In focus: Supporting your child's wellbeing during a separation or divorce


Emerging Minds acknowledges that families come in many forms. For the purposes of easy reading, the term ‘parent’ encompasses the biological, adoptive, foster and kinship carers of a child, as well as individuals who have chosen to take up primary or shared responsibility in raising that child.

Each year many parents separate or divorce. Parents often worry about the impacts their separation will have on their children, but most children adapt well with the support of their parent/s, family and community.

There are many ways parents can help their children adjust, cope with changes and keep thriving.

This resource is for parents who are currently navigating separation or have separated or divorced. It offers information about children’s experiences and reactions to parents’ separation and advice from other parents, health professionals and researchers about ways parents can lessen the impacts of separation on children.


Key things to remember

  • When parents separate or divorce it can be hard on everyone in the family.
  • Most children cope well with the support of their parent/s, family and community.
  • There are things you can do to lessen the impacts and help your child adjust to changes.
  • Children make meaning of experiences and events around them. When parents tell children what’s going on and can be positive about changes related to separation, it helps children to understand and reduces their worries.
  • While we know it can be challenging, how a parent handles separation greatly impacts how well their child manages it – so it’s important to look after yourself too.
  • Children adjust better when they have a supportive relationship with their parent/s, and their parents are able to communicate and co-parent positively.

Children of separated parents can develop and thrive just as well as children whose parents are together.

When parents separate or divorce, it can be hard on everyone in the family.

Parental separation often means lots of changes for children, including:

  • the amount of time they spend with each parent
  • where they live or their living arrangements
  • family, school and play routines
  • their contact with extended family members and friends; and
  • their certainty about the future.

How a parent is feeling about, and coping with, the separation also impacts on their child. Separation can have positive and negative impacts on a parent’s wellbeing – which can then affect their parenting and relationship with their child, and in turn, impact on the child’s wellbeing.

Most children can adjust well after their parents separate, with the support of their parent/s and/or other significant adults in their life.

When children experience negative impacts, often it’s not because of the separation itself but because of related factors like ongoing conflict between parents. Evidence shows it’s less harmful for children to deal with parental separation than live in an unhappy family environment, especially if there was violence, conflict or a lot of tension.1,2,3


How children respond

Every child reacts differently to their parents’ separation. Many children are surprised and sad when their parents separate, but some may see parental separation as a positive in their lives.

How a child reacts when they’re told their parents are separating depends on lots of factors, particularly:

  • their temperament (whether they’re easy-going or often anxious, for example)
  • how they were told or found out about the separation
  • their relationship with each parent; and
  • the level of conflict or bad feelings between their parents.

Children might feel:

  • shocked, sad, confused, guilty or afraid of being abandoned
  • angry with one (or both) of their parents and blame them
  • relieved and glad, especially if there has been a lot of conflict or tension at home
  • a sense of loss when one parent leaves the family home
  • unsettled or displaced if they’ve had to leave the family home
  • hopeful that their parents will get back together; or
  • worried or uncertain about the future.

If you have more than one child, it’s possible that each of your children will have different reactions. Children will also respond differently depending on their age and where they’re at in their development.

Infants (0–2 years) may be too young to understand exactly what’s happening, but often reflect their parent’s reactions like grief, stress or distress. They might be irritable or have trouble sleeping.

Toddlers (2–4 years) also are unable to fully understand, but often are distressed about one parent leaving and during transitions from one parent’s home to the other’s. Their confusion or upset might result in sleep difficulties like not wanting to go to bed or trouble falling asleep, or separation anxiety (not wanting to be separated from their primary carer/s).

Primary school-aged children (5–12 years) are more likely to blame themselves or think their parents are separating because of something they did, said, or thought. They often wish that their parents would get back together. Feelings of anger, sadness or confusion might be expressed through behaviours like tantrums, becoming clingy or being aggressive towards siblings or others.

