Tips to reduce anxiety in children when separation occurs

These are tricky times for everyone when this happens, writes Gail Smith

It’s natural to get caught up with your own emotional roller coaster and reflecting on your child’s emotional state can be secondary. Often, a child will go quiet when separation occurs. In their minds, they are weighing up how they’re valued in their parents’ eyes.

A child will often become worried if one parent has gone, will they lose the other parent? This was quite common in discussions with children going through a family separation. Their sense of being valued seemed at risk.

Given that they become emotionally anxious, it was also common for children to slip back academically and to feel socially less secure. A child looks carefully for signs of reassurance from parents when family circumstances change.

I appreciate that the above sounds daunting. However, with careful planning and engaging your child in the transformation of the family, they come through with a reassured sense of their place in the new structure of the family.

Here are some suggestions to help with the journey of separation:

  • Keep your child in the loop-but within reason. There isn’t anything more insecure for a child than not being aware of what’s really happening. Being honest is very important to your child, they’ll look for information elsewhere if they’re not being given the truthful stop they’ll also imagine the worst if they’re unsure about their position in the family.
  • Remember that a child loves both parents and no matter how you feel towards your ex-partner, to your child, they are still very important in their life. How you manage this is an individual family matter. The important factor here is to remember that your child has a totally different perspective of their other parent than you.
  • Speak gently to your child about why the relationship has broken down. They don’t need to hear and feel the hostility or anger that you might feel yourself.
  • Investing in a counsellor is very helpful as it gives your child the opportunity to talk independently to someone they trust. It enables them to express their feelings which can be difficult in the home setting for fear of upsetting parents.

In my experience, if a parent’s behaviour is quite reactive and volatile, the child will go quiet and shut down. Being silent can mean that they’re not coping with the situation.

There are some excellent children’s books on separation and divorce. These are wonderful to read together in a safe and happy space.

Choose your time wisely when talking to your child about the separation. If you’re not feeling up to it, then delay the chat. It’s better to have quality time together than broken and unsettling conversations.

Remember, it’s important for a child to feel happy. Even though life is tough, remember to play, laugh and enjoy your child.

As custody orders come into the business of separation and divorce, take care to ensure that what’s arranged is the least unsettling for your child. Include them in making decisions about what to pack and where to meet the other parent. They need to take some ownership of this process over time. This gives them more personal security.

Be careful with idle and loose conversations around your child. Children are particularly sensitive to conversations around them when they’re feeling vulnerable.

The age of your child when the separation occurs is important to understand how your sensitive talk goes with them. A younger child should be spoken to very gently, calmly and not in long protracted explanations. They were capped on to what you say and feel the anxiety very quickly.

Remember, that as the child grows with the separation, they’ll need to add keep understanding how they fit into shifting family arrangements. This is especially the case when new partners enter the relationships, or a parent goes through significant changes in their life.

Their journey in the family spirit is quite different from your experience, and they’ll understand and reflect on it from different perspectives as they grow older. Their grief is also different and so we need to respect their right to travel through the journey of separation in their own way and in their own time.


Gail Smith has almost 30 years experience as a school principal, teacher, qualified counsellor and mother. Whether your child is just starting out in school or already a few years in – this book is a must read for all parents. Gail addresses key issues in every parent’s day to day life – such as how to talk to your child, the importance of routine and structure, being a role a model, and dealing with bad behaviour.  

Her book is available for purchase via her website or Amazon, Booktopia. Gail-Cover-small More information about Gail and access to her useful parent education blogs can also be obtained via her website www.theprimaryyears.com

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