When parents split up: How children can cope better with a separation

Educational tips on the topic of separation

Nobody wants it, and yet it happens more than 100,000 times a year: A family breaks up – the parents separate. Because children love mum and dad, there is hardly anything worse for them. If mother and father follow some principles after the separation, the little ones can cope better with this difficult situation.

Especially for children up to school age, the stable bond to both parents is a central point for their development. If mother and father, despite their own grief and disappointment after the separation, manage to decide together for the good of the child, the little ones do not have to suffer from the loss of one parent in the long run. Because a separation (without a long, ugly war of roses!) usually means less suffering for all involved – parents and children – than for a desolate, loveless and quarrelling family situation.

In a separation, children often look to themselves for guilt

Children between the ages of three and six perceive their relationship with mum and dad in particular through the concrete togetherness and the satisfaction of their own needs. If a parent is rarely available after the separation, this means that they are deprived of love. Since the little ones perceive the world around them as self-centered, they look for the blame for the separation of the parents in themselves. Therefore their confidence in the stability of relationships is deeply shaken. So it is not surprising that the little ones react strongly insecure in this situation, suffer from fear and feelings of guilt, fall back into already overcome behaviours (e.g. renewed wetting) or suddenly react aggressively.

From around the age of five to six, children are able to understand to a certain extent what changes are associated with the separation of parents for them. They can already express grief and often want the absent parent to come back.

Separation: How do I tell my child?

Preschool children have no idea what separation and divorce mean. They take it for granted that Dad and Mom are always together, without a beginning and always since they were born. Explanations like “Papa moves out because Papa and Mama don’t love each other anymore. But Daddy still loves you” are still very difficult for the little ones to understand. The child only has to learn this in the course of time: for example, that Daddy continues to participate in his life and picks him up from kindergarten on certain days or accompanies him to the children’s gymnastics once a week.

If you have to tell your child that you are separating, you should do this together if possible. Exception: If there is a danger that another quarrel will break out immediately, it is better if only one parent is involved in this difficult conversation. Talk to your child in simple, clear words and don’t burden him or her with too many details that would overburden him or her.

To make it as easy as possible for your child to say goodbye to the moving parent, you should explain exactly how and where dad or mom will live, sleep and eat. Children worry about their parents. If your child knows that mum or dad is doing well in their new home, it’s reassuring. But also explain when and on what occasions your child will continue to see the moved-out parent.

Be sure to inform the kindergarten or the school when a separation has taken place. Then teachers can respond better to your child and he or she will not come under additional pressure if he or she behaves in a difficult way.

Do not let the separation become a taboo topic, but show willingness to talk. For this purpose, the introduction via picture books on the topic of separation and divorce (for children from three to four years of age) is a good idea, e.g.:

  • “Do you still love me?” by R. Michl and E. Dietl (Sauerländer 2003; 32 pages; 13,90 €)
  • “Papa no longer lives with us” by S. Schne > Meaningful rules for dealing with children that are geared to their needs (according to the development researcher Remo Largo) Age of the childWhat needs?Where?How often?How long?in the 1st grade? Reliable care in the first months the environment is of secondary importance, from 6 months in a familiar environment several times a week few hours between 1 and 3 years safety, which gives protection against fear of losing the second parent in a familiar environment at least once a week several hours from 3 to 4 years increasing curiosity about the life of the remotely living parent familiar environment becomes increasingly unimportant at least every 14 dayseventuell with overnight accommodation

Even if it’s hard, don’t make your ex-partner bad.

Even if many things are different after a separation and you have less time for your child because of a job you have started or because of your weak mental condition, you should still try to reserve extra time for your child again and again. Also remember that your family is not just your father, mother and child(s): Contact with grandparents and other relatives of mother and father will help your child not to lose its roots.

How to accustom your child to a new partner and what children want when separating from their parents can be seen here exclusively as a subscriber to “Gesundheit und Erziehung für mein Kind”.

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Christina Cherry
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