Children and separation

Making a decision to separate if you have children is complex.

  • How will you tell them?
  • What should you say?
  • When should it be done?

At a time when you are vulnerable and unsure of yourself, you have to tell your children that you are separating and their lives are going to change. You don’t want to cause them distress, and you will want to do it in the way that will create the least pain.

Children’s reactions to separation

Separation is stressful for children and how your children react and adjust to it will depend upon several things:

  • how you cope with the break up and any ongoing relationships – their adjustment and recovery is easier when parents are sensitive to their children’s needs
  • the age and stage of development of the children
  • the temperament of the children – for instance, whether they tend to be easy-going to are somewhat anxious
  • the circumstances of the separation: was it calm or were the children witness to anger and drama?

Children may:

  • be surprised, angry, sad, hurt, confused, worried, frightened or grieving for the loss of the family unit that was
  • feel they are to blame
  • fantasise that their parents will get back together
  • feel insecure and fear abandonment
  • start behaving differently (for example, become clingy or moody, wet the bed, not want to go to school, act out).

How you can help your children

Although parents are often upset and confused at this time, it is important to try to understand what your children are going through and to consider their feelings as well.

Children have to deal with many changes and adjustments as a result of their parents separating: changes in family lifestyle, rules and discipline. There may also be a lot of other changes, for example, a new house and a new school and a new person in mum’s or dad’s life, and perhaps fewer treats as there will be less money coming in.

Try to see the situation through their eyes:

  • Assure them that both parents still love them, no matter what.  You may have fallen out of love with their other parent, but the children still love that person and may not understand why you are separating.
  • Give them a simple, honest account (but not one that blames or point scores against the other parent, or gives unnecessary detail). Explain who is moving away, and when and where they will see the other parent.
  • Assure them that they do not have to take sides. They love both of you, so attacking or criticising the other parent hurts the children.
  • Tell them this was an adult decision and that they are not to blame in any way. Draw a line between adult business and what children need to know.
  • Try to make as few changes as possible in their lives.
  • Let significant others know what is happening (ie. the school, class teacher, the parents of their friends).  These people can also watch out for your children.
  • NEVER use the children as go-betweens. Don’t ask your children to deliver messages to the other parent or say negative things about the other parent. This is damaging to the child and reflects badly on you – children find it very difficult to deliver messages and don’t want to be drawn into fights.
  • Find a way to communicate politely and respectfully with your former partner and keep them informed about important matters regarding the children (health, injuries in your care, and education, for example).
  • Be understanding if children play up or are distressed. Children need time and understanding as they adjust  – many children are taken unaware when they hear their parents are separating and need a lot of assurance as they come to terms with the changes in their lives.

Worried about your children?

If you are worried about your children talk to other people who see them regularly – their teacher or childcare staff and don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Like their parents, most children are stressed by the separation and changes in their lives, but with care and support, most children accept and adjust to the changes.

“What about the Children?” is a booklet, available through Relationships Australia, that offers that hints to help you through this difficult time.

About Relationships Australia

Relationships Australia is a community-based, not-for-profit organisation with no religious affiliations.

For over 70 years, we have been supporting children, adults, families and communities.

As a federation of Relationships Australia organisations in each state and territory, we have over 118 service locations across the country, with our National Office based in Canberra.

We provide a broad range of services including counselling, family dispute resolution and mediation, family violence prevention, support and recovery services, and mental health services.

Our services are for all members of the community, regardless of religious belief, age, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle choice, cultural background or economic circumstances.

Relationships Australia receives funding from the Commonwealth Government, as well as state and territory governments, and other sources.

Next steps

For more information on our services and how they can support you, or to find your nearest centre:

  • Call 1300 364 277
  • Visit

For 24/7 crisis support:

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800