The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has carried out research into the extent to which children are negatively affected by separation and divorce, and whether divorce or separation affects some children more than others

At least one in three children will experience parental separation before the age of 16.  Most of these children go through a period of unhappiness; many experience low self-esteem, behaviour problems, and loss of contact with part of the extended family. 

Children are usually helped by good communication with both parents, and most settle back into a normal pattern of development. However, a small minority experience continued problems; sometimes these problems – including poorer employment prospects and family disruption - continue into adulthood.  The factors thought to be associated with increased risk of poor outcomes following divorce and separation include financial hardship, high levels of parental stress, and experiencing more than one set of change in family circumstances. For example, separation may be followed by a new relationship for either parent which may in turn be followed by new step-siblings and by the birth of half-siblings to the child's parent and his or her new partner. These new partnerships may also end in separation; subsequently, either parent may embark on a further new relationship involving steps or half-siblings.

The quality of relationships between parents and children and between parents themselves is important in helping children adjust to life after separation. Children also need to be informed of and involved in decisions about what happens in the family.

Becoming part of a step-family seems to be helpful for younger children but to be harder for older children to adapt to. Older children seem to appreciate step-parents more when they act in a supportive and friendly way, rather than being involved in discipline or control.

Wider kin networks, especially grandparents, can play an important part in supporting children and grandchildren around the time of separation. They are an additional resource when one parent is absent and the other is upset and can communicate with their grandchildren while supporting their own child.

Many of the researchers found that children had a range of different ways of coping and of needs for support and communication, which may be met in different ways.

Some children and parents need informal or professional help. In providing that help to children, we need to focus on the child’s view of the world rather than being preoccupied by the breakdown in the parent’s relationships as partners. As well as parents - grandparents and friends are key figures for the children.


Helping parents

Separating parents need practical help with housing, payment of household bills and early legal advice

Others face difficulties in organising time with their children, especially when they have long or irregular working hours and accommodation which is not suitable for extended visits. Providing sufficient space to allow both parents to offer reasonable comfort and overnight stays with the children requires considerable resources.

Working together as parents is hard where there is conflict in a relationship and even harder after separation or divorce. Arranging contact between the children and the non-resident parent requires a sustained effort by both parents. Non-resident parents must accept that their role has changed from when they shared a home with the child. Parents with care must accept that they need to actively facilitate contact arrangements, even if their own relationship with their former partner is not amicable. Contact can be so conflicted that we may need to accept it may sometimes be necessary for the parents to go their separate ways at least for the time being.

The key observation made by researchers throughout the programme suggests:

  • there is a need to see parental separation not as an event but as a process, beginning long before the actual departure of one parent and continuing throughout childhood. This experience is difficult for all, but particularly so for those families where other difficulties already exist. These might include financial difficulties or acute or prolonged parental conflict or distress. For children, separation is also particularly difficult when it is followed by a number of other changes to the family setting; for example, where parents find new partners, where new relationships with step or half-siblings are involved, and where serial subsequent separations take place and serial new partnerships form. There seems to be a limit to the amount of change a child can cope with. This may be due to an individual's ability to withstand stress. But it may also be that such a high degree of change is likely to cause parents further stress: this may impair the relationship for the child, at least temporarily.
  • as serial partnerships become more common, we need to move on from categorising the children of divorced and separated parents as having an experience which is essentially different from that of other children. It is time to recognise that all children can be expected to undergo a number of transitions in their family circumstances. We need to ensure that informal support from friends and relations is supplemented by easily accessible formal interventions to support those in particular need.

It may be helpful for those going through the separation process to consider the following.

  • Provide someone to listen to the children's views, support them and the parents and continue to talk at difficult times of family change. This may be a family member, friend or a counsellor. The Counselling & Family Centre in Altrincham provides free counselling for children, regardless of where they are based. Their contact details are Telephone number 0161 941 7754 email
  • Help children to understand the processes they and their parents are going through.
  • Enable children and parents to continue links with school and community groups after divorce and separation.
  • Enable children to understand and manage conflict.
  • Focusing on the children’s emotional needs to reduce stress
  • Facilitate contact with non-resident parents unless there are good reasons for this not to happen.

At Myerson our Family Team understands that not seeing your child every day is one of the hardest parts of separation. Our accredited specialists provide you with swift, reliable advice to assist you in securing the best outcome.