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Practical ways to help young children cope with break ups.

Updated on March 30, 2014

Difficult times

Whatever the particular circumstances, breaking up is never easy when there are young children involved. But young children are very resilient and as long as parents follow a few guiding principles the upset and trauma of a break up can be minimised.

Statistics from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggest that if current trends continue more than 1 in 4 children will experience parental divorce by the time they are 16. Further statistics can be found by following the link below

Children will experience a whole range of emotions and may exhibit signs of unhappiness, low self-esteem, problems with friends or issues with behaviour at school. One of the difficulties is that it is not just the children who are experiencing problems as it is often a time of stress and anxiety, unhappiness and hurt for the parents as well. It is important that the adults are able to get support for themselves during this time so that they in turn can support their children.

Every divorce or separation is as individual as the people themselves and the way every family handles the situation is individual too. But whatever the circumstances, children can be helped to manage the emotions and changes that will be an inevitable part of parental divorce and separation. Follow the steps below to make sure that you support your child or children as much as possible.

Difficult times

Weddings are great celebrations but divorce and separation can be difficult for all involved
Weddings are great celebrations but divorce and separation can be difficult for all involved | Source

Reassurance and communication

Reassure them of your love

Tell your children that you love them. Explain that even if mummy and daddy are not going to live together they will both continue love them. Many children worry that they might have been to blame for the break up so reassure them that is not the case. It is especially important to reassure children that the parent who is not present at that time loves them. However angry, hurt or betrayed you may feel as an adult over the particular circumstances surrounding the end of the relationship keep on reassuring them that the ex-partner is still their parent and still loves them very much. Rather than talking about living with one parent it can be helpful to think in terms of the child having a home with mummy and daddy even when they live in different houses.

Warn them of changes

Young children often can’t work out what the implications of a separation might be but it is vitally important that you tell them in advance about changes that may happen. Obviously you don’t have to bombard them with everything at once but if there are likely to be house moves, school moves, or less visit to grannies then they do need to be informed. Some children may get anxious but most are best prepared by knowing there is a possibility of certain things happening. It is also really important to be positive about any changes – if you show that you are devastated at the thought of moving it simply won’t help the child. Try to think of the positive impact any change might bring.

Talk about emotions

Let your children know that it is normal to feel upset or angry when these sort of things happen. Children need to know that it is okay to be emotional. But they will also need some support in dealing with their emotions. Explain that you feel sad sometimes and when you do you find a hug helps or that if you feel a bit cross and angry sometimes you might go for a walk or even burst into tears and that is all okay. By talking about emotions openly you give them the message that it is okay for them to come to you to discuss how they are feeling. Young children may simply not have the vocabulary to explain how they feel but it can still help them to have you say how you feel and how you manage those emotions in a simple and age appropriate way.

Talk honestly to children

Even if adults feel hurt it is vital to be as honest with children about what is happeneing
Even if adults feel hurt it is vital to be as honest with children about what is happeneing | Source

The concept of two homes can be helpful

Positivity and transitions

Be positive about your ex-partner

However angry or hurt you may be the only person that will be hurt in the long run by you saying awful things about your ex, is the child. It is vital that you get some help in dealing with your own emotions if you really can’t talk about your ex without being negative or showing anger. Children will sometimes vent their anger towards the parent they are not with at the time but even if they are angry don’t get caught up in a character assassination, it simply won’t help. Just remind the child that everyone makes mistakes but you know that they love the child. It is also, without doubt in the child’s best interests to be positive about new partners that may appear in the life of the ex. Again this might be a challenge but it will help the child.

Aim for smooth transitions

When children are very young transitions from one parent to another can often be difficult. It is not unusual for babies, toddlers, young children to cry or even say they don’t want to go to the other parent. Often this is simply because they find change unsettling and doesn’t really reflect their relationship with the other parent. Of course they will pick up on any stress and anxiety that the parents have so it is not surprising these can be difficult times. Tyr to plan them so that they can be as smooth as possible. If there are things you need to discuss with your ex do it by phone beforehand rather than in front of the child. Make sure you plan ahead so that you can prepare the child in advance. Little things like making sure they have their favourite toys, ‘cuddlies’ or comforters will also help. Make sure you don’t waver if there are tears – they will feel more secure by knowing that the adults are in charge and unless a relationship has been violent or abusive children usually do better by having a relationship with both of their parents.

Comforters can be really useful

Make sure that whichever parent the child is staying with they have their favourite toys and comforters
Make sure that whichever parent the child is staying with they have their favourite toys and comforters | Source


  • Reassure children that both parents still love them
  • It is often best to talk about having a home with each parent
  • Tell them (if they are old enough) that this is not their fault
  • Be honest about changes that may happen when you become aware of them
  • Be positive about your ex with the child (even if you feel angry and hurt)
  • Talk about feelings and give children a chance to express their emotions
  • Ensure that children still have good quality times with both parents
  • Make transitions from one parent to another as smooth as possible
  • Avoid court if at all possible - it is adversarial and often adds further strain

Lessons in life

Children are often hurt and upset when parents split up but they may well be hurt and upset by other things that happen in life. With support, reassurance and open communication they can adapt well to new situations, and learn some valuable lessons about coping with life as well.

With very young children it may appear they hardly notice but their behaviour may show changes – obviously if they can’t talk much behaviour is the only way they can show their emotions. Just keep on reassuring them that you love them and don’t be surprised if they need some extra reassurance. It is not at all unusual for young children to ‘react’ after seeing the other parent – try not to worry and definitely don’t reduce the visits – if they are very young they will adapt and get used to the new situation.

Change is part of life and learning to cope with change even when it isn’t a change we want is a vital life skill for children to learn. Supporting them through the difficulties of a separation or divorce can help them cope with the situation AND equip them with skills they may rely on later in life.


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