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Loss due to Parental Separation or Divorce - Part 1: Impact

There have been huge pressures on families as a result of Covid-19: job losses/insecurity; anxiety of catching Covid-19; worrying about other family members/friends; too much time spent indoors altogether; finding space for everyone to do what they need to in terms of school work, jobs, relaxing; loss of our daily routines and lives.

These pressures have impacted upon the stability of many households which has been reflected in the number of relationship break-ups and applications for divorce in the UK and other parts of the world. There will be many additional families for whom it is not possible to separate at this current time.

There are particular challenges for children of divorced/separated parents during lockdowns: moving between different houses; keeping in touch when it hasn’t been possible to see each other face to face, including other significant family members such as grandparents who may have been involved on a day to day basis; a lack of places for people to meet for shared activities. 

We know from a range of studies that:

  • Children and young people will often experience loss and feel grief when their parents/carers break up.
  • If the family has been dysfunctional, the child’s stress levels improve after the family has broken up but the impact of loss may be made worse by the stressful situation they have experienced. 
  • The way parents share the care (the amount and quality of contact), communicate and support the child, can impact greatly upon how the loss impacts a child or young person.
  • Education settings are incredibly important for children and young people in this position as they provide stability; the attitudes and behaviours of the staff can have a very beneficial impact on how CYP respond to the situation.
  • The way children understand and react to parental separation often depends on their age and their level of understanding. 
  • Levels of anxiety rise when the divorce progresses but not anti–social behaviour.
  • Children whose parents later separate have often already shown greater signs of anxiety than their classmates.

Babies will sense when their parents/carers are stressed and may be clingy or irritable.

18 months to 3 years olds will struggle when their routines change and may struggle to sleep, regress, cry more, seek attention, resist toilet training.

Children aged 3–5 don’t necessarily have the language to be able to express how they feel.  They may think it’s their fault that their parents are not together. They may feel a strong sense of loss although they see both parents regularly. 

At this age they may also regress in areas of development such as speech and language and toileting; they may try to exert control, such as wanting to keep toys for themselves, because they have not been able to do this at home.

Some children may have to cope with other losses such as changing their nursery and childminder; moving to a different house which may mean they can’t see their friends and family as easily. 

Children aged 5-11 can also experience very strong emotions and feelings, especially if they have been parented in a nurturing way. They may feel abandoned and experience a sense of Extreme loss and rejection. They may feel anger. They may believe they can save the relationship between mum and dad.

Children of either gender may experience upset stomachs or headaches due to stress, or may make up symptoms in order to stay home from school.

Children aged 8-11 may also:

  • side with one parent
  • become withdrawn
  • start hitting out

Teenagers

  • More likely to take sides
  • May withdraw into self
  • May misbehave
  • May struggle to concentrate on schoolwork

Teenagers may also feel a sense of guilt or shame regarding the divorce or separation, exacerbated by a situation that they will likely have little or no control over. These strong emotions may be internalised by the young person and this could have an impact on their daily lives, including their emotional availability to engage within education. This level of detachment can be concerning and is something to consider when supporting this age group.

However, despite these commonalities, children and young people are unique individuals and will be affected by the separation/divorce of parents in different ways.

Some of the behaviours will be similar to those seen when a child has had another type of loss such as bereavement. Children and young people may experience the loss involved in separation and divorce in a similar way to the 5 stages of grief.

Resources:

https://www.mentallyhealthyschools.org.uk/risks-and-protective-factors/school-based-risk-factors/relationships-and-belonging/)

References:

Minded e-learning course on loss and grief www.minded.org.uk/

https://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2020/09/29/children-of-separated-parents-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/

https://www.teachearlyyears.com/a-unique-child/view/coping-with-divorce

https://study.com/blog/how-to-support-a-student-whose-parents-are-divorcing.html

https://nyulangone.org/news/divorce-co-parenting-covid-19-challenges-opportunities

The Teacher's Role in Facilitating a Child's Adjustment to Divorce - Patsy Skeen and Patrick C. McKenry https://www.jstor.org/stable/42642810?seq=8#metadata_info_tab_contents

https://www.parents.com/parenting/divorce/coping/age-by-age-guide-to-what-children-understand-about-divorce/

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