How does a break up affect a child?


In the aftermath of a family break up, children can face an array of emotional challenges and changes in behavior.

From immediate feelings of shock and confusion to potential shifts in academic and social behavior, this article unpacks the impact of a break up on a young person and the issues that parents should consider.


  • Parents should be aware of the steps they can take to minimise the impact of a separation on their children.
  • Children affected by a family break up can experience a range of emotions including surprise, anger, relief, sadness, confusion, shame, and guilt, which can lead to mental health issues if not addressed.
  • A child’s adjustment to a family break up can be facilitated by parents providing honest explanations, emotional support, regular communication, and maintaining involvement in the child’s life, as well as seeking professional (including legal) advice when necessary.
  • Supporting children through a break up requires acknowledging and addressing their feelings, reinforcing stable routines, facilitating open communication, encouraging creative expression, and seeking professional help when signs of severe emotional distress appear.

On Relationship break down

Experiencing a relationship breakdown can leave you feeling distressed and bewildered. It's all too easy to let feelings of resentment or remorse cloud your judgment.

Finding someone to converse with about your situation can be beneficial - someone who can offer empathy but also maintain objectivity. This could be a close friend, a family member, or even a professional mediator or solicitor.

You will need to agree on the following points:

  1. The schedule and location for your children's visits.
  2. The methods by which the non-residential parent can maintain contact between visits.
  3. The strategies you will employ to resolve any future disagreements without impacting your children.

Unfortunately, separating doesn't always signify the end of disagreements.

You might require assistance in resolving ongoing disputes arising from your relationship breakdown.

After setting your differences aside, you can focus on more practical matters like establishing routines and visitation schedules for your children.

It might be beneficial to seek help to conclude these disputes and effectively close the chapter on your relationship, allowing you to transition into co-parenting.

It's crucial to remember that regardless of your feelings towards the other parent (unless there are safeguarding concerns), your children have a right and a need to maintain a relationship with both parents.

For the sake of your children's self-esteem and confidence, they need to know that both parents care about them. If the father has left the home and you were married, he still retains parental responsibility.

This also applies if he is named as the father on the birth certificate, even for unmarried couples.

If the father was granted parental responsibility by the court, this does not dissolve upon separation. While it may be difficult to see at present, maintaining a relationship with both parents can be truly beneficial for the children and also eases the burden of parenting responsibilities on you.

A solicitor can assist you in navigating these complex issues, offering clear guidance where necessary. They can help resolve financial concerns that often influence how parties handle matters related to their children. Although these are separate matters, they can affect each other during a relationship breakdown.

An effective solicitor will advise you to adopt a non-confrontational approach when dealing with children-related matters. However, they should also be strong enough to litigate the matter if the children's best interests are not being considered by the other party, or if an agreement cannot be reached.

Child Arrangements and Family Court

Contact arrangements pertain to the child’s primary residence and the visitation schedule with the non-resident parent.

A Child Arrangement Order holds legal weight as it outlines these specifics for a child’s living arrangements and parental contact.

The process for determining the child’s living arrangements and visitation schedule may involve mediation or family court, with the involvement of a Cafcass officer to assess any risks to the children and facilitate agreement within the family.

The primary consideration when determining contact arrangements should always be the best interest of the child, rather than the preferences of the parents.

If parents encounter challenges in reaching an agreement on contact arrangements, they should consider legal advice from an experienced, impartial family solicitor. It is important to remember that the legal landscape can be complex and daunting, and it is crucial to seek professional advice when needed.

Understanding family mediation

Family mediation aims to assist parents in resolving conflicts outside of the court system. It involves the intervention of an impartial mediator to facilitate discussions and negotiations between the parties, with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable resolution on matters related to finances, assets, and children.

A mediator serves as an impartial and trained professional who assists parents in reaching an agreement and explains the legal implications of the agreement.

If mediation does not result in an agreement, parents may need to consider alternative dispute resolution methods or potentially pursue legal action. It is important to remember that mediation is not always successful, and in such cases, other avenues may need to be explored.

The impact of Court decisions on children

Court decisions can significantly impact a child’s mental health and well-being. Custody rulings can cause children to suffer from:

  • depression
  • adjustment disorders
  • anxiety
  • other adverse effects when they are exposed to parental mental health issues during custody battles

Court decisions can also lead to increased stress and anxiety, leading to changes in their behavior and emotions.

Joint physical arrangements may positively affect children’s mental health by enhancing their well-being.

The ripple effect of separation

When parents separate, children find themselves engulfed in a sea of  emotions. They experience a whirlwind of:

  • surprise
  • anger
  • relief
  • sadness
  • confusion

They might also grapple with feelings of shame and guilt, which if unaddressed, can lead to mental health problems. But it is not just the children who experience the emotional repercussions of a family break up. This emotional cyclone affects friends and extended family as well, but the eye of the storm is most turbulent for the children involved.