Be curious about what feelings or thoughts might be behind your child’s reactions and any behaviour changes. Ask your child questions to try to understand their experience, before offering possible explanations. For example, if your child has a tantrum or argument with a sibling you could say, ‘You seem to be angry. Can you tell me why you might feel like that?’, and maybe ask, ‘Are you feeling worried about something?’ Talking to your child about what you notice can help them understand their emotions.

Keep the communication in your family open and ongoing. Look for opportunities to ‘check in’ with your child, talk about any changes that will impact them, and listen to their thoughts, ideas and questions.

Most children adjust well after their parents’ separation and related changes with the support of their parent/s, family and community. Children of separated parents can develop and thrive just as well as children whose parents are together.

Children generally cope better when their parent/s can:

How well and how quickly your child adjusts after the separation is also impacted by:

  • how you cope and manage your own emotions; and
  • how you and their other parent communicate and interact.

Be open and listen

Explain what’s happening

It’s important to be open and honest with your child and explain what is happening. What you say and how much detail you share will depend on your child’s age and where they’re at in their development. If you have more than one child, it can be good to have the first conversation together, where you explain as simply as possible that you’re separating and what’s going to happen next. Then make time for one-on-one chats with each of your children, so you can listen to their questions and concerns and provide the information that meets their needs.

Children do need to know:

  • where they’re going to live
  • when they will be with each parent
  • if they might have to change schools, or other activities; and
  • that they’re loved and the separation is not their fault.

When families are going through tough times, it’s also important for children to be heard. Children adjust and cope better with all the changes when they feel that their parents understand their needs and concerns and take their views seriously. Children look for signs that you’re present and listening and that it’s safe to share their thoughts and feelings – for example, if you’re looking into their eyes, nodding your head to show you understand and giving them space to talk without interrupting. You might ask questions like, ‘How do you feel in your body when …?’, or ‘Is there anything else you would like me to know?’

Separation is a process, so it’s important to keep the communication in your family open and ongoing. Look for opportunities to ‘check in’ with your child, talk about any changes that will impact them, and listen to their thoughts, ideas and questions.

Our resource offers more tips for talking to children about separation and divorce, including how and what to tell them and what not to say.

‘You need to tell kids enough for them to understand what’s happening, because they’re going to make meaning anyway. They need to understand it’s not their fault, and that they don’t have to fix it. They need a safe place to be able to say whatever they want to say about it and [know that] everything they say and feel about it is OK.’

John, father of three

Help your child express their feelings

It can be difficult to manage your child’s wellbeing when you’re dealing with your own emotions and the stress of separation at the same time. But it’s important to try to understand what your child is feeling and thinking about the separation.

Sometimes children, especially young children, can’t tell you how they’ve feeling in words. Instead, strong worries or emotions about the separation are often expressed through behaviours. This means it’s important to be curious about your child’s reactions and any changes in their behaviour or mood. Ask yourself:

  • What might they be noticing?
  • How do they seem to be dealing with what’s happening?
  • Have you noticed any changes in their mood, behaviours or relationships?
    For example:

    • Are they acting younger than they are? For example, talking in baby talk, wetting their pants or the bed.
    • Have they become really ‘clingy’ and worried about being apart from you? This can be especially common when children feel like they’ve ‘lost’ their other parent.
    • Are they acting more aggressive towards their siblings or other children or adults?
    • Are they still connected to their friends and other adults they had special bonds with, or have they withdrawn (e.g. spending more time alone in their room)?
  • What has your child told you about how they’re feeling?
  • Are there any things you’ve already tried to help your child release their emotions?

Usually, these types of behaviours will stop with time, especially if you can help your child talk about what they’re feeling and help them feel secure by spending time with them and providing care and consistency (see the following section for ways to do that). Acknowledge that things are sad and difficult right now, but remind your child that things will get better. If these behaviours do continue and you’re concerned, seek help.

