Coming to the decision to end a marriage or a long-term relationship is a difficult and often lengthy process and when there are children involved this is even more true. Parents naturally seek to protect their children from pain and upheaval as much as possible and separation is therefore often viewed as the last resort by couples which means that long periods of unhappiness and conflict may have proceeded the decision.

When there are high levels of conflict between the parties, it can be a challenge to stay focused on the children’s needs. When we are overwhelmed by our own negative emotions it is difficult to mentalize (the ability to understand one's own and others' mental states, thereby comprehending one's own and others' intentions and affects) and remember that our children’s experience of what is happening is separate from and different from our own.

Supporting the child to come to terms with loss

So, what can parents do to support their children and help them to come to terms with the loss of an intact family and the inevitable changes to day-to-day life that a family break-up involves?

Perhaps the most important point to acknowledge and be guided by is that your child’s relationship with the other parent is independent from your own relationship with that parent. If your child, prior to separation, experienced a positive day-to-day relationship with their other parent, they will benefit from continuing to have a day-to-day relationship with them after separation.

Many studies show that children who continue to have a close relationship and day-to-day involvement with both parents post separation fare better across a wide range of areas such as academic achievement, physical and mental health, social and psychological development, having a sense of identity and self-esteem. Your child does not need the two of you to be friends or even like each other but they do need to feel that you are both able to prioritise their needs and to work together, to maintain close relationships with your children.

Supporting yourself

The feelings experienced during a relationship breakdown can be overwhelming and impact negatively on coping and functioning. In light of this it is important to recognise your own need for support to enable you to be there for your child in the way that they need you to be. There are lots of resources available such as counselling, family mediation, online forums, relevant literature and parenting apart programmes. Anything that aids your coping will benefit your child.

Negative emotions

In terms of helping the children to adjust to changes, try to accept that whilst there are a few things you can do to make this easier for them, children will experience a lot of negative emotions such as loss, uncertainty, fear, anxiety and a sense of dislocation. These feelings are all part of a normal response and should not be minimised. By acknowledging them and encouraging your child to express them, you will be aiding their ability to come to terms with what has happened which in turn will aid their adjustment and promote their psychological health.

The child's behaviour

Be observant of any changes in your child’s behaviours and general presentation and create opportunities for them to ask questions and express themselves. It can be difficult to witness your child’s upset and the wish to ‘fix’ it or minimise their experience can be tempting when you feel that you and the other parent have failed to keep the family unit intact. You can help and support your child by acknowledging their pain and ‘sit with the discomfort’. This will be validating for them and foster a feeling that they can come to you and express themselves honestly in the knowledge that you will listen and understand even if what they say is difficult for you to hear.

It may seem obvious to adults that the breakup is a result of discord in the couple relationship, but some children will assume that they are somehow to blame for the family breakup and will need reassurance that this is not the case.


Whilst some changes to daily routines are inevitable, try to keep some the same and safeguard specific times or events during a course of a week, e.g. bedtime reading, visits to grandparents, movie night on a Friday evening etc. An older child may also benefit from talking with an independent adult such as a counsellor.

Communicate constructively

As much as this can feel stressful and difficult, communication with your ex-partner is almost an inevitable aspect of post-separation life when you have children together. Try to find ways to communicate constructively with the other parent about the children and arrangements. Where there is high conflict, communication needs to be structured and might work better if kept to corresponding via email or by using a platform such as a co-parenting app. In cases where communication becomes negative or breaks down completely, family mediation is an option to consider.

Where there are concerns regarding a parent’s capacity to parent safely, an independent professional such as a psychologist should be consulted to undertake an assessment of the parent and possibly the whole family, before care and contact arrangements are made.


Jenny Claar Foley

Chartered Counselling Psychologist