impacts many children in our schools and adults in our workplaces, parishes and social
networks, and quite possibly our own family too. Coping with the family changes that result can
be challenging for children and their parents, and for those supporting the family including relatives,
friends, work colleagues and school staff. Some knowledge and understanding of what children and young people
are dealing with can help us to provide the right kinds of support, when and where it is needed.
Reactions of children and young people
Children’s reactions to separation and divorce are unique and varied. They depend on the child’s age, personality,
previous experiences, support networks, and on how well their parents are managing. Some thoughts about how
some preschool, primary and secondary aged young people may react are shared below as a general guide only.
Supportive people who can pay attention and notice how children are managing change are critical in helping
young people to adapt to new situations.
Children in the preschool years may …
• recognise that they are seeing one parent less or differently
• imagine fearful outcomes that seem real to the child
• regress in some areas, e.g. toileting, language and style of play
• show feelings such as anxiety and fear in actions e.g. clinginess and tantrums
Children in the primary school years may …
• understand more about what separation and divorce means in their family
• hold unrealistic fears about the future that seem real to the child
• blame themselves for family changes
• experience physical symptoms including feeling sick, headaches, tiredness
• show feelings in a range of ways – from being ‘over’ co-operative and agreeable to being angry and lashing out
Young people in the secondary school years may …
• feel a sense of loss similar to those of other adults involved and in their extended family
• experience the changes in their family as unique, and so feel different and alone
• worry about family finances
• be unwilling to be a part of family arrangements that they feel don’t suit them
• feel angry, anxious, sad and overwhelmed
• engage in risky behaviours as a way of dealing with their feelings about the changes
What can children and young people do for themselves?
Children and young people are often caught in the middle when the family changes. However, there are things
they can be encouraged to do that may help:
• read (appropriate) picture books and novels to understand they are not alone and that other children are
dealing with similar issues
• talk to their parents about how they are feeling
• talk to other interested and supportive adults and peers about how they are feeling
• visit child-focused websites for age-appropriate information about separation and
divorce – this can help allay fears and provide facts and ideas on coping.
(The Kids Helpline website has a useful page supporting children in this area:
How can parents help?
Parents may be just coping with the changes and losses that come with separation and divorce, and can feel overwhelmed in
supporting their children ‘the right way’ while they try to manage themselves. Importantly, 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, space and attention to spend talking and listening with their child
• letting children and young people have a say in decision making
• managing home routines that are constant, warm and reassuring
• ensuring children are eating well, sleeping enough and getting some exercise
• letting school know what is going on so that other adults can support their child
• accepting help from others (whether to mind the children for some parent time out, someone to have a
laugh or a 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 in supporting children and young people as they manage family change. Suggestions include:
• provide security and support to children and young people
• help children and young people feel competent and in control
• maintain expectations and consistent discipline
• keep lines of communication open
• respond appropriately, with understanding, if behaviour issues arise.
Schools can also help by recognising that all families have strengths and working with these strengths in supporting children
and young people. School staff can also aim to maintain communication with both parents in a range of ways, and provide
additional information and referral options for children and young people who need some more support.
Seasons for Growth
Schools and family support agencies may also offer small group support to children, young people and their parents. Seasons
is a grief and loss education program that aims to promote the social and emotional wellbeing of young people
and adults as they manage, change, loss and grief. Over 160,000 young people across five countries have taken part in
the highly successful Seasons for Growth
Young People’s Program, delivered in small age-appropriate groups by a trained
“Companion” – a teacher, counsellor or parent volunteer.
A new program, Seasons for Growth
for Parents is currently being piloted by Good Grief. Written by Professor Anne Graham,
the author of the original program, Seasons for Growth
for Parents has two separate components for supporting children
following separation and divorce, and for supporting children following the death of someone they love. These short parent
programs consist of 2 x 2 hour sessions and allow parents to expore and learn about how best to support their children
through these life-changing events. For more information about Seasons for Growth
for Parents please contact Melinda
Phillips, Research and Development Manager at
Graham, A. (2013). Seasons for Growth
for Parents: Companion Manual (Pilot Program). Good Grief Ltd
Gray, B.P. (2001). Supporting Children and Families in Times of Stress. Texas Women’s University for Texas