Supporting children through a family breakdown

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The Office for National Statistics states that there are 4.8 million families who fall under the category of married or civil partner couples with dependent children. Recent statistics also show that 42% of marriages end in divorce. This means that over 2 million children a year are likely to experience a family breakdown. What’s not factored into this quantity is the relationship deterioration of unmarried couples, meaning the true number of children affected by a family breakdown likely to be much higher.   

How seriously a child is affected by a parental break-up can depend on several factors such as the child’s age, their understanding of the situation and what support they receive.

Many parents may feel that, especially if their child is very young, that they cannot understand what’s happening during a break-up. However, there’s no doubt that children are sensitive to emotional changes around them. At night-time, they may even have heard their parents arguing downstairs and come onto the landing to listen without the parents realising.

Seeing the child’s perspective

Pre-school children feel very vulnerable at the potential or actual loss of an important person in their lives. This can be exacerbated if they recognise the loss of a parent but they’re unable to understand what’s happening. This may lead to a fear of abandonment by both parents.

Added to this, pre-schoolers often see themselves as architects of their world and, because of this egocentricity, may blame themselves for their parents splitting up. Very young children need reassurance that they are not to blame for the break-up and that there was nothing they could have done to stop it.

Children tend to be emotional barometers and childcare practitioners can often pick up on differences in their behaviour whilst this difficult situation unfolds at home. Some of the key emotions and behaviours a child may experience during a family breakdown are:

  • A fear of being left alone
  • Distress and sadness
  • Regression in their behaviours such as bedwetting or clinginess
  • Anxiety which can present as digestive problems e.g stomach ache
  • A sense of loss
  • Guilt/blaming themselves for having caused the break-up
  • A sense of abandonment, rejection or insecurity
  • A hope that their parents will reconcile their relationship

Some of these behaviours may be made worse by changes in the child’s living arrangements, such as moving home. Often, children’s lives are rocked by a parental split and the only consistency in their lives may be the care provided by a childcare setting.

The practitioner’s role

Parents tend to see early years practitioners as impartial, in that they only want what’s best for the child. This places them in an ideal position to talk to parents when they notice a change in the child’s behaviour. Practitioners can support a child much better if they know the full extent of the situation and how this may affect the child.  

Tips for supporting children and their parents through a family breakdown:

  • Get the most up-to-date information on the situation and check with parents about what the child already knows
  • Sit down with the setting manager and the child’s parents (jointly or separately) to ascertain the best way to support the child together
  • Advise parents to give honest, simple answers to their children
  • Make use of resources or books which can be read with the child, exploring the theme of family breakdown or divorce in a sensitive way.
  • Use books to look at different types of families, reassuring the children that every family is unique. You could have a board displaying each of the children with their individual families.
  • Signpost parents to outside support and advice agencies, if necessary
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