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How children and young people may react

Children and young people experience a wide range of reactions to parental separation. Many get through the whole process relatively easily, whereas others find it very difficult. 

Some children and young people will react more during the initial phase of the separation, and be back to their usual self soon afterwards. However, others continue to behave as normal while the separation is happening, and their reactions only become apparent over time. 

Reactions will vary depending on the child or young person’s age and stage of development. Because each separation is unique, and so are the children and young people, their behavioural and emotional changes are also very varied. Some might show anger and frustration, while others may become withdrawn and tearful.

Parental separation is a difficult thing for children and young people to process and understand, and can result in emotions such as grief, confusion, guilt, anger and relief. These feelings might be contradictory, for example, they might feel relieved that the fighting between their parents will end, but also guilty about their parents separating.

Things to think about

  • The reactions of children and young people may cause a great deal of concern, and some families feel they should get extra help immediately. However, with the right support from the people around them, most children and young people will be able to cope and adapt to the changes.
  • The specifics of the situation and the way the parents are handling things will affect how the parental separation impacts a child or young person.
  • It’s not uncommon for children and young people to blame themselves, or feel that they were part of the cause of the separation.
  • On top of the emotional impact, separations often come with other significant changes for the child or young person. Not only do they have to adjust to having only one parent around, they may also have to cope with moving house or changing schools. These additional changes can make adapting with the separation even more challenging.
  • It is important to remember that some aspects of a separation may be positive for the child or young person. For example, it might mean that their parents will stop arguing, or it might mean that they get to spend more quality time with their parents individually.

Think about your response

Your views about parental separation may affect how you respond to the child or young person. Your experience of this situation, or how others have coped with similar situations, may also impact your response. To best support the child or young person, it is important to respond to them and their unique circumstances. If you are also affected by the situation, make sure you talk to someone if you need support.

What you can do

  • Be patient. The child or young person will need time to adapt to what has happened. 
  • Be honest with them, but remember not to place blame or take sides with either parent in any way.
  • Encourage the child or young person to express their feelings. Remember that other ways of expression (e.g. drawing) can also work as well as talking, especially with younger children.
  • Reassure them that whatever they are feeling is ok.
  • They may be concerned about what life will be like now, and what will happen to them. Try to make them feel secure and reassure them that they will still be loved and looked after. 
  • Stick to regular routines, or create new ones as soon as possible, to help make the child or young person’s life predictable and stable.
  • Children and young people may be comforted and soothed by:
    • having a cuddle
    • pets or soft toys 
    • being read stories
    • relaxation or calming music
  • They often blame themselves for their parents separating, so it’s important to let them know it is not their fault.
  • Depending on the situation, it may help the child or young person to think about the positive things as a result of the separation, e.g. less arguing, happier parents. 

Where to go for more support

Remember that with the right support from the people around them, most children and young people will be able to cope with parental separation. However you might also want to consider extra help or support: 

Divorce and separation information from Association of Child Psychotherapists:

Fife Gingerbread, support to lone parents in Fife:

One Parent Families Scotland:

Relationships Scotland:

Who to contact if you're still concerned

For parents and carers

Please contact your health visitor, school, GP or other professional involved with your family.

For professionals

Please consult with other professionals involved or the named person, and to help identify the most appropriate support, go to: