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Children’s reactions to separation and divorce

Children, like parents, are different and experience separations in different ways. For some children, it’s a gust of wind because they’re too young to understand or are carefree souls who don’t worry needlessly. There are also children who have an unyielding trust that you parents will sort everything out and therefore adapt to their new homes without the slightest hitch. For others, it’s a life crisis that they need a lot of time and support to get through. You probably have a good sense of how it will be for your child and what reactions might come.

It’s normal and healthy for a child to react to changes, but it still hurts us parents. When the child fidgets around with wrinkled eyebrows, breaks down for nothing, or looks at us with sad eyes, it becomes clear that the divorce has exposed them to something difficult. In addition, during the separation, we ourselves have worse ability to respond to our child – we are in flux and at the same time have to solve a lot of practical things. Then it is important to remember that the child is reacting to the change and that the reactions will fade when we have got a hold on life. And the separation should actually lead to everyone in the family feeling better. So when the child reacts, we need to help it and give hope that everything will get better.

It can take a long time for children to understand

Sometimes we child psychologists say that children react “striped”. That means their reactions come in waves and that in between is just like normal. Maybe it has to do with children’s enviable ability to be present in the moment. Maybe they don’t even experience the separation as particularly difficult. They react instead when they realize that both of you will not be at the school graduation, or that the annual family trips to the favorite place will no longer take place.

Children’s reactions can occur in connection with different consequences of the divorce and it is common for them to vary over time. Some have periods when they grieve over their parents being divorced and fantasize about them getting back together again. For a child to understand from a new level of development, a parent must try to be patient and retell why the parents separated and why they will not become a “real” family again.

Children who don’t react

Many parents with children in joint custody describe that the child has reacted less than they had feared. This can of course be related to the child’s personality, but also with the fact that the parents have arranged the situation in a way that has spared the child. Even in such cases, it is of course important to check regularly how the child seems to be doing, just as you do when you live together as parents.

As a parent, you can still worry that a child is going around holding something back that they’re not showing. The risk that the child will keep their feelings to themselves decreases if you have an ongoing conversation about the divorce and an open atmosphere where you talk and show what you feel. You can also try saying what you perceive and see if the child response: “I think you seem pretty happy and are like usual even though we’ve divorced …” I don’t recommend pushing or pocking for children to “open up”. There are those who don’t react at all, or who react much later. It doesn’t suit everyone to talk. If you press those who don’t want to or don’t need to talk, it can instead make them wonder if they’re feeling “wrong”.


Children can express their feelings and vent them in different ways. For some, it works to talk to an adult. You can also distract yourself by playing a lot, moving around so that the feelings come out physically, or talking to friends. No one way is better than another – the important thing is to find a way that suits you.

Everything isn’t about the divorce

As parents, we often feel guilty about our separation and interpret all reactions as being related to that. That attitude can be good because it makes us open to our children sharing their feelings, but it can also lead to us over-interpreting or misunderstanding our children. Children’s development is comprehensive and they go through different phases regardless of how we live.


  • Children, just like their parents, are different and handle separations in different ways.
  • When children react, they need support and hope that things will get better.
  • Children often react “striped”, which means that the reactions can come in spells and that everything is normal in between spells.
  • The risk of children holding thoughts and feelings inside themselves decreases if they have an ongoing conversation about what is happening in life and how they feel.
  • Sometimes parents misunderstand children’s reactions – not everything has to be about the separation!

Malin Bergström
Child psychologist