The effect of parental separation on children

Ways family conflict affects children, both in families who live together and in families who have separated.

In families where there is a high level of conflict and animosity between parents, children are at a greater risk of developing emotional, social and behavioural problems, as well as difficulties with concentration and educational achievement.

Frequent and intense conflict or fighting between parents also has a negative impact on children’s sense of safety and security which affects their relationships with their parents and with others. Parental conflict that focuses on children is also linked to adjustment problems, particularly when children blame themselves for their parents’ problems.

‘Good quality parenting’, that is parenting that provides structure, warmth, emotional support and positive reinforcement, has been found to reduce the impact of conflict.

Conflict in families after separation

Parental separation often initially leads to an increase in parental conflict and anger, although for some families the level of conflict reduces when parents do not see each other regularly.

The level of conflict between parents usually reduces significantly in the two to three years after separation, although it remains high in approximately ten per cent of families.

Research has found that following separation and divorce, children are twice as likely to have emotional, social, behavioural and academic problems compared to children from families that are still together. However, this may not be the case in all families.

The increased risk of poor adjustment in children may partly be due to high conflict and other problems in the family before the separation. This may affect the child/ren’s ability to cope with the separation.

High levels of conflict and ill feeling between parents following separation has also been found to have a negative impact on children’s adjustment following their parents’ separation.

The type of post-separation conflict that has been found to have the worst effect on children is that which occurs when parents use children to express their anger and hostility. Children who are placed in the middle of their parents’ dispute (by either parent) are more likely to be angry, stressed, depressed or anxious, and have poorer relationships with their parents than children who are not used in this way. 

Children should be able to talk openly about their lives in both households, but not feel obliged to do so. They should also feel safe when expressing their feelings regardless of which parent they are with.

Children who blame themselves for their parents’ fighting have also been found to be at greater risk of poor social and emotional adjustment following their parents’ separation.

The risks to child development associated with exposure to family violence do not necessarily stop following their parents’ separation due to the ongoing risk of family violence and its impact on parenting practices.

Protective factors

Resolving parental conflict has been shown to positively help children and protect them from the negative effects of parental separation.

Other protective factors for children after separation include:

  • having a positive, warm and caring relationship with at least one and preferably two actively involved parents, and
  • having positive relationships between siblings.

Providing children with an environment in which they feel physically and psychologically safe is critically important for their wellbeing and must be given high priority.

When separation occurs, it’s very typical for children to be unhappy and want their parents to remain together. That unhappiness can translate into low self-esteem, behavioural problems, and a sense of loss. However, if the parents take time to communicate with the children, explaining why the separation is happening, and show their love for them – and continued contact, so they don’t feel abandoned by the parent who moves out – these feelings usually disappear quickly.

That said, it’s not always the separation itself that’s the main cause of all this. One major factor in all this is the life after separation, which can, at times, be low income. Where both parents remain very involved with the children, and very supportive of them – especially where there’s no tension between the parents – the outcomes are often very good indeed.



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