Factsheet 17: Divorce and children

Time surrounding divorce is usually thick with emotional stress, psychological confusion, relationship strain and life upheaval for both children and their parents. In the lead up to parental separation, home life is usually fraught with conflict and tension.

Children may feel some guilt over their parent separation, or may focus their blame on just one parent. The relationship between children and their non-residential parent – often the father – can grow distant. Their relationship with the residential parent may become strained as the parent struggles with new pressures and their own burdens.

Most children do adjust adequately to the dramatic changes in their lives; on average, children of divorced parents rate only slightly lower on measures of mental health than those whose parents are still together. (Haggerty, Robert J. (1996) Stress, risk and resilience in children and adolescents: processes, mechanisms and interventions. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge UK.)

Research indicates that the first 2-3 years following the divorce are the hardest for children, but that the impact continues to be felt through their youth and young adulthood.

Below is a general guide to understanding and supporting school-aged children and adolescents through their parents separation.

Age - Primary

Children begin to understand what divorce means. They believe that their parents don't love each other and know they won't be living together any longer.

How might they react?

Children this age may feel:

  • deceived
  • an acute sense of loss for the parent who moved away
  • hope that their parents will reunite
  • rejected by the absent parent
  • become depressed, show changes in eating and sleeping, lack of interest in life, poor concentration, crying, irritability or a sense of hopelessness
  • fear of abandonment, or may worry about their parents' future well being as well as their own
  • fear of not being picked up on time by noncustodial parent
  • show symptoms of physical illness
  • become extremely angry with both parents about the divorce
  • direct their anger outwards, e.g. challenging behaviour
  • direct their anger inwards, e.g. feelings of shame or self-blame

What can we do?

We can:

  • encourage children to talk about the divorce
  • be sensitive to signs of depression, fear and troubled behaviour
  • know who to turn to if you believe professional help is needed
  • help children feel that life will be okay and that their world is secure
  • encourage the parents to talk to other adults, not their child, about adult problems such as money issues, unresolved feelings, work stress etc.
  • ensure the child's teacher is aware of the situation, so the teacher can provide support and watch for signs that the child may need additional help

Age - Preteens and adolescents

At this age, children understand but often do not accept separation or divorce.

How might they react?

Preteen and adolescent children may:

  • become very angry
  • feel disillusioned, betrayed or rejected by one or both of their parents
  • lose trust in relationships in general
  • lose self-esteem or worry about being loved
  • be highly moralistic and critical, may judge their parents' decision to divorce harshly
  • be embarrassed or disturbed by any change in their parents' sexual behaviour
  • become more intense in the risk-taking and rebellion that is normal at this age - shoplifting, using drugs, becoming sexually active, skipping school etc.
  • become depressed or withdrawn, or may threaten suicide
  • behave much better, not worse, feeling that if their behaviour improves they can save their parents' marriage
  • find their sense of independence disrupted, may be afraid to separate from their parents or feeling a strong need to align with one parent

What can we do?

We can:

  • give them time to discuss their feelings
  • suggest positive ways to handle feelings
  • encourage them to confide in another trusted adult such as a relative, family friend, teacher or guidance counsellor if they have difficulty talking with their parents
  • maintain established routines as much as possible
  • emphasise that although the family may be changing, they must continue to show respect to both parents and follow the house rules
  • reassure them that they are not responsible for their parents' happiness and that they do not need to become the 'man' or the 'woman' of the house in the absence of their father or mother

Caroline Dale - Good Grief is committed to education to build resilience and foster well-being. They provide programs for children, young people and adults challenged by loss and change. An initiative of the Sisters of St Joseph, Good Grief Ltd is an Australian not-for-profit organisation and an initiative inspired by the work of Mary MacKillop and her principle “Never see a need without doing something about it.” www.goodgrief.org.au