Children possess an uncanny sensitivity and perceptiveness towards their parents’ distress. They may suppress their own feelings, knowingly or unknowingly, to avoid adding to their parents’ discomfort. While this may seem like an act of maturity and understanding, it can lead to mental ill health if not addressed properly.

Recognising signs of distress in Young People

Children express their distress in various ways. Some children might regress in behaviors such as toileting, show increased bedwetting, and nightmares. They may exhibit increased aggression, difficulty sleeping, clinginess, and engage in risky behaviors with peers.

In addition to changes in behavior, academic performance could also take a hit. Poor academic results, resistance or refusal to attend school, or displaying avoidance behaviors by spending excessive time on homework could be indicators of distress.

Mood changes that may indicate distress include manifestations of:

  • grief
  • anger
  • sadness
  • confusion
  • anxiety
  • signs of depression
  • outward behavioral issues like conduct disorders and inclinations towards delinquent behavior

Navigating these mood changes can be particularly challenging for younger kids, as understanding a child’s feelings is not always easy.

The role of the absent parent

The absence of a parent in a child’s life can lead to adverse effects such as:

  • poorer mental well-being
  • decreased academic performance
  • feelings of loss
  • a disrupted sense of security and belonging

In such cases, it might be necessary to seek professional advice to support the child’s well-being. However, despite the challenges, an absent parent can still sustain a healthy relationship with their child following a breakup.

The absent parent can maintain a significant presence in the child’s life by:

  • offering emotional support
  • establishing a co-parenting plan
  • making the child’s well-being a priority
  • maintaining regular communication
  • offering stability

Determining appropriate times and methods for discussing matters with the children, refraining from conflict in their presence, and attentively addressing their needs can go a long way in ensuring the child doesn’t feel abandoned.

New family dynamics

Most children face a range of emotional and practical challenges when transitioning to a single-parent family.

However, it’s not all gloom and doom. With the right strategies in place, children can successfully adjust to life in a single-parent household.

To aid children in adjusting to single-parent households, parents can:

  • focus on strengthening the child’s relationship with both parents
  • foster positive behavior
  • maintain self-care
  • communicate with honesty
  • provide reassurance
  • maintain consistent routines
  • involve children in decisions
  • ensure they have a personal space in both homes.

Strategies for supporting children through a separation

Promoting open communication about emotions and seeking professional help when necessary are both great ways to support your child.

Open communication offers children a safe space to express their emotions, assisting them in navigating feelings of sorrow, frustration, and uncertainty.

Several effective strategies can be employed to foster open communication with children during a break up. These include:

  • keeping children out of the conflict and avoiding using them as pawns
  • helping children feel at home and as an integral member of the family unit
  • establishing clear rules, routines, and boundaries that provide structure
  • offering assurance and support to boost their security
  • being willing to discuss a range of emotions, including difficult ones like sadness, anger, and confusion in an open and non-judgmental way.

Seeking professional advice when needed

Legal disagreements may continue after you have separated from the other parent. Your solicitor should provide clear guidance on legal matters while also taking into consideration the best interests of the child.

Sometimes emotions may run high and disputes can arise that require professional assistance to resolve. In these instances, it is essential to seek support from a trained mediator or family therapist who can assist in facilitating healthy communication.

Professional help such as therapy or counseling might be necessary when the child is exhibiting signs of severe emotional distress.

Long-term effects on mental health

A break up can have profound long-term effects on a child’s mental health. The grieving process is a prolonged experience, characterised by feelings of fear and pain. It does not resolve quickly, nor within a few weeks, and is not complete at the time of the physical separation.

One such long-term effect is parental alienation, a serious situation in which a parent manipulates their child to turn against the other parent through:

  • negative comments
  • restrictions on contact
  • forbidding discussions
  • creating doubts about the other parent’s love
  • pressuring the child to reject the parent

This manipulation can have substantial effects on the child’s mental health.

To mitigate these long-term effects, parents must be aware of the potential behavioral changes in their children. Parents should:

  • refrain from asking their child to take sides, act as a confidante, or be a go-between, as these actions can worsen behavioral issues
  • offer love, understanding, and effective discipline
  • initiate conversations about their child’s emotions and conduct
  • establish clear boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behavior
  • collaborate to identify constructive methods for managing feelings of anger

It is also important for parents to be able to distinguish between normal behavioral changes and severe emotional distress in their child, such as increased stress and anxiety.

Maintaining routines and stability

Maintaining routines provides a sense of security to children, fostering a safe environment, reducing anxiety and aiding their adjustment to the changes. Key routines that offer stability for children amidst a family separation may include:

  • maintaining consistent schedules for meal times
  • maintaining consistent schedules for bedtimes
  • implementing a biweekly schedule with to divide time between parents

The disruption of routines due to a family break up can result in children experiencing loss of family traditions, celebrations, and daily routines. This can lead to an increased risk of adjustment problems, depression, anxiety, and negative effects on mental health and academic performance.

It is important for parents to make every effort possible to uphold the child’s routines and provide stability.



The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for general information purposes only. The contents are copyright of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams LLP. All rights reserved.