What to expect from kids in a separation

No matter what age your children are, separation affects them and they will need your understanding and support. It takes time for children and parents to adjust to the loss of the family living together.
 

Preschool, 0-5 years

Small children are less able to understand what is going on. They are very dependent on their parents and will most likely want to stay close to the parent with whom they have the most contact.
Such children are likely to:
  • Be confused and worried about whether they have done something to cause the separation.
  • Fret for the parent who has gone and wonder whether Daddy or Mummy still loves them.
  • Fantasise what they don’t understand, and makeup things from their own experience which may cause them great distress.
 
For example, they may worry that they will be abandoned when you go and leave them for a while, or that you won’t be there when they wake up. Such children are likely to show their distress by:
  • having trouble sleeping
  • being clingy or withdrawing
  • wetting their pants when normally they are toilet-trained
  • being upset when they return from seeing the parent they are not living with the majority of the time
  • turning more to security blankets or soft toys for comfort
  • using baby talk, when normally they are able to speak quite well.
 

Early Primary, 5-8 years

At this age, children can understand that parents operate separately to them. They are more able to talk about their feelings, but have difficulty expressing their worries, and tend to show them through undesirable behaviour. Such children are likely to be:
  • worried that they will have to choose between parents
  • wondering what will happen next
  • fearful they might be the cause of the separation
  • feeling responsible for looking after others‘ feelings – particularly parents
  • longing to get parents back together
  • blaming themselves for the break-up
  • afraid they will be replaced
  • very sad.
Such children are likely to show their distress by:
  • being reluctant and distressed to leave the other parent at the end of a visit
  • behaving badly by being abnormally angry, aggressive and restless
  • withdrawing and dreaming
  • exhibiting baby behaviours
  • wanting to stay home to be near the parent with whom they spend the most time
  • asking lots of questions and appearing anxious.
 

Upper Primary, 8-12 years

Children in this age bracket find separation extraordinarily difficult. They know what is going on, but don’t know how to handle it. They can understand why parents can be angry with each other, and they don’t seem to blame themselves for what’s happened.
Such children are likely to be:
  • afraid of being excluded from decision-making
  • just plain angry
  • fearful and unsure of their place in the world
  • worried about being abandoned
  • ashamed about what’s happened
  • responsible for looking after one or both parents
  • afraid of being asked who they want to live with.
 
Such children are likely to show their distress by:
  • being angry and bossy with you
  • missing the other parent intensely
  • being judgemental about who is the bad parent
  • playing one parent off against the other
  • having stomach-aches and headaches so they can stay home from school
  • frequently lying
  • stealing
  • having their school performance drop
  • finding it difficult to talk about what has happened with others
  • trying to run away.
 

Adolescents, 12-16 years

Adolescents are in many ways independent of their parents and can identify that parent’s decisions are separate from themselves. They will struggle, like younger children, to work out how to react to the news of their parents’ separation. They are often aware that their parents’ relationship is poor, and the news can come as a relief. Adolescents are likely to be:
  • aware of the reality of the separation
  • angry and embarrassed
  • fearful and uncertain of what will happen to them
  • worried about their parents’ emotional wellbeing
  • experiencing a conflict of loyalty.
Adolescents are likely to show their distress by:
  • lacking concentration at school
  • blaming parents for separation
  • increased acting out behaviour – e.g. going out without permission, refusing to co-operate
  • taking on parent concerns
  • withdrawing from the family.
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