Reassure your child

It’s common for children, especially those around 5- to 8-years-old, to blame themselves for their parents’ separation or think it was caused by something they said or did. Children also might fear being abandoned or feel rejected.

Some children need a lot of reassurance, particularly when dealing with big changes like moving house or a parent starting a new relationship. Other children might need some extra reassurance years after your separation or divorce. As they grow up, they may want to understand more about the separation and need to be reminded that it was not their fault.

Reassure your child often that:

  • the separation is not their fault in any way
  • nothing they can do or say will change the situation; and
  • you both still love them and always will.

Tell and show them how you’re handling it and that you’re positive about the future. If it’s hard to feel positive right now, just try telling your child, and yourself, that things will get better; that while you’re sad now, there will be happier and easier times ahead.

When you show interest in whatever they’re doing or telling you about, your child feels valued and connected to you – and that builds your relationship.

Focus on quality time and connection

Children of all ages, from babies to teenagers, need their parents to tune in to their needs. When you give your child your time and attention, and keep things as predictable as possible, they feel secure, important and supported – and that helps them cope with stress.

To give your full attention to your child, get close, make eye contact and ignore everything else. When you show interest in whatever they’re doing or telling you about, your child feels valued and connected to you – and that builds your relationship.

When you are together, try to find even small pockets of time to talk, play or just hang out. And during those times when you’re not in the same house, look for ways to stay connected or ‘check in’ with each other. You might pop a note in their backpack, always send a text message before bedtime or give your child a mini photo album with photos of you together.


Keep up routines

With so much change going on, children need to feel safe, to have clear boundaries, and for some things in their lives to be consistent.

Predictable routines are important for all children, especially during stressful times. Children need to have enough sleep, nutritious food, play time and time for movement/exercise.

Stick to daily and weekly routines as much as possible and allow children to continue their usual activities like sport or music lessons if you can. It’s important to keep them connected to friends and doing the things that they enjoy.

When children are going between two homes it’s important that they know what to expect. Having some consistent routines in both homes can help. Generally young children don’t have a good sense of time and might confuse days. Using visual reminders like a calendar or weekly planner with pictures can help them understand what’s happening each day.

It also can be helpful to have a ‘settling in’ routine each time a child arrives at one parent’s home – it could be a cuddle on the sofa as they tell you what’s been happening at school, or some alone time in their room reading or playing music.

Predictable routines are important for all children, especially during stressful times.

Activate support

When you’re navigating a separation or divorce, it’s important to consider the different support needs that everyone in the family might have. Just as it’s important for you to draw on the support of the people in your ‘village’, like trusted friends and colleagues, children need their own support networks.

Often children know best which people (or places or things) in their lives they feel most connected to and which give them the support they need. But you can help your child identify who is in their support team by:

  • talking about the people closest to your family who know what’s going on, so they know who they can talk to openly about how they’re feeling
  • asking: Who helps when you feel sad? It could be a friend they like to play with, or a grandparent who gives the best hugs; and
  • helping them think about other children they might like to talk to. Do they talk to their sibling, or have a friend whose parents have separated? Sometimes children find it helpful to talk to another child who can understand what they’re going through.

Notice and support what your child does to help them cope

Children often know what works to help them feel better when there are stresses at home or they’re dealing with a problem at school.

It might be:

  • spending time alone, maybe reading or colouring in
  • hanging out with their best friend
  • talking to an extended family member or other adult they trust, like an aunty or teacher
  • jumping on a trampoline
  • listening to music
  • playing with their pet; or
  • chatting online with friends who have been through their parents’ separation.

Notice, and support, whatever your child is doing that helps them cope or get a ‘break’ from worrying about what’s happening.

Try to see what’s going on through your child’s eyes. Imagine what it might be like for them – spending three nights at one house, and then four nights at another. What might they need? What helps them cope with stresses and change? It might be a consistent routine at night and bedtime, a special toy or favourite pillow that always goes with them, or knowing they’re always allowed to contact their other parent.

