Dealing with the split

When young children’s parents separate, the impact on them
may not fit adult expectations. Amanda Wade describes her research
in which children talk about what helps them cope.

Any children now experience their parents’ separation or
divorce. Over time, most of them adjust to the changes that follow,
but before this happens they live through a period of disruption
over which they have no real control. We wanted to find out how
children deal with these family transitions and what sorts of
support they find helpful. We particularly wanted to hear from
younger children, as they have less access than adolescents to
outside help.

We carried out our research in four primary schools, choosing
these to reflect differences in class, religion, ethnic mix, and
urban and rural locations. One school was based in a rural market
town, another was an inner-city school with an ethnically diverse
profile, a third drew children from a predominantly white working
class estate on the outskirts of a large city, while a fourth was a
Jewish school with a strong sense of cohesion and religious

One of the first things which this approach revealed was the
enormous diversity of children’s experiences. We spoke to 234
children aged five to 10 years old in small focus groups, following
this up with individual interviews with 55 children (31 girls and
24 boys) who had first-hand experience of parental separation.
These focus group and individual interviews revealed that an overly
single-minded concentration on divorce as a major trauma in
children’s lives is something of an adult perspective. For
some children, especially those from more privileged backgrounds,
divorce might trigger major changes and create uncertainty in what
had previously appeared a stable life.

The children in these families were, nevertheless, more likely
to establish good contact arrangements with non-residential parents
and to feel fairly content once stability had been re-established.
But for children from different sorts of families divorce was not
necessarily the only, or the main, problem they faced.

For those whose parents had never or only briefly lived
together, or whose lives were full of violence, divorce could come
fairly low down on their list of concerns. Some were relieved when
a violent father left the home and their concerns would focus more
on the qualities of a new stepfather, or whether their mother would
begin to have more time for them (see comments by Chrissie,

Regardless of the children’s class background or the
structure of their family, they had many concerns in common. For
all of them, the most important thing was the quality of their
relationships with the significant adults in their lives. For some,
divorce or separation did not change this, either because their
non-residential parent’s commitment did not wane, or because
the quality of the relationship was so bad that it was not
diminished by absence. This does not mean that children are not
badly affected by a lack of love from one or both of their parents,
but that for some this lack of commitment pre-dates separation. The
children who expressed most distress about their parents’
separation were those who saw this as a prelude to the loss of
something they valued (see JJ’s comments, below).

For other children the problem of a decline in one
parent’s commitment might take the form of unreliable
contact, a lack of birthday presents, or a lack of concern about
the way contact arrangements affected the children’s
friendships and outside activities. Some children had higher
expectations than others, but it was clear that for those for whom
separation meant the loss of a valued relationship, it could be
hard to deal with the emotional toll.

The children we interviewed recognised that they were powerless
to alter their parents’ decisions. They could, however,
generate ways of dealing with what was happening. Even the youngest
tried to control their feelings, turning to toys or pets as a means
of cheering themselves up; going to bed so that they could wake up
feeling better; crying to express their feelings, or behaving
destructively to vent anger.

The most important ingredient in turning to others for help or
comfort was the issue of trust. In the main, children preferred to
look within their families for help. In terms of outside help,
schools were an important resource, not least because the school
day could provide children with a diversion from their worries.
However, they were cautious about confiding in class mates, fearing
this might lead to embarrassment or even taunting, while talking to
teachers was hard, in part because of the lack of privacy in
primary schools but also because children feared that teachers
might talk to their parents.

In general, schools were appreciated for indirect forms of help,
such as group discussions about ways of dealing with a range of
everyday dilemmas, which allowed the children to hear about and
propose ways of dealing with problems without revealing personal

Few of the children identified child care professionals as
significant sources of help. Practitioners are increasingly
encouraged to talk to children in order to discover their views on
decisions which affect them, but are often restricted by lack of
time. The children in our sample had little to say about
professionals with whom they had had only a brief contact (such as
court welfare officers) because over the space of only one or two
meetings they had no chance to develop trust. Those who had social
workers or counsellors they had grown to like were more positive.
They appreciated being able to ask them questions they felt unable
to put to their parents. But even these children could find it
stressful to be asked to confide upsetting feelings, and expressed
anxiety about pre-arranged meetings .

For these  children, “doing” was often more helpful
than talking. For many of them, concentrating on areas of their
lives which felt “normal” was what helped them through
the process of change. To be taken out, cheered up, or given sweets
or a cuddle, was what they looked for from family and friends. If
they needed outside help, practitioners who were friendly and
cheerful, and who did not press them to confide, were the most

Our study raises a number of questions about how young children
deal with family change. One of the most important findings is that
children do not necessarily want more chances to talk. This does
not mean children should not be allowed the possibility of
participating in decision-making, but that they should have choices
about engaging in such activities.

For those needing outside help, informal groups which promote
social learning and enable children to decide when, and in whom, to
confide, are one option.

“I never want to see him again”

Chrissie (aged 6): “I’ve always wanted [just] my mum
‘cos my dad, he never did anything for me. He used to get in
the bedroom, lock me out of the bedroom and never care and just hit
my mum. No matter how much I was screaming. I never want to see him
again and never because of what he’s done to my mum and

JJ (aged 9): “When my mum and dad split up it was a lot
more easier when Tammy [dad’s new partner] wasn’t
there. He [dad] took me out everywhere, took me to the seaside, got
to see his friends, it was really nice. I’m not saying I
don’t like Tammy but they keep splitting up, coming back
together, splitting up, coming back together. It’s been three
years and still new problems keep happening… and it’s going
to go worser than it is now, even though I don’t like it and
I’m nearly in tears. Because there’s a new baby coming
and think of it …It feels a lot more (sigh), how do I say it? Er,
lot more per cent that I won’t see him a lot.”

Amanda Wade is a senior research fellow at the
University of Leeds. Facing Family Change: Children’s
Circumstances, Strategies and Resources
by Amanda Wade and
Carol Smart is available from Joseph Rowntree

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