Children and Divorce

Parenting During Separation and Divorce

Divorce can be a painful experience and parents may find it difficult to respond to the needs of their children, for extra emotional support and attention. To help your children cope with divorce, you need to learn to manage your own feelings and new circumstances. Like many other parents in similar circumstances, you can move forward and help your children move forward too.


Divorce is not a single event, but a process that unfolds over time. It involves a series of family changes and reorganizations that may take several years. The events and emotions that accompany these changes cannot be dealt with overnight. It takes time for everyone in the family to adapt.

Separation and divorce can be an emotional roller coaster. You may experience feelings of anger, isolation, anxiety, euphoria, depression, guilt, loss of control, fear, incompetence and insecurity. You may doubt your ability to deal with the needs of your children because you also face pressing needs of your own. Sometimes parents may feel that they have failed their children, and may doubt their own worth. These emotions and difficulties are a natural part of going through a separation and divorce.

Different Challenges

The process of separation and divorce can be one of the most difficult experiences in an adult’s life – socially, emotionally and financially. Most parents are ill-prepared for all of the challenges and adjustments they may face, including:

  • Changing homes, neighbourhoods and schools, which may lead to a sense of instability and the loss of relationships and support systems.
  • Economic changes – two households cost more to maintain than one. Some parents may face a sudden financial crisis.
  • Difficulty in concentrating on your job. Or you may immerse yourself in work, especially if you are no longer living with your children.
  • If you are not living with your children, you may feel cut off from their lives.
  • Increased demands and responsibilities if you have the major role in caring for the children. It may seem like there are not enough hours in the day to spend time with your children, and still find any time for yourself.

With all the pressures of divorce parents are under even greater stress. It is important for you to carve out some time to take care of your own needs. Schedule time for activities that help you get in touch with yourself, whether through a hobby, physical activity or simply relaxing quietly. Allow yourself occasions to break away from the momentum of “doing” and simply “be” even for a few minutes to help you regain your balance. It will give you a better sense of perspective and will help you stay on top of the day-to-day stress of work, children, and the separation or divorce.

Help and Support

All of us need “emotional” support as well as “practical” support. Family and friends, support groups, professionals, as well as other support services in your community, can all help you adjust to the changes in your life. Reach out for advice, encouragement and understanding to help reduce tension and the feelings of isolation and depression that often go along with separation and divorce.

By reaching out to other adults, you are teaching your children a very valuable lesson in life: we all need help from time to time, and learning from – and leaning on – others is an important part of living and growing.

Many parents rely on outside support at one time or another.

  • Family and Friends – Separated and divorced parents, especially those who live with their children, are often so busy with their child’s day-to-day needs that they may neglect relationships with close family members and friends. Yet these people are the best allies you may have. They listen, give you a chance to enjoy the company of other adults, and help you get organized. They can become role models or sympathetic adults for your children. Family and friends can offer something crucial – compassion and understanding. Time alone with family and friends can help you get used to a new lifestyle.
  • Health Care Professionals – Your family doctor, your children’s paediatrician, or the staff at a community health centre are an important resource when you or your children are experiencing difficulties. They also can recommend other professionals or services available in the community.
  • Support Groups – Many community centres and organizations offer support groups where people in the process of separation or divorce can talk about their feelings and experiences. Since parents often face similar problems, others in this situation can be a source of great comfort and inspiration.
  • Professional Counsellors – If depression, anger or loneliness interfere with your work, home tasks or parenting, professional counselling from social workers, counsellors, psychologists or psychiatrists may help. If you are still considering ways to stay together, talking to an experienced marriage counsellor could be beneficial. A marriage counsellor can help you take steps to resolve conflicts, remedy past grievances and improve your relationship.
  • Family Mediators – Family mediators can help parents resolve their disputes and develop a co-parenting arrangement out of court.
  • Community Resources – There may be other resources in your community to help with your family’s physical, emotional and social needs.
  • Family Service Agencies – provide a range of services, including family life counselling, educational programs, family violence prevention and intervention, and credit counselling and referrals.
  • Other Organizations and Services – such as family and youth-serving organizations, family resource programs, local religious congregations and community information and referral services can provide support, or help you find the help you need.
  • Local Libraries – have books, magazines, audio-visuals and Internet access on a range of helpful topics. Ask the librarian for assistance.


