Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tips on How to Help a Child Cope With Parental Separation

The specific example situation here is where there are two children in a family and the parents have separated. The kids are Jack a boy of 8 and Kate a girl of 5. Jack is acting up and Kate is copying Jack's behaviours. This advice is for the mother who is raising the kids. In particular it is geared towards helping Jack. The suggestions are generic and must be adapted depending on his personality and the particular issues that arise.

The overall aim is for the mother to help Jack manage his emotional turmoil.

This is best achieved by the following:

  • Giving him the language to express what is going on for him.
  • Allowing him to express it, in a constructive way.
  • Managing the spill over onto the other child.
  • Nurturing the continued development of his self esteem.

One of the first things to do is to  inform the school that the parents have separated. Ask his teacher to send a note home if he behaves in an inappropriate way. (This means that the mother can deal with it in a timely manner). However, it is not unusual for children at this stage to be well behaved in school and not at home.

Strategies to achieve the above aims:

Giving him the language to express what is going on for him:

Talk to him when the “iron is cold” when he is not acting out. He is more likely to take in what you say then, than in the middle of a row.

Use these types of statements:

“Jack I know you are angry that Mum and Dad are no longer together, however, we still love you and are always here for you”.

“Jack, I have the feeling that you are unhappy, is that true? How can I help you? “I want to make it better for you”.

“If you can tell me what is going on inside your head, then I can do my best to help you, however I can’t read your mind”.

“Just because Mum and Dad are not together it does not mean that we love you less”.

Allowing him to express what is going on for him in a constructive way:

 Use the following opening statements when he is angry:

“Jack I know you are annoyed and angry and it is alright to be angry. However, it is not alright to talk to me in that tone of voice”.

“Jack you have X amount of screen time however, if you shout again, I will take 10 minutes off that time”. Carry out the sanction if needs be.

“As you are angry at the moment, I can’t talk to you while you are behaving like this. When you calm down, we can talk then.

Here are some techniques to help him manage his anger:
  • Get him to count to ten a few times in his head, until he calms down.
  • Get him to go into a different room until he calms down.
  • Show him how to breathe deeply.
  • Say to him: you are angry now, it will pass in a few minutes and then we can talk. 

Managing the spill over onto the other kids:

Say things like

Jack I do not want you to do that as Kate is younger and she will copy you”.

“Kate it is not alright for you to throw your toys on the floor”. If you do that again you will have time out”.

Constantly reiterate to Kate that, although Mum and Dad are not together, they still love her as much as ever.

Nurturing his developing self esteem

Here are some techniques

  • Find out what he is he in to: sport, music, drawing, books etc. Check that whichever one of these he is doing, it is at the correct level of challenge for him. Also, that he is getting good enjoyment from it.
  • Do things with him on a one to one basis, such as going out for a walk, going for an ice cream or a trip to the library together.
  • Introduce a movie evening together with the other kids, once a week (if possible).
  • Have an awards evening. This is where, maybe on a Saturday evening the kids gets a special treat for any of the following:

  • - Being brave,

    - Making a right decision in a difficult situation,

    - Helping out a younger sibling

    - Etc.
These can be whatever you want them to be, but their purpose is to highlight the positive, down play the negative and overall highlight the child’s self efficacy.

Look for opportunities to affirm him as much as possible. Highlight how well he is doing in school, sport with his friends etc.


Ideally, all of the above suggestions should be practised by both parents. Be congruent, emphatic and try to keep communication open.

It is important to remember that this acting out stage will pass. He just needs new tools to help him move on to the next developmental stage.

Here are some other books and resources I would recommend.

Parenting When Separated by John Sharry. He also gives talks on parenting.

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