Supporting families as they manage separation and divorce By GoodGrief

PillowIn Australia nearly one in two marriages end in separation and divorce. This directly

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

for Growth


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

Child Care.


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