Children and Separation

When you and your partner decide to separate, it is natural to worry about how your children will respond to changes in the family dynamic and living environment. This is an age appropriate guide for emotionally supporting your children whilst you navigate separation.


Birth to 18 Months

Babies are able to feel tension in the home. However, they cannot understand the causes or contributing factors of conflict. If the tension continues, babies can become irritable and clingy, especially around new people, and have frequent emotional outbursts. Babies surrounded by conflict, even where it is indirect, tend to regress and show signs of developmental delay compared to those growing up in calm homes. Children this age require consistency and routine and are comforted by familiarity.


  • Maintain normal daily routines, particularly regarding sleep and meals, during and after the divorce.
  • Provide your child with their favourite toys or security items, and spend extra time offering physical comfort.
  • Rely on the help of friends and family if it means protecting the child from tension, loud noises, aggressive language and isolation.
  • Ensure that you get plenty of rest so that you’ll be alert and emotionally available when your baby is awake.


18 Months to 3 Years

During the toddler years, a child’s main bond is with their parents, so any major disruption in home life can be difficult to accept and comprehend. Children this age are self-centred and may think they’ve caused their parents’ breakup. Children may cry and want more attention than usual. They might also regress developmentally, or they might engage in thumb sucking, resist toilet training, have a fear of being abandoned, or have trouble going to sleep or sleeping alone at night.


  • Parents should work together to develop normal, predictable routines that their child can easily follow.
  • It is also important to spend quality time with your child and offer extra attention and ask trusted friends and relatives to do the same.
  • Discuss your child’s feelings (if they’re old enough to talk), read books together, and frequently assure children that they are not responsible for the breakup.


3 to 6 Years

Pre-schoolers don’t want their parents to separate. Like toddlers, pre-schoolers believe they are ultimately responsible for their parents’ separation. They may experience uncertain feelings about the future, keep their anger trapped inside, have unpleasant thoughts or ideas, or be plagued by nightmares.


  • Try to handle the divorce in an open, positive manner.
  • A child this age will reflect their parents’ moods and attitudes.
  • Pre-schoolers will need someone to talk to and a way to express their feelings. They may respond well to age-appropriate books about the topic.
  • Children this age also need to feel safe and secure and to know they will continue spending time with both parents. Try to establish regular schedules for learning, play, sleep and time spent with each parent.


6 to 11 Years

Between these ages it will be natural for children to fear abandonment at separation. Younger children may feel as if their parents are divorcing them rather than each other. Children may worry about ‘losing’ the parent with whom they are not primarily living with. It is common for children to fantasize about “rescuing” their parents’ marriage. They might blame one parent for the separation and align themselves with the ‘good’ whilst distancing the ‘bad’ one. Children might act selfishly or express anger in various ways – fighting with classmates, pets etc. They might also express anxiety or low mood and complain of adverse physical symptoms due to stress, like upset stomachs or headaches. It is common for children this age to ‘make up’ symptoms and find creative ways to stay home from school.


  • Have each parent spend quality time with the child, supporting the child to open up about their feelings.
  • Reassure children that neither parent will abandon them, and reiterate that the divorce is not their fault. (Likewise, parents should not blame one another for the split, but explain that it was a mutual decision.)
  • Maintain a regular schedule for time spent with each parent. Children thrive on predictability during times of turmoil.
  • Since school, friendships, and extracurricular activities are of increasing importance to children this age, encourage your child to maintain involvement in things they enjoy.
  • Help rekindle their self-esteem and encourage children to reach out to friends and family outside of the home.


11 to 15 Years

Children in this age group are starting to think independently. They are emotionally and cognitively aware of relationship dynamics in the household and they are able to separate themselves from the way in which their parents behave and interact. Despite the independence and maturity that children this age are developing, it is important to remember that big changes happen for children in this age category. High school commences, friendship groups change, puberty brings about physical and psychological changes. During this time, it can be overwhelming for a child to also deal with sudden changes in their family. Especially if they have grown up in a relatively stable environment. This could be the first time that a child observes flaws in the illusion of a ‘perfect’ family. It could be an isolating time, particularly where the child is undergoing big changes in their social circles.



  • Encourage children to foster good friendships in as many areas of their lives as possible – school, neighbours, extended family, sporting and extracurricular activity circles.
  • Allow children to make lots of independent decisions about the time they spend with each parent, and the activities they do with them.
  • Give children particular roles of responsibility at each home ie: basic chores, pet responsibilities, gardening, helping with grocery shopping and food preparation.

This is important for their sense of identity and self-worth which can be prone to vulnerability at this age.

  • Ensure both parents are on the same page about the child’s education and that any decisions about school and work are based on the child’s independent goal setting.
  • Ensure that physical affection towards your child is abundant. At this age they might feel ‘too old’ for lots of caressing and hugs, but this is very important for relaxation and building confidence and a sense of emotional security in the home.


15 to 18 Years

Teens this age are starting on their way to adulthood and developing an idea about their own identity as it stands distinctly and separately from their parents and the family unit. Their sense of morality -‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is forming. Teenage children might start to align themselves with one parent more than the other. This is also a time when workloads increase at school and pressure about personal relationships, careers, post-secondary study, part time work, driving and travel opportunities arise. It is an exciting time, but it can also be anxiety provoking. Your teenage child needs to feel inspired and supported simultaneously and it is important that any animosity between you and your partner/ex is not accidently expressed through to or through your teen now that they are almost another adult in the home. You should avoid pessimism now that you have a teenage child mature enough to hear the full ambit of your relationship dramas.


  • Remember that you are setting an example of what healthy relationships look like. It is important to speak of the good and bad so that your teenage child can avoid inheriting jaded views about family.
  • It can be helpful to speak about the good and bad. Monitor the negativity in your house, and try to shed light on the good that came from your relationship with your partner/ex.
  • Ensure that you support your teenage child in the diversity of activities and educational programs they choose to partake in. They need to feel like they’re in charge of their circumstances, especially when family dynamics are changing quickly and dramatically.
  • Have each parent spend quality time with the teenage child, being there to listen and allow them to open up about their feelings. This is particularly necessary for boys who tend to internalise things that are going on emotionally.
  • Stress the importance of spending time with the other parent, even if the teenage child is reluctant to do so. Relationships with parents are for life.