Ask the Expert: How is our divorce likely to affect our children?

Children can sometimes come to the wrong conclusions – like they did something wrong to make the divorce happen

Q: MY HUSBAND and I have just split up – how are our children likely to react in these early stages of the separation?

Child psychotherapist Rachel Melville-Thomas, spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), says: "In the complicated task of setting up two homes and new arrangements for children to see both parents, how are the children really feeling as time goes on? Much of this depends on their age, and the circumstances around the now-separated family. Add into this equation, how each adult is feeling.

"The first element of assessing children's reaction is to take stock of the adult emotions, and make sure the tensions and resentments aren't expressed to the kids.

"Preschool and early primary children see the world in simple factual terms which they then imagine they control. So it can seem confusing to them that they don't have access to a mum or dad as much as they did before. Even careful explanation of mummy and daddy living in separate houses can be met with, 'So when is daddy coming back?'

"Young children may seem to accept the new situation but they can have inner feelings which are hard to express, so you may see these in behaviour. Feeling a bit lost and small can be expressed through renewed need for cuddles, asking for a bottle or needing a parent close by at bedtime again.

"Toilet training may seem to have regressed. It's just a way of saying they need time and assurance, and acknowledgement that a familiar routine has changed. If there are ongoing disturbances in sleep, or increased tantrums, this can be a sign extra professional help is needed.

"Children at older ages, between about seven and 12 years, will have more reasoning abilities to make some kind of story out of what's happened. They can see from school friendships being made and lost that adults come together and part company too. However, all this thinking ability can mean they come up with the wrong conclusions too – like they did something wrong to make the divorce happen.

"A developing sense of justice might make them perceive one parent is the baddie and the other the goody. Whatever the circumstances, it's important one parent doesn't confirm this in talk about blame and fault. They'll have both parents for life, and need to keep doors open to each for the future.

"Some primary-age children may express their feelings openly, saying how sad and angry they are, and these feelings need listening to, rather than smoothing over. But very often children at this age become silent, internalising what they really feel in an effort to be 'good' and not upset anyone. So here parents need to really look for signs of the ongoing confusion, and offer lots of encouragement to talk.

"This is where neutral family members and adult friends can be a helpful listening ear. Signs that help is needed might include a drop in self-esteem, reports of behaviour issues at school, nightmares, sleep or food disruption.

"Teenagers in some ways are like big toddlers – this stage of development reverts to a focus on self. They may still be smarting about the divorce and the fact that all the disruption has 'ruined my life'. It may be that new living arrangements have disrupted their friend base and ease of access to outside life.

"What else is going on for them? It's really important to consider the bigger picture, especially for adolescents who can be upset about their own relationships, online social difficulties or exams as well as their divorced parents. Extra help will offer some stability for teens facing big exams.

"You may sense real distress long before it's verbalised, so don't be afraid to get help. The biggest areas of concern are children internalising and not saying anything. Child psychotherapists are well positioned to understand the undercurrents of feeling in the children, and also able to help you navigate through to calmer waters."

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