Parental Separation and Divorce- How can we best support children at the centre?

Parental Separation and Divorce – How Can We Best Support Children at the Centre?

Safeguarding Adviser Lucie Welch discusses the impact parental separation and divorce can have on children, and what can be done in our settings to support them.

Official statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions estimated that in March 2020 there were 2.4 million separated families in Great Britain including 3.6 million children in separated families.

This will include a large proportion of children in your setting and although every situation is personal and every child will cope in a different way, we need to be prepared for this to both help the child in the moment and minimise, where possible, any long-term impact.

Unfortunately, parental separation and divorce are a part of everyday life and something that many of us will go through.

Parental Separation

There are a whole host of reasons why parents might separate or go through a divorce, and it’s important to remember that every situation is unique.

Some of the most common reasons include:

  • Problems within the relationship such as arguing and conflict, lack of communication, infidelity or becoming a toxic environment.
  • External factors including financial difficulties, mental health issues, substance abuse or domestic abuse.
  • Or just growing apart over time.

Every couple will manage a separation differently and there will be a different outcome for all.

Amicable separations: In these situations, parents remain ‘friendly’ and work well together on their co-parenting journey. There are minimal arguments or cross words, and the child’s feelings are often considered.

Civil separations: Some parents will not be friendly but can be civil with one another. This allows for a more respectful situation and whilst parents might not obviously get along, they do not argue or fight in front of the children.

One parent abandonment: In this situation, one parent leaves not only the family home but the family unit. They may have minimal contact with the child and there may be animosity between the parents due to this.

Volatile separation: These relationships tend to be aggressive or abusive, parents make their feelings for one another clear through arguing or fighting – often in front of the child. These parents may not be able to co-parent well, and communication may be really poor.

Separations putting the child in the middle: Some separations include parents who ‘play’ a child off against the other. This can include making the child feel guilty or having to choose between their parents. These children may know too much about a situation or be relied on heavily by one or both parents.

Whatever the situation, it is essential for us to remember that children are never to blame for their parents’ separation and that no matter how amicable or friendly – it will still likely have an impact on the child.

How does parental separation impact children?

A child whose parents have separated or divorced, may feel:

  • A sense of loss or bereavement.
  • Fearful about being left alone.
  • Angry at one or both parents for the relationship breakdown.
  • Worried about having caused the parental separation.
  • Rejected and insecure.
  • Torn between both parents.

These feelings are often made worse by the fact that children may have to move home or travel between two homes and many families in this situation come under some financial strain, even if they did not have money worries before.

Even if the parental relationship had been very tense or violent, children may still have mixed feelings about the separation. Many children hold onto a wish that their parents may get back together.

Children going through parental separation will handle it in different ways and it will totally depend on the circumstances surrounding the breakup.

Some children may carry on their day-to-day life with minimal impact, whereas for others you may see:

  • Changes in behaviour or demeanour.
  • A negative impact on self-esteem and self-worth.
  • Difficulties within friendships and relationships.
  • Struggling to focus on learning or concentrate on work.
  • Difficulties managing emotions, including outbursts.
  • Physiological signs such as head/stomach aches, tiredness, sleep issues etc.
  • How can we best support children?

Separation can involve tension or upset between parents and within the family as a whole. Children are very perceptive and even when parents aim to hide these difficulties children become confused or unhappy – or even blame themselves for a break-up.

To support children during a separation and help them with their worries, you should: 

  • Let them share their experiences, worries or fears.
  • Reassure the child that they are not responsible for the breakup or for the feelings of their parents.
  • Identify key, trusted adults that they can talk to and explain that it’s okay to be sad, confused or angry.
  • Help the child to feel included in school, working on resilience and self-esteem.
  • Use stories and books (where age appropriate) to help children understand the situation and manage their emotions.

Supporting parents and signposting:

Schools are not counsellors or therapists and therefore have to maintain boundaries when dealing with families going through separation.

We need to ensure we are focusing on the best interests of the child and where appropriate sharing their voice or feelings, if they feel unable to do so themselves.

When working with parents, we need to remember to: 

  • Always approach from a place of no-judgement.
  • Stay neutral – do not get embroiled in ‘he said’- ‘she said’.
  • Keep the child at the heart of all conversations.
  • Signpost parents to external support.
    Ensure both parents are treated fairly.
  • Follow safeguarding procedures where necessary.
  • Remember your boundaries.

There are lots of charities out there that offer support and advice to parents, and it is beneficial to share these regularly on your newsletter or website and point parents in this direction should they need further help or information. Some organisations to share include Relate, Gingerbread, Voices in the Middle, Family Lives or The Spark.


We have no control over the home lives of the children in our care, so our focus should be on being a place of support and safety to help them deal with whatever they are going through.

We also need to make sure that we, as professionals, ask for help or report concerns where needed, in line with your setting’s safeguarding policy.

We cannot make everything better but can provide children with strategies to get through this tough time with minimal life-long impact.

Should you want staff training on working with parents or an Audit of your safeguarding provision, please contact our Safeguarding team on

About the Author

Lucie WelchLucie Welch – Adviser, Services For Education

Lucie Welch has worked in the field of Primary Education for the last 15 years, holding the positions of Assistant Head of School, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Attendance Lead and Designated Teacher for Looked After Children. Through working across several local authorities and within multi-academy trusts, Lucie has garnered a passion for safeguarding and supporting children and young people to enable them to thrive.

At Services For Education, Lucie is an integral part of the Safeguarding team, sharing her expertise with schools, colleges, trusts, and other educational settings across the city of Birmingham and beyond. Dedicated to improving safeguarding practices in an actionable and impactful way, Lucie works closely with settings to provide bespoke training, supports with reflection on their own practices during Safeguarding audits and always strives to contribute to a better learning environment for all children. Through delivery of statutory training for DSLs and Safer Recruitment, Lucie works with colleagues in all age ranges and is a source of expertise within these areas.

Lucie also wears other important hats within the School Support Team. Not only is she dedicated to ensuring the safety and well-being of students through her role in safeguarding, but she also plays a key part in the PSHE/RSE and Health for Life teams. Additionally, Lucie partners with the Best Practice Network to deliver the Early Career Framework, supporting new teachers in their professional development.


Our expert advisers can provide in-school visits to deliver sessions on any specific safeguarding issues that are relevant to your setting. We also offer consultancy and a detailed safeguarding audit. We will work with you to understand your exact requirements.

Get in touch with us today if you’d like to discuss bespoke Safeguarding training for your school.

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