‘If you don’t have siblings or pets then I’d recommend just go outside and either play on a trampoline … or just sit … under some trees or something and just relax and let all your thinking out.’

– Paul, 10–11 years old4

Look for signs children are not coping

If you have any concerns about how your child is coping, it can be helpful to talk to other people who know them well – like their educator at school or childcare, or another family member or friend who sees them regularly. Ask what they’re noticing.

Changes in your child’s mood or behaviour – like becoming clingy, withdrawn or aggressive towards others – might be signs your child is not coping well and needs your attention. Generally, these types of behaviours will stop with time, but if they continue it’s best to seek some help. It can be good to start with your family doctor/GP, or another health professional who knows your child, to rule out any physical health problems and explore what your child is experiencing.

For more support:

Most children can adjust well after their parents separate, with the support of their parent/s and/or other significant adults in their life.

Separation is a massive life change and brings a lot of different emotions and stresses for most people. If you’re overwhelmed by stress it can impact on your parenting, your relationship with your child and your ability to notice and support your child’s emotions and needs. That’s why it’s so important to look after your own health and wellbeing during a separation or divorce.

In the following video (1 minute, 49 seconds), a family counsellor talks about why it’s essential to look after yourself so you can be the parent you want to be and support your child’s mental health and wellbeing.

Tune in to your own emotions

It’s important to be aware of your own reactions and feelings, and make time for the things that help you to manage them. Separation is a highly stressful life event. Remember to be compassionate and kind to yourself.

Think about what you do that helps you feel calmer or more in control, and who can support you at this time. There are some questions and suggestions to help you do that in our resource on looking after yourself during a separation or divorce.


Consider what other parents have found helpful

Having small regular moments of self-care can help you to navigate and regulate your emotions. This means you are better able to support your children’s emotions too.

Knowing what has worked for other parents can help you think of ways to look after yourself during this tough time. Other parents who have navigated separation have shared strategies and supports they found helpful during separation, like being kind to themselves, connecting with others who have been through separation, and avoiding unhelpful views and instead seeking helpful advice.


Look after your health

Looking after yourself also includes the everyday things that you know are good for your health and wellbeing but can get forgotten or moved to the bottom of your priorities when you’re dealing with a lot of challenges. This includes things like getting enough sleep, exercising, choosing healthy food and doing the things that nourish you or ‘fill your cup’.


Look forward

It’s OK to grieve or feel angry, but after a while it’s more helpful to start looking forward towards the future. Your child needs you to be the best ‘you’ that you can be. Separation can be an opportunity to think about what you can or want to do differently now – for yourself, and with your child.

If you’re struggling to manage feelings like anger or distress or you’re feeling ‘stuck’ and unable to move forward, you might need to seek help from a professional. A psychologist or counsellor can help you learn and use positive strategies for managing difficult emotions. See your family doctor/GP for a referral or call the Family Relationship Advice Line on 1800 050 321.

Try to see what’s going on through your child’s eyes. Imagine what it might be like for them.

Children are affected by the quality of the relationships around them. Lived experience and evidence both show children adjust well and have better emotional and social wellbeing after parental separation when:

  • they have a strong and supportive relationship with their parent/s; and
  • their parents are able to communicate and co-parent positively.


Keeping or rebuilding a supportive parent-child relationship

A strong and supportive parent-child relationship is one of the most important factors that supports a child’s mental health and wellbeing. What children need from their parents after separation is exactly what they needed before: to feel secure, safe and cared for.

It’s common for parents navigating separation or divorce to feel stressed and sometimes overwhelmed by their own emotions, making it hard to parent in the way they want to. On the other hand, some parents feel relieved and hopeful about the future – seeing an opportunity to think about parenting differently. You might like to make some time to think about what’s most important to you as a parent and what kind of relationship you want to have with your child from now on. Plan a family meal with your child and talk about the family values and rituals you want to continue, or new ones you want to develop together.

