences and this may give rise to questions surrounding your separation.

Again, these discussions should be age appropriate and should not be based around conflict. Try to avoid expressing feelings of dislike, hate and upset when talking about your ex or the reasons for the breakup. 

At this age, your children will likely have extra-curricular activities. Where possible, these activities should be continued as your children travel between homes. Older children may wish to explore their own feelings with you and it is imperative that these conversations are listened to and respected.

Try to not integrate any of your own feelings into the conversation, this is their time to get their thoughts/feelings off their chest. 

How to help children over the age of 12 cope with separation or divorce

With changing bodies, hormones, exams, friendships, relationships and so forth, teenagers have a lot to deal with and each one will react in their own way when their parents are going through a divorce or separation. For example, while one teenager may seek their own space, another may seek constant company. The advice is to take each day in turn and be patient. 

If you and your partner are going through difficulties, try to ensure that your teenagers are not exposed to such conflict and ensure that they are engaging in activities which give them time away from the family home and the tensions.

If you are separated and your teen is travelling between homes, try to ensure that their independence and autonomy are prioritised. Agreeing arrangements for teenagers is not easy and it is important for parents to be flexible and be mindful that a balance of space and time needs to be struck. 

As a final point, the introduction of new partners and any step/half siblings should be approached carefully. For older children and teenagers, discussions around what to call the new partner need to be approached with respect and good reasoning.

Books that children may help children understand divorce and separation

Family relationships and dynamics are complex and a divorce or separation can be a very difficult time for any family. Here are some popular stories and books that children may find helpful and supportive in understanding some of the themes and issues that arise from divorce and separation:

For younger children (ages 3-7):

  1. My Daddy’s Going Away by Christopher MacGregor
  2. My Daddy is a Silly Monkey by Dianne Hofmeyr
  3. Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck
  4. Where Did you Go Today? by Jenny Duke
  5. My Family’s Changing by Pat Thomas
  6. Mum and Dad Glue by Kes Gray
  7. Why Do Families Change? by Jillian Roberts

For older children (ages 8-11):

  1. I, Cosmo by Carlie Sorosiak
  2. To Night Owl From Dogfish by Meg Wolitzer
  3. The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson
  4. Mum, Dad Can You Hear Me? by Despina Mavridou
  5. The Mum Hunt by Gwyneth Rees
  6. Clean Break by Jacqueline Wilson
  7. Love and Chicken Nuggets by Annie Kelsey
  8. Goggle Eyes by Anne Fine

For teenagers (12 +):

  1. Red Leaves by Sita Brahmachari
  2. It’s Not the End of the World by Judy Blume
  3. Step by Wicked Step by Anne Fine
  4. The Lottie Project by Jacqueline Wilson
  5. Booked by Kwame Alexander
  6. We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen

Read more advice on navigating divorce with children

You’ll find more advice on helping children through your divorce or separation in these articles:

Annabel Andreou is a solicitor in the family and divorce team at Debenhams Ottaway.