Supporting children and young people through parental separation and divorce

Emma was finding it hard to cope. Her parents had separated earlier in the year, and her father was making plans to move again – this time with his new partner. 

Supporting children and young people through parental separation and divorce

Emma’s mother was doing ok, working full-time again but holding it together, and her parents could have sensible conversations with each other about Emma and her little sister, Lucy − so Emma wondered why she felt this way. At 15, shouldn’t she be able to cope too?

In Australia nearly one in two marriages ends in separation and divorce. This directly impacts many children and young people in our schools, our communities and our own families. Coping with the changes that result can be challenging for all involved. Having some understanding of what children and young people are dealing with can help us to provide the right kinds of support, when and where it helps.

Children’s reactions to separation and divorce are as unique and varied as kids themselves. These responses can be more easily understood if we look at separation and divorce as a process rather than a single event. Children’s ages and personalities, their life experiences, the families and friends around them, and how their parents are managing all affect how children react and cope. 

Emma’s experience reminds us that the comments below are only a general guide. Every child’s experience is unique, even within the same family. Paying attention and noticing how each child manages change is a very important role adults can play as they guide and support young people.

Children in the preschool years may notice they are seeing one parent less frequently or differently, and they may imagine fearful outcomes. Young children can regress in some areas, such as toilet habits, language and play, and may also show feelings such as anxiety and fear through their actions, including clinginess and tantrums.

Children in the primary school years may understand more but may still hold unrealistic fears about the future and possibly blame themselves. Children can also experience change physically, with sickness, headaches or tiredness and show their feelings in a range of ways, being overly co-operative or lashing out in anger.

Young people in the secondary school years may feel a sense of loss similar to other adults involved. They might worry about finances, and experience changes in their family as unique, so feel different and alone. Young people can be unwilling to be a part of family arrangements they feel don’t suit, and may feel angry, anxious, sad and overwhelmed. Some might engage in risky behaviours as a way of dealing with their feelings.

Children and young people often feel caught in the middle. Even though it can be hard and confusing, it is good to know the majority of children cope with the help of family and friends, and adjust to their changed lives. Young people can also be encouraged to try the following:

  • read picture books and novels or watch appropriate movies that feature family separation and divorce, to understand they are not alone and other children are dealing with similar issues
  • talk to their parents about their feelings and experiences
  • talk to interested, supportive adults and friends about how they are feeling
  • visit child-focused websites for relevant, child and youth-friendly information about separation and divorce.

How can parents help?

Parents may be just coping with the changes and losses and can feel overwhelmed in supporting their children. There is no one ‘right way’ as each family has unique needs and circumstances. Children are different too, and what will work for Emma at 15 might not work for Lucy at ten. Through trying different approaches, parents will work out what is best for their children. One of the best things parents can do is look after themselves – parent wellbeing is key to children coping well.

Parents can also help by:

  • finding time and space to spend with their child/ren
  • letting children and young people have a say in decision-making
  • maintaining routines that are constant, warm and reassuring
  • ensuring children are eating and sleeping well and exercising
  • notifying the school so other adults can support their child
  • working to parent co-operatively, post-separation
  • accepting help from others (whether to mind the children for some parent time out, someone to laugh or cry with, or a trusted adult for children to turn to).

How can other adults help?

There are often many adult care-givers in a child’s life, including grandparents, relatives, family friends, teachers and other school staff. Each can play a role by:

  • providing security and support
  • helping children and young people feel competent and in control
  • maintaining expectations and consistent rules and consequences
  • keeping lines of communication open
  • responding appropriately, with understanding, if behaviour issues arise.

Schools and family support agencies may also offer small group support to children, young people and their parents. “Seasons for Growth” is a loss and grief education program that promotes the social and emotional wellbeing of children, young people and adults as they manage family change and loss. The program is delivered in small age-appropriate groups by a trained “Companion” – a teacher, counsellor or parent volunteer.

A new program, the Seasons for Growth Parent Program, is now available too. The program has two separate components, one for supporting children following separation and divorce, and the second for supporting children following the death of someone they love.  These short parent programs consist of 2 x 2 hour sessions, and take the children’s perspective − what is going on for them? This allows parents to explore and learn about how best to support their children through these life-changing events.

For more information about Seasons for Growth please P Co-ordinator Benita Tait, 4979 1355 or E seasonsforgrowth@mn.catholic.org.au.

References

http://au.reachout.com. (2013). Fact Sheet: Dealing with Divorce and Custody. Retrieved on 160513 from http://au.reachout.com/Dealing-with-divorce-and-custody.

Graham, A. (2014). Seasons for Growth Parent Program: Supporting your child following separation and divorce Companion Manual. Good Grief Ltd.

Gray, B.P. (2001). Supporting Children and Families in Times of Stress. Texas Women’s University for Texas Child Care.

http://www. kidshelp.com.au. (2013). Hot Topic: Separation and Divorce. Retrieved on 230513 from http://www.kidshelp.com.au/teens/get-info/hot-topics/separation-and-divorce.php.

Leon, K and Spengler, L (2005). Helping Children Adjust to Divorce: A Guide for Teachers. University of Missouri.

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