Supporting your CHILDREN through Separation

December can be an intense month. Financial pressures, increased time spent together, and greater alcohol consumption can bring existing relationship difficulties to a head. Many couples with children wait until after Christmas to announce a separation that may have been building for some time. Consequently, there is a spike in the number of people separating in the month of January.

If you find yourself in this situation, you may be wondering how your children may respond, what you should expect, and how you can support them.

How will my children react?

Whatever the causes of the separation, and whatever the circumstances, it is hard on everyone in the family. As adults, we have the experience to be able to rationalize the decision, and to see the future picture and to know (roughly) how it will work out. Children can’t. All they feel is the immediate loss of the family configuration that has anchored them. Even though they will retain relationships with both parents, their homes change, who is at home changes, their parents’ work schedules and their own school may change, and their parents’ economic circumstances will change. This can feel threatening and scary to children, even if they eventually lead to positive outcomes.

Studies show that humans have a preference for the familiar, even if the familiar causes them to hurt, hence the phrase,

Better the devil you know

This mechanism is particularly strong in children. Children feel safe when things are predictable. This loss of feelings of familiarity and safety, when coupled with the physical removal of one parent from the family home can cause children to become dysregulated. You may begin to notice changes in behaviour and mood. Young children rarely tell you how they are feeling, because often they don’t quite know, or they don’t have the range of words. However, you may notice changes in their behavior, including the following:
•Your child becomes anxious and clingy around transitions such as school drops offs or bedtimes.

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•A young child may seem to regress to an earlier stage of development – for example, wetting or soiling after months of being dry.

•Your child may become aggressive.

•Siblings may fight more than usual.

•Your child may develop a perfectionist streak – becoming distressed if things aren’t just right.

•Your child may become controlling.

•Your child may become really upset over insignificant things

•Older children may withdraw from you, or become angry at you, as though it is all your fault.

All of this can be very difficult to cope with when you may already be feeling low and vulnerable. It is important to remember that all of these reactions are not in your child’s conscious control. They are not being deliberately naughty but responding to a stressful situation.

How Can I Help?

Your child needs you to understand that they are not being naughty, but that their behaviour is being driven by a subconscious need for safety, security and predictability.

• Re-frame behaviour

By looking at subconscious drivers, we can reframe children’s behaviour and this helps us to help them. A child who has developed a controlling streak may have done so because they find uncertainty threatening. Understanding this will help you to empathise. Instead of asking your child to stop “bossing their sister around”, you can let them know you understand their feelings by saying, “it is hard when people don’t do what we ask them, and things don’t turn out how you imagine”.

Regression in toddlers happens because they feel scared to lose you, and is their way of keeping you close to them. Understanding this helps you to feel compassion towards them rather than frustration. Instead of telling them that they should be “all grown up now”, you can empathise by saying, “right now, you would like to feel like a baby again”. Reassuringly, toddlers rarely regress for very long – particularly when they know that you understand them.

• Offloading

A child who is seemingly very cheerful about the new family arrangements may become disproportionately distressed over something really insignificant. This is known as “offloading”. They are displacing their sadness about the separation onto something small and more controllable. You can help by acknowledging their sadness. Your child will feel much more secure knowing that you are always there for them and listen, no matter how big or small the problem.

• Understand Rejection

Your child may be experiencing lots of very conflicting emotions. They may tell you that they hate you (or the other parent) and apportion blame. What they are really telling you is that they hate the situation right now.

They may say that they hate going to Mummy’s house, but really mean that they hate changing houses. It can be very hurtful to hear rejection, but allowing your child to cry or rage can actually lead to a closer relationship between you in the long run.

Conversely if your child is rejecting the other parent, remember that it isn’t necessarily a true reflection of their feelings.

Remain Regulated Yourself

Children cannot regulate their own emotions and require the presence of a calm supportive adult to help them. Children can cope with seeing adults cry or be upset, but they also need to feel that the adult has some control of those emotions. Therefore, it is important that you look after yourself during this difficult time. Seek the support of friends and family if they are a calm influence, and ensure that you leave time for some self-care each day. You cannot pour from an empty cup. If you find you are locked in a cycle of distress, high anxiety or depression, then seek help with this.

If your children are struggling……

If you find that these changes are having a detrimental impact on your child at home or school, they may need a little bit of extra support. Speak with your child’s school to see if they offer special provision such as Play Therapy or Nurture Groups for younger children or counselling for older children. Sometimes children need a safe and confidential space to process this major change in their lives.

Jacqui Shankly Play and Creative Arts Therapist Family Support
Jacqui is the Creative Director and Founder of Moonbeams Therapeutic Services CIC, an organisation that seeks to support the mental health of young children. Jacqui has over 20 years experience of supporting families, as an Early Years Teacher and as a Play and Creative Arts Therapist, and she is an advocate of playful approaches to support calm connected families. She is currently putting her experience into a series of online courses for families including Sibling Harmony: Helping you to Help Your Kids Get Along Better And Loving Boundaries: Discipline without shouting, smacking or shame.
Visit or for further details.
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