Children & Separation or Divorce

Families Change

Families Change
is an online guide for families going through separation and divorce. With three versions – one for parents, one for children, and another for teens and pre-teens – it complements the legal information found below.

Parents who separate will need to have a plan for deciding how their children will be cared for and where they will live or spend time. This plan can be called a parenting plan, a time-share plan, or an agreement ("stipulation") about child custody and visitation. Children react differently to the separation of their parents, and you know your children best. But here is some information to help you understand what could be going on with your children. It is important that you remain open to talking to your children and that you give them a lot of understanding and nurturing during this time.

Many children go through different stages in dealing with the grief they may feel around their parents' separation:

  • Shock and denial that their parents are separating;
  • Anger because their parents are separating;
  • Depression — children may become overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and sadness when significant changes are happening in their lives;
  • Bargaining — when children try hard to make things the way they were, promising themselves or their parents anything to get their parents back together; and
  • Acceptance — when children begin to talk more openly about the separation and get their energy and own interests back.

Helping your children cope with your separation

Explain to your children that you and the other parent will be living in separate homes. If it is appropriate in your situation, reassure your children that they will still have contact with both parents even though the 2 of you live in separate homes.

Try to avoid arguing with the other parent in front of the children and put off a difficult discussion until later, when your children are not around.

Avoid putting your children in the middle by using them as messengers or spies between the 2 parents. Show your children that you respect their other parent, and support the time that they spend with each of you.

It may help to have your children talk to a counselor or to other children who have gone through their parents' separation.

For those families parenting together after separation

  • Give your children the stable and predictable routine they need.
  • Figure out how you and the other parent can each make time to be with your children.
  • Get the information you need to make good decisions about what your children need at each age.
  • If possible, find a way to parent well together and separately.
  • Take care of yourself. Find ways to feel good about yourself and to understand your confusing feelings.
  • Set goals. Try to stay calm in difficult situations.

Children benefit when their parents:

  • Avoid conflict and any physical violence or emotional abuse.
  • Handle rules and discipline in similar ways.
  • Support appropriate and safe contact with grandparents and other extended family so the children do not experience a sense of loss.
  • Are flexible so the children can take advantage of opportunities to participate in special family celebrations or events.
  • Give as much advance notice as possible to the other parent about special occasions.
  • Provide an itinerary of travel dates, destination, and ways that the children or parent can be reached when on vacation.
  • Establish a workable "businesslike" method of communication.
  • Plan their vacations around the children's regularly scheduled activities.

Children are harmed when parents:

  • Use physical violence.
  • Make their children choose between each parent.
  • Question their children about the other parent's activities or relationships.
  • Make promises they do not keep.
  • Put down the other parent in the children's presence or range of hearing.
  • Discuss problems they are having with the other parent with the children or in the children's range of hearing.
  • Use the children as a messengers, spies, or mediators.
  • Withhold access to the children for reasons unrelated to safety concerns.

Get more detail on creating a parenting plan that is best for your children.

Get more information on needs of children of different ages.

Find resources to help you in parenting your children during and after your separation or divorce.