Common Childhood Reactions to Separation

Childhood reactions to separation can vary greatly. All children have reactions to the news that their parents are separating. There are some common reactions that happen when parents decide to live apart. Parents need to be ready for the inevitable role they will play in co-regulating their child’s reactions to this news.  A home environment is typically created as the central point of security for children. It is the place that people invest most of their time and energy to design, shape, and structure healthy and happy environments for children to grow.

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A home is where the heart is, is an adage that refers to the quality of relationships, bonds, and experiences family members share together over time. More important than your child’s personal contents, children will grieve the loss they experience when they learn that mom and dad are no longer together. Very young children have great difficulty understanding the reasons why their parents decide to separate. This is especially true where the reasons to move on are related to sexual or emotional affairs. It is helpful to simply validate or recognize your child’s reaction by saying, “I know this is hard for you to understand”. Where there is more than one child in the family, it is good for children to have some one-one-one time with you to express what is likely to sound confused. School-aged children will commonly express concrete questions like; “Where will mommy live now?”, “When we I get to see dad?” or “Does this mean I have to draw pictures of my family without my daddy in it?”.

Childhood Reactions to Separation

Older children and adolescents will also be confused about the reasons for parental separation and their own feelings about it.  Sometimes, teenagers behave as though it does not really matter to them or that it makes little difference if one parent moves away. This is more likely to happen when adolescents have overheard a lot of arguing or fighting between their parents. Again, it is important to have some special time carved out for each preteen to discuss what you can share with them without over-disclosing some of the personal details of the marital relationship. It helps teenagers to hear, “It seems like you do not care that mom moved out, but I know that it is confusing to you. It is confusing to me too”.

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Childhood Reactions to Separation

No matter how old your children are, it is critical that they hear you will both be their parents for life, and that you will continue to love them unconditionally despite the changes that are expected to happen like moving into a new home, condo, or apartment. Children and adolescents benefit from hearing as much about the plans you are able to share in the early days of separation. For example, “Dad will be going to live with his brother Tom for a couple of weeks before he finds a new place to live. He cannot live here anymore, but you and your sister and I will remain in this place for the time being.” As plans take shape and become clearer, it is advisable that parents share these details with your children.

Your children are a part of your family, and they will experience all the loss and grief that you feel alongside you both. They will need both parents to hold it together and to present some level of composure to reassure them that no matter happens, everything will be okay.

Author: Lisa Romano-Dwyer PhD, RSW

LRD/May 2019

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