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Understanding your child's needs and behaviour

Most children do come to terms with their parents’ separation and adjust to changes in family life. But it can take months or even years. You and your child's other parent may discover different needs from your child at different times. When this happens, let each other know. You have a better chance of meeting your child's needs if you share your ideas.

Understanding your child's needs and behaviour

Your child’s needs will change as they adjust to your separation, so trying to understand their needs is going to be an ongoing process. This is true whether your child is very young, teenage or even grown up.

Trying to understand their needs will help your child feel secure and loved, listened to and understood. It will put them in a good position to benefit from the positive experiences that being a part of two homes can bring with it.

Tips to ease adjustment

Your child may benefit from the following suggestions when you separate, and for months and years afterwards:

  • Let them know how things will change for them as soon as you can. Explain changes in language your child will understand.
  • Think through questions your child may ask and how you can best answer them. If you talk to your child’s other parent about this it can prevent you contradicting each other.
  • As your child adjusts to two homes, help them know what’s acceptable and what isn’t in each household so they feel secure.
  • Listen to your child with your eyes as well as your ears. What are they “showing” you in their behaviours?
  • Keep routines and activities consistent, again to help your child feel secure.
  • Protect your child from hearing you speak badly of their other parent, or talking about details of your separation. You might consider asking your family to do this too.

Listening to your child

One of the best ways you can help support your children’s needs is by listening to them and being resilient enough to cope with their emotions. This will help show them that they can talk to you about how they’re feeling. Consider the list of emotions and behaviours below:

  • Anger
  • Upset/crying
  • Moody/withdrawn
  • Blaming
  • Resentment

Write down:

  1. How your children ‘show’ you these emotions in their words or behaviours
  2. How you’ve reacted when your child has expressed these in the past