The decisions that parents make during the process of separation and divorce are important and have long-term consequences. Family law is complicated, and everyone benefits from sound legal advice in this situation. There are a lot of family lawyers in Canada who can inform you of your rights and responsibilities.

Parenting After Separation and Divorce

As separation and divorce is a process that can go on for several years, the period following a formal separation involves many life changes and decisions – and all of them have an impact on younger and older children. Fortunately, there are many good books and resources available for parents and young people on topics such as dating after divorce and remarriage, blended families and step-parenting.

When Parents Start Dating

In some families, a new adult relationship may have started before the separation, or may begin in the early stages of separation and divorce. In others, a new person may not enter the picture for months or years. Many single parents are trying to keep up with the extra demands of parenting on their own, and have little time or energy to spend on developing a new relationship. Some parents don’t want to start going out with someone new – they may feel insecure about where to meet others and how to approach them, uncertain about their attractiveness, and concerned that they might fail in another relationship. For others, dating helps them adjust to divorce. It reaffirms their self-worth, reduces feelings of loneliness, and helps them get on with their lives.

Whatever the circumstances, dating may trigger emotions that are similar for both parents and children. They may be fearful of being hurt again, worry that they may not be loved by the new person, and have concerns about how the new person will fit into their lives. Parents can use this new situation as an opportunity to talk about how adults – just like children – need peer interaction with people their own age, and supportive relationships.

If the marriage ends after one parent leaves the relationship for another partner, children may feel particularly betrayed and angry. Children in these families will need plenty of opportunities to express their confusion and feelings – a difficult task for a parent who may be experiencing similar emotions.

Children have mixed emotions about their parents’ new relationships. Depending upon their age, they may feel betrayal, jealousy, anger, confusion and even guilt. For example, they may feel:

  • that the parent who is first to begin a new relationship is betraying the other parent. The parent can explain that people adjust differently, and that it is time for him or her to meet and go out with new people, even though the other parent may not be ready to begin another relationship.
  • the parent-child relationship doesn’t give parents the opportunity to do all the activities that adults like to do. It’s important to keep on reminding children that friends and new partners do not replace the love between a parent and a child.
  • their parents may get back together again. No matter how often parents have told children that getting back together won’t happen, many children continue to hope, even after a second marriage
  • embarrassed that parents have sexual feelings and a need for affection. This is especially true for children in their pre-teens and early teens. Parents should explain that they, like other human beings, have sexual feelings and that these are a natural part of adult life.
  • they have been abandoned again and experience a renewed loss when parents spend time with another adult. Finding extra time for the child while seeing a new person is difficult, but important.
  • anger at being forced by adults to make another adjustment. How children act out this anger depends on their developmental stage. Clear and sensitive communication is the key to helping children cope with the adjustment.
  • anger that parents have their own rules for sexual behaviour and enforce what may seem like different rules for their children. Teenagers are especially likely to feel that while they have curfews or have to date people their parents know and approve of, their parents seem to follow a different standard. Explain that there are two sets of rules – one for adults and one for teenagers – and explain why this is so.
  • anger at the loss of privacy. Children need space they can call their own. It is important that new partners respect that space and treat children as individuals in their own right.

Helping Children Adjust

Children of any age do not like to have their security threatened. Their security comes from a sense of predictability and a stable family environment. Children’s sense of security is often built around the familiarity of where they live, eat, sleep and keep their possessions. This sense of “home” takes time to rebuild when they begin moving between residences.

