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Protecting children from the effects of separation

Tags: divorce, separation, splitting up, break up, relationship breakdown, put kids first, effect of divorce on children
Categories: After Separation

When parents break up, there are a number of short and long term effects on children. Knowing these effects can help you protect against them and give your children the best chance in life.

Around one in three children in the UK are likely to experience parental separation before the age of 16. Half of couples divorcing in 2010 had at least one child aged under 16 and over a fifth had a child under five. When we include children whose parents were cohabiting but not married, the number is likely to be much higher.

Most commonly, children of separated couples will experience greater poverty. Studies have also shown that children whose biological parents split up are likely to struggle more with social, emotional and cognitive development. This is true whether the parents were married or not.

Children’s health can also suffer – physically and psychologically. Children of separated parents are more likely to act out and take part in risky behaviours like substance misuse.

Children of separated couples also tend to perform worse at school and have poorer future employment prospects. Research also shows that children of separated couples are less likely to have successful relationships themselves when they grow up.

Do all children of separated couples have problems?

No. Not all children will suffer long-term harm from the breakup of a relationship. In fact, if the relationship between separated parents remains friendly, most children can adjust to the new family situation, even after an initial period of unhappiness and instability.

The main factors in protecting children from these risks are:

  • good quality parenting
  • a lack of financial hardship
  • the stability of the parents’ relationships after the separation

There may not be much you can do about financial hardship, but you can certainly support your child by making an effort to get on well with your ex-partner. If there is still conflict, try to keep it away from your child and work towards resolving your differences and creating a stable home life.

Who is affected the most by separation: boys or girls?

There is some evidence showing that boys find separation more upsetting to begin with, but that the effects on girls are more likely to last longer. Boys tend to find it easier than girls to adjust to stepfamilies, particularly in early adolescence.

Generally speaking, older boys and girls find it harder than younger children to adjust to a new family. However, younger children might not be as aware of their parents’ relationship problems, so the separation can sometimes come as more of a shock. This may lead to younger children feeling more confused and anxious, and can even result in them blaming themselves for the separation.

The impact of new partners and families

There is also a link between behaviour problems and the number of relationships the parents have after the separation. When you get together with someone else, there is a transitional period for the child. They are already adjusting to a new way of life and meeting a new stepparent means another transition for them to deal with.

Research shows that multiple transitions can be bad for a child’s behaviour, leading to problems like disobedience and hyperactivity. Many children find a parent’s remarriage more stressful than the separation itself. If you’ve met a new partner, be aware that the introduction is going to be a big deal for your children, and consider the long term future of the relationship before taking any big steps.

Children may find it easier to deal with a parent’s new partner if the other biological parent is not starting a new relationship at the same time. If you and your ex are both moving on, consider making the introductions at different times. Having a stable family situation in at least one home could really help your child.

Protecting children from the effects of separation

The good news is that you can take steps to limit the effects of separation on your children, and they needn’t suffer any long-term harm. There’s no simple formula to follow, but the key factors linked to positive outcomes for children are:

  • Good quality, warm parenting from both parents
  • Continuing good relations and co-operation between parents
  • Social support for the child from extended family and friends

So, keep on nurturing your child, try to maintain good relations with your ex-partner and make sure you’re involving good friends and other family. It may still be an unsettling time, but your child can emerge safely at the other side if they feel well supported and safe from conflict.

If you’d like some extra help managing the transition, try our free online parenting plan.

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