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Separated Parents

NSPCC advice

Helping children deal with divorce or separation

Separation may involve bad feelings between the parents (and their families). Children can pick up on this, which may make them confused or unhappy – or even blame themselves for a break-up.

To support children during a separation and help them with their worries, you should:

  • remind them that they are loved by both parents
  • be honest when talking about it but keep in mind the child's age and understanding
  • avoid blame – don't share any negative feelings the adults have about each other
  • keep up routines such as going to school and specific meal times
  • let them know they can talk about their feelings with you – explain that it's okay to be sad, confused or angry
  • listen more than you speak – answering questions will help them to open up.

Sometimes children find it hard to talk to someone in the family about their parents separating. Remind them they can always contact Childline by phoning 0800 1111 or having a 1-2-1 chat online.


Who can help?

We can't provide legal advice but the Coram Children's Legal Centre offers free information and advice on all aspects of the law relating to young people. Coram's helpful Contact factsheet (PDF) addresses common questions about contact arrangements.

You can also get help from the following organisations.

If you think a child might be at risk of harm, please call the NSPCC helpline to discuss your concerns with a Helpline counsellor.


How the courts decide on contact and residence

Every child and set of circumstances is different. But in every situation, the child's welfare must be put first. When deciding on contact and residence, the courts focus on a number of key factors.


  • the wishes and feelings of the child

  • any harm or risk of harm

  • the child's physical, emotional and educational needs

  • the likely effect of any change in the child's circumstances

  • the child's age, sex, background and characteristics

  • the ability of each parent to meet the child's needs






    Books to help younger children




    How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk.
    By Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
    Explains how to cope with children's negative feelings, how to express anger without being hurtful, how to engage a child's willing cooperation, how to set firm limits and maintain goodwill, and, how to resolve family conflicts. It also outlines alternatives to punishment.

    Kid-friendly parenting with deaf and hard of hearing children.
    By Daria J. Medwid and Denise Chapman Weston
    For the parents of deaf and hard-of-hearing children, this step-by-step guide offers hundreds of ideas and methods that work with children aged 3 to 12. It provides play activities to help parents enhance communication, solve problems and strengthen relationships in skilful, fun ways.

    The huge bag of worries.
    By Virginia Ironside and Frank Rodgers
    An illustrated book which encourages children to share their anxieties and fears. Tells the story of a little girl who carries around an increasingly huge bag filled with worries. She doesn't feel she can tell anyone but once she opens up the bag and shares the worries with someone else, the worries no longer seem so big.

    The incredible years: a trouble-shooting guide for parents of children aged 3-8.
    By Carolyn Webster-Stratton
    Advice for parents on managing anger and frustrations, coping with specific problem behaviours such as bed-wetting, how to play, using praise and rewards to promote good behaviour, and communicating with children.

    The Parentalk guide to your child and sex.
    By Steve Chalke
    A father of four children, the author takes an honest and humorous look at how to overcome the embarrassment factor and offers practical information and advice for parents on talking to children about sex.




    Books for teenagers


    How to talk so teens will listen and listen so teens will talk.
    By Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish and Kimberly Ann Coe
    This book is designed as a light-hearted guide to help support parents through the teenage years. Written in a practical and accessible style it offers suggestions and guidance on dealing with common sources of conflict. It focuses on effective communication as a means of resolving difficult situations and challenging behaviour.

    Queen bees and wannabes: helping your daughter survive cliques, gossip, boyfriends and other realities of adolescence.
    By Rosalind Wiseman
    Examines the experiences of teenage girls and their relationships with other girls. The author has worked extensively with teenage girls and uses her experiences to show parents how to understand the different cliques and roles girls adopt. Issues covered include sex, alcohol, drug and teasing.

    The connected father: understanding your unique role and responsibility during your child's adolescence.
    By Carl E. Pickhardt
    Describes how fathers can learn to become better listeners. Shows the different emotional changes for teenagers, how to encourage independence while setting limits, and how fathers can talk to teenagers about drugs, sex, the internet, and relationships.

    What are they thinking?!: the straight facts about the risk-taking, social-networking, still-developing teen brain.
    By Aaron M. White
    A guide to understanding, and dealing with, teenage behaviour. Explores adolescent brain development, looking at a range of issues including mental health, diet and eating disorders, internet, online pornography and social networking, sex and sexuality, drugs, alcohol and addiction, and bullying.

    What can the parent of a teenager do?
    By Michael Quinn and Terri Quinn
    Practical skills to help parents find ways to support their teenagers' development with an emphasis on improving communication skills. Stresses the importance of managing conflict respectfully, finding ways of coping with pop culture and supporting the work of fathers in parenting.




Recent parental divorce or separation

Parental separation and divorce is usually painful and distressing for children.

They continue to love the parent who leaves the home and cannot understand why they cannot live together.

The child may think that it is their fault that their parents have separated, and this, in addition to divided loyalties between the parents, can result in the child feeling very insecure and anxious. It is important for parents who separate to tell their children that they will not be abandoned and that the divorce/separation is not their fault.

It is also important not to criticise the other absent parent in the children’s hearing or ask the children to take sides.

(Ref. The Anxious Child –The Mental Health Foundation)


Why is children and young people’s mental health so important?

With good mental health, children and young people do better in every way. They are happier in their families, are able to learn better, do better at school and enjoy friendships and new experiences.

Childhood and teenage years are when mental health is developed and patterns are set for the future. So a child with good mental health is much more likely to have good mental health as an adult and to be able to take on adult responsibilities and fulfil their potential.

To have good mental health, children need love, security and understanding from those who look after them. They therefore rely very much on the adults around them – at home, at school and in the community and the environment they grow up in will have a big impact on their future mental health.







What can go wrong?

Some children experience challenges and difficulties which can have a big impact on them as they grow up –

Illness or disability in the family

Divorce or separation

Difficult family relationships

Parents with drug or alcohol problems

Financial or housing problems in the family


Friendship problems or bullying

Problems with learning or difficulties at school


Some children may have a genetic disposition towards mental illness and challenges can ‘trigger’ the difficulties and lead to serious problems.

The types of behaviour that it could lead on to include –


Becoming withdrawn or sad

Anxiety, panic attacks and phobias

Obsessive or addictive behaviour

Sleep/eating problems

Problems concentrating or focusing

Aggressive or disruptive behaviour


Wetting or soiling

School refusing or difficult behaviour in school

Problems with friendship or bullying

Risk taking behaviour/drug or alcohol use


Where to find help


Through your GP, social worker, teacher or health visitor.

National organisations including helplines are listed by topic in the info centre at



You can also contact the free phone Young Minds Parent Helpline on 0808 802 5544 or by email at parents@youngminds.org.uk




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