Children often express the pain of their parent’s separation through their behaviour. Sometimes mums and dads mistakenly think that their child is just ‘acting out’ or going through a phase. With a little knowledge about the effects of separation on children, parents can understand their child better and help them through this difficult time.

Babies (0 – 6 months) Possible reactions to separation

  • Loss of appetite
  • Crying/unsettled

Babies (6 – 18 months) Possible reactions to separation

  • More crying and clinging
  • Problems sleeping
  • Returning to infant behaviour (nappies and dummies)

Strategies to help babies cope (0-18 months)

  • Stay calm in front of the baby
  • Provide safety toys, blankets and stuffed animals
  • Keep contact with mum and dad as consistent as possible
  • Keep routines the same
  • Tell them you love them often and give lots of cuddles
  • Allow some return to infant behaviours but set clear boundaries

Toddlers (18 months – 3 years) Possible reactions to separation

  • Hoping for, and trying to make mum and dad get back together
  • Blaming themselves for the separation
  • Scared mum and dad will leave them too
  • Nightmares, bed wetting, stomach upsets
  • Returning to infant behaviours (thumb sucking)

Preschoolers (3 – 5 years) Possible reactions to separation

  • Often think they are to blame for the separation and think they are being punished
  • May return to earlier behaviours (bed wetting, thumb sucking, baby talk)
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering
  • Getting angry more often
  • Fantasising about the absent parent

Strategies to help toddlers and preschoolers cope (18 months – 5 years)

  • Tell children many times that the separation was not their fault
  • Read books together about children and separation/divorce
  • Provide photos of the parent the child is not currently with
  • Speak positively about the other parent
  • Reassure them who will take care of them and when they will see the other parent
  • Talk to them about their thoughts and feelings
  • Provide consistent contact (face to face or phone calls) with the other parent

Children (6 – 8 year olds) Possible reactions to separation

  • Difficulty identifying and talking about feelings, so may express themselves through behaviour and learning problems or physical symptoms like stomach upsets, headaches or pains
  • Can idealise the absent parent and may become more aggressive towards the parent they live with
  • May feel abandoned and rejected by the parent who left

Pre Adolescent (9 – 12 year old) Possible reactions to separation

  • Often still blame themselves for the separation
  • May side with one parent over the other
  • Express obvious feelings of sadness, anger and pain
  • May worry about adult concerns like money
  • Acting out of character (swearing, aggressiveness, rebellion)
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities

Strategies to Help Children and Pre-adolescents Cope (6 – 12 year olds)

  • Encourage children to talk about how they feel
  • Don’t use expressions like “be brave” or “don’t cry”. Reinforce that it is ok to feel sad
  • Answer all questions about the changes that are happening
  • Plan special time together
  • Reassure your child that everything will be alright, just different
  • Keep routines the same and maintain rules
  • Don’t discuss adult problems with your children or use them as a shoulder to cry on

Separation can be a very difficult time for families. The impact it has on your child can be minimised when parents are able to anticipate children’s reactions and respond with understanding and care. Helping your child hold on to healthy memories of their childhood and parents helps them to grow into well adjusted adults.

If you think your child needs help coping with your separation or divorce please contact Play Therapy Melbourne to discuss how we can help you.

Play Therapy Melbourne has psychologists and counsellors who specialise in child counselling across Melbourne, including Eltham.