In the following video (2 minutes, 1 second), hear from parents and a family counsellor about the value of reflecting on the kind of parent that you want to be.

There are some ideas for everyday things you can do to sustain or rebuild a healthy and supportive relationship with your child in our resource on parenting after a separation or divorce.


Communicating and co-parenting positively

When separated parents are able to move as smoothly and quickly as possible to a positive co-parenting relationship, it greatly supports children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Positive co-parenting means:

  • cooperating to make plans for your child’s care and sharing information that supports you both to be responsive parents
  • keeping the focus on your child’s needs and interests, and considering their views
  • communicating respectfully – not criticising or blaming the other parent; and
  • trying not to argue or show bad feelings towards each other.

It’s common for separating or separated parents to have challenges communicating, but for your child’s wellbeing – and your own – it’s important to find positive ways to interact. Before you send an email or text or say something to your ex-partner, take a moment to think: ‘Is this going to help us co-parent and meet our child’s needs – or not?’

As a first step, try to agree on the following:

  • How you will communicate. If talking is too difficult in the early stages, what else could you try? (Many parents told us that communicating via email or text was easier and less ‘emotional’ at first.)
  • What information you will always share with the other parent – for example, anything about your child’s health (like nap times, or if they were injured at soccer training), education or big events that they might want both of you to be at.
  • To be respectful in your behaviour and communication.

If there is ongoing conflict or parents can’t communicate well, it makes co-parenting difficult – and that can increase the risk of a child experiencing emotional or behavioural difficulties and mental health concerns.

‘Someone might say, “Look, I don’t want any communication with you unless it’s to do with the kids” or “I don’t want to communicate with you regularly, so don’t send me two texts a day, I only want weekly communication or the bare minimum.” Parents, both parties, need to be able to say what they would like and then come to some sort of arrangement around that … So we’re asking the other party to be respectful in their communication and we’re committing to being respectful as well.’
– John, father of three

Developing a co-parenting arrangement is not always easy or straightforward. It can be hard, and take time, to discuss and agree on care arrangements and financial responsibilities. It can be helpful if you are willing to try different care arrangements to work out what’s best for your children.

In the following video (29 seconds) a family counsellor encourages parents to think about different co-parenting approaches and consider trying an arrangement for a period, such as a school term or six months.

Our resource on parenting and co-parenting after a separation or divorce offers more advice, and tips from other parents, about:

  • focusing on the kind of parent you want to be
  • keeping or rebuilding a strong and supportive connection with your child, even when you’re not together; and
  • communicating and co-parenting in ways that support children’s wellbeing (and avoiding saying or doing things that can be harmful to children).

Information and support for separating parents


More information about ways to support your child’s wellbeing

  • Emerging Minds’ Communicating with your child during ‘tough times’ guides provide tips for talking and interacting with children in age-appropriate ways when your family is going through tough times, like separation or divorce.
  • Children of separating parents may experience anxiety. Emerging Minds’ resources about anxiety explain what it looks like in children of different ages and provide suggestions for what parents can do and where to get further help if needed.
  • A list of books recommended for children dealing with separation and divorce (with age guides) is available in the Australian Government’s Children and separation booklet.

Resources and help for children

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  1. Amato, P. R., Kane, J. B., & James, S. (2011). Reconsidering the ‘good divorce’. Family Relations60(5), 511–524. doi:1111/j.1741-3729.2011.00666.x
  2. Booth, A., & Amato, P. R. (2001). Parental predivorce relations and offspring postdivorce well-being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(1), 197–212. doi:1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00197.x
  3. Australian Psychological Society. (2018). Child wellbeing after parental separation: Position statement [Web page]. APS.
  4. Carson, R., Dunstan, E., Dunstan, J., & Roopani, D. (2018). Children and young people in separated families: Family law system experiences and needs. Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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