When children begin the process of travelling between two homes, they experience feelings of loss, confusion, anxiety and insecurity as they adjust to the reality of being with one parent at a time. As a coping mechanism for trying to handle these emotions, they may overreact and become very difficult to handle for a few hours or even days. One parent may blame the other for this behaviour, assuming that the other parent is not disciplining the child, or is even encouraging the child to behave badly. But it’s important not to jump to conclusions – your child’s behaviour may be nothing more than a reaction to his or her own feelings of grief and loss.

When children move between homes, they are constantly reminded that the family is no longer together. Children may also experience separation anxiety from one or both parents, or they may worry about the well-being of the parent they are leaving behind. In addition, children have to deal with some unwelcome changes in their schedule and environment.

Give children time to adjust to the changes, and make sure they feel safe and secure in both places. For example, try to work together to ensure that your children have familiar belongings and favourite games with them at each residence. You can also help children maintain visits with friends and extended family members.

If one parent moves a great distance away, a child’s feelings of loss and anxiety may be understandably heightened. In the case where one parent sees the children during holidays and summer vacations, it’s important to help maintain continuity as much as possible by keeping the residence “homey” and filled with some familiar possessions. Parents also need to prepare their children for the inevitable changes and how they will maintain contact with both parents. For example, regular phone calls can help children maintain a continuous relationship with a parent who lives at a distance.

The Brady Bunch

Remarriage is one of the most common challenges facing children whose parents divorce. Children who have not adjusted to parental dating will have even more intense problems as they try to adjust to their newly blended family. Remarriage leaves no hope of the parents getting back together, although some children continue to fantasize about everybody living in one home again.

Children may also have to deal with step-brothers and step-sisters, new grandparents, aunts and uncles. They may find it hard to accept changes in discipline and the authority of the step-parent. They may be jealous of the time and attention given to the new partner, step-brothers and sisters. They may feel that they are treated unfairly compared to their new siblings. A new baby may also spark feelings of anger and insecurity. Parents may find that being aware of these issues can be useful as they help their children adjust to new situations.

Step-family relationships or “blended families” differ from original family relationships in many ways. When families are reorganized, children often experience having more than one “mother” or “father.” Most children adapt to this. Parents who have formed new relationships should make a special effort to spend time alone with their children. They need to know that they are part of the new life you are building.

The step-parent enters a new family group that already has a shared history, strong bonds and an established way of operating. Acknowledge that you will never replace their mother or father, and work on developing a unique relationship with the children. Encourage your step-children to honour and respect both of their parents and not to take sides. A step-parent can be a special friend to the children. Try not to compete with, replace or be critical of the other parent. When step-parents criticize the children’s parent, children feel worse about themselves and less loving toward the step-parent.

In many cases, step-parent and step-children are suddenly thrown together, without the chance to develop a relationship gradually. The clashing of different rules, goals, definitions of behaviour and methods of child rearing can cause many problems, and a satisfying relationship between step-parents and children usually develops slowly. This is not surprising, since closeness, affection, friendship and trust usually need time to develop.

Step-parents can help children deal with changing roles and circumstances by being patient and giving them lots of time to adapt to their personality and lifestyle.


The challenge of being a parent during separation and divorce may sometimes seem overwhelming. When times are hard, it is important for parents to remember that all children face challenges as they grow up. Some move from school to school, from community to community. Some experience the death of a family member – a grandparent or older relative, and sometimes a parent or sibling. Some face serious illness. And through it all, they cope and learn and mature. Children have a tremendous capacity to meet the challenges life throws them. They have a remarkable ability to bounce back from difficult experiences -and this ability grows out of being loved and cared for.

Use your good judgment and common sense, try some of the suggestions outlined here and reach out for the support and assistance you need from friends, family, professionals and community resources.

Despite the difficulties and pain, separation and divorce – like other challenges in life – can provide opportunities for growth, for both parents and children. Just as you may gain confidence, acquire new strengths and develop new abilities at this time in your life, so will your children. By helping them deal with divorce, you are giving them the skills to manage other challenges in life.

Note: Children and Divorce has been extracted and summarized from: “Helping Children and Youth Live with Separation and Divorce”, Public Health Agency of Canada: Ottawa, 2001.