Relationship Breakdown: How do Children Feel?

Separation and divorce may refer to the process affecting the couple involved. But we must always be aware of how children fare through the separation process. There is one key question to ask here. How can we do things differently to protect them as much as possible from the negative effects of marital breakdown?

Three of the key factors which affect children psychologically when their parents’ relationship breaks down are:

  1. the exposure to conflict
  2. contact with the other parent after divorce or separation
  3. contact with their extended family – including grandparents.

Research has shown that the most commonly expressed feelings of children in this situation are:

  • Sadness
  • Worry about parents
  • Worry about the future
  • Confusion
  • Loneliness
  • Anger
  • Embarrassment
  • Fear of loss

So, what effect does all this have? Loss of contact with the other parent can lead to acute anxiety and fear of similar loss of the remaining parent. Exposure to high conflict is associated with poorer outcomes.

Exposure to violent relationships, involving verbal, psychological and physical abuse directed at either a parent or child has longer lasting effects.

In particular, the denigrating of one parent by the other, the expression of rage towards a former spouse and asking children to carry hostile messages – all create intolerable stress and loyalty conflicts in children.

High anger marital conflict can create aggression and difficult behaviours, while continuing hostilities after separation place children at even higher risk of psychosocial problems. If separation occurs at a critical stage of childhood e.g. where educational choices are being made, the effects can be more long term

Post Separation contact is still a key area of ongoing research, but findings to date indicate that the better the relationship between parents after separation or divorce, then the better children fare. And this comes back again to the process of separation – using a mediation or collaborative law approach, as opposed to relying solely on the adversarial courts system, make all the difference here.

The absolute essential requirement is to place the children at the top of the separation agenda.

If you need advice or support on any of the issues raised above, please call Alan Finnerty on 01 637 6200. Or you can email him at

Find out more here about mediation in separation and divorce and collaborative family law.

* In contentious business, a solicitor may not calculate fees or other charges as a percentage or proportion of any award or settlement.

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