A family sitting in a room looking serious and sad

A guide for parents Divorce and separation

If you're worried about how your relationship break-up might affect your child, here is our advice on how you can support them through the process.

How can I help my child?

Every child and young person’s experience with the loss of their known family unit will be unique, but it can sometimes cause intense emotional distress.

In the immediate aftermath of a break-up, children’s early responses can involve a number of defence behaviours, including: denial, disbelief, dissociation, hyperactivity, irritability and protest, alarm and panic. Over time, children may experience  grief and display behaviours and emotions that indicate yearning and pining, sadness and depression, anger and hostility, anxiety, guilt, shame and despair. Even if children feel relieved at a family break-up where violence is a significant factor, most children will still feel some loss and grief.

There are things you can do to improve the way your child copes with the changes going on around them.

Things that may really make a difference:

  • Put the child first

    Place the feelings and needs of your child above adult feelings and considerations.

  • Keep relationships going

    Work hard to ensure that children have good relationships and easy contact with both parents. Keep up usual and familiar relationships with grandparents, other close family and friends too.

  • Provide stability

    Children can adjust to loss when they can rely on stability, being given honest information, encouraged to ask questions, participating in family discussions and turning to a trusted adult for comfort.

  • Decide when and how to talk to the children

    With both parents together as the ideal. Make sure you give an age-appropriate and, if possible, straightforward explanation for the family break-up.   

  • Avoid conflict in front of your children

    Try to shield children from overt conflict between parents - this can be frightening and make them anxious.

  • Listen to your child's concerns

    Accept their emotions and express your sorrow and understanding for their feelings of loss and grief.

  • Look at it through their eyes

    Look at it through their eyes – they don’t want their parents to divorce, they don’t want their parents to be unhappy, they will wonder what they’ve done wrong, they will be scared that the other parent might leave them too, they will miss the absent parent, they will want to talk about them too.

  • Provide strong and constant reassurance

    Explain that they are not responsible for what happens in an adult relationship. You might say things like: “It’s okay to cry,” or “It’s not your fault”.

  • When faced with anger and bad behaviour...

    Provide love, understanding and good discipline. Create opportunities to discuss their feelings and actions, define what is acceptable and what is not, and work together on finding alternative and appropriate ways of dealing with angry feelings.

  • Make sure your child's not in the middle

    Don’t ask your child to take sides, act as a confidante or be a go-between.

  • Maintain predictable and reliable arrangements

    Stick to familiar routines and activities, and minimise change.

  • Find good support for yourself

    Seek professional advice if you or your child are struggling. 

A mother and daughter sit and talk on the bed together

Download our full Parents Helpline guide to divorce and separation

For more information and advice, you can download our full Parents Helpline guide to divorce and separation. The guide includes:

  • information about how children of different age groups may react to - and cope with - their parents divorcing or separating
  • advice on how you can support your child through a parental break-up
  • a list of helplines and services you can use
Divorce and separation

Parental alienation and emotional abuse

A parent who turns their child against their other parent by bad-mouthing, belittling the other adult, limiting contact between them, forbidding discussion about them, creating the impression the parent does not love the child or forcing the child to reject the parent is becoming increasingly common and can do significant damage to children’s mental health.

The Chief Executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), Anthony Douglas, recommended in February 2017 that parents who use this type of ‘alienation’ should be considered guilty of neglect or emotional abuse.

Where to get help

  • Citizens Advice

    Provides information and advice on issues such as divorce and separation, benefits, work, universal credit, debt, housing and immigration.

    Webchat service available here.

    If you're experiencing problems with debt, you can call their debt helpline or use their debt webchat service.

    Opening times:
    9am - 5pm, Monday - Friday
  • One Parent Families Scotland

    Provides support, information and advice for single parents in Scotland.

    Online chat service available.

    Opening times:
    9.30am - 4pm, Monday - Friday
  • Child Law Advice

    Provides free legal advice about education and family issues to parents, carers and young people.

    You can contact them by email about education law here, or about family and child law here.

    Opening times:
    8am - 6pm, Monday – Friday
  • Family Rights Group

    Provides support, information and advice to parents whose children are involved with, or in need of, social services because of safety or welfare concerns - as well as parents and relatives of children in the care system.

    Opening times:
    Opening times: 9.30am - 3pm, Monday - Friday
  • Family Mediation Council

    If you're going through a divorce or separation, or another family issue, a family mediator can help you find a solution that works for your whole family as much as possible, without going to court.  

    You can use their directory to find family mediators near you.

  • Resolution

    Resolution (formerly known as the Solicitors Family Law Association SFLA) offer a constructive, non-confrontational approach.

    Opening times:
    Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm
  • Cafcass

    A website that gives information on the interests of children involved in family proceedings for children, teenagers and adults.

  • Relationships Scotland

    Scotland's largest provider of relationship counselling, family mediation and child contact centre services

    Opening times:
    Mon-Fri 9.30am-4pm
  • Families Need Fathers

    A website that provides information, advice, and support regarding the problems of maintaining a child's relationship with both parents during and after family breakdown

    Opening times:
    Mon-Fri 9am–10pm, and Weekends 10am-3pm
  • Gingerbread

    Support for single parents in England and Wales including advice and information on child support, benefits, tax credits and your child’s contact with their other parent. 

    Opening times:
    Mon 10am-6pm, Tues, Thurs & Fri 10am-4pm, Wed: 10am-1pm and 5pm-7pm
  • Youth Wellbeing Directory

    Lists local services where you can find support for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.