Separation and how to protect children’s mental health

A young girl hugging her pet dog, parents separation

The start of the year is traditionally when a flurry of new clients approach divorce lawyers.

It’s thought this occurs because January is the time for ‘fresh starts’, plus the Christmas period can prove stressful.

Separation has a huge impact on children. There are a higher number of mental health problems observed in children from one-parent, step or blended families compared to those living in their original family. There is also a well-established link between high levels of post-separation parental conflict and childhood maladjustment.

Studies suggest the relationship between the parents post-separation strongly influences the development of childhood problems. 

So what can parents do to best prepare their kids and avoid falling into the same old interpersonal conflicts that have led them to separate in the first place? One way to combat this is to focus on the idea of a child-centered divorce.

What is a child-centered divorce?

Splitting parents can often be overwhelmed with stress over the impending separation. This can cause them to unintentionally focus on their own struggles, rather than the wellbeing of the children involved.

Thankfully, parents tend to agree on one thing- that they love their children. A child-centered divorce helps both parents focus on the best interests of their kids.

Why focussing on children in divorce is important

"If parents are warring then children feel stuck in the middle," says Debbie Pattison, Digital Counselling Manager at Spurgeons. 

Kids can feel that they have to take sides. The transition from one parent’s house to another is difficult because they can feel a lot of guilt. It can really split a child with loyalty and feeling they need to choose.

Debbie - Digital Counselling Manager at Spurgeons

"Overall," says Debbie, "the more the parents can be amicable, the better it is for the child."

"For a child it’s a form of grief- to them it’s the loss of their old life and their complete family." she says. "Parents need to sometimes step back and see it from the child’s point of view. To a child a split is massive- the world they knew has been ripped apart. They can also feel responsible and guilty, wondering if it was because of them and if they did something wrong."

How to have a child-centered divorce

- Avoid court

This is the most important factor. Commit with your ex from the start of your split to avoid a nasty court battle. The entire structure of the court system determines one parent the ‘winner’ and one the ‘loser’. The ‘loser’ is likely to fight to change the outcome of the court’s decision, delaying peace between the parents for years to come.

Mediation or an amicable arrangement is much less harmful.

- Focus on a positive future

Consider what you want your future to look like for you and your children. Would you wish your children to feel that you shielded them from the misery of the divorce?

Considering this for your children can help you stay on track with putting their needs first amid the misery of the split.

- Approach conversations with your kids sensitively

Whatever you may be struggling with about your breakup- perhaps there was an affair, for example- avoid going into detail with your child. "I’ve heard many times of parents oversharing with the child- it’s best to step back, and not badmouth the other parent to them," advises Debbie.

Ask how they feel and have open discussions about the changes- for example if a new partner is moving in then conversations and reassurance is important. "If you can keep talking to them and reassuring them it really helps- and they really need to keep hearing that you love them," adds Debbie.

Related articles from Spurgeons

View all
Parenting Tips
How to talk to children about grief
A troubled looking young boy looks out of a window
How to talk to children about grief
Parenting Tips
How you can use emotional regulation to feel better
A mother experiencing overwhelm
How you can use emotional regulation to feel better
How to Help a Friend
Two young women have their arms wrapped around each other and are sharing experiences, to help ease stress and anxiety
How to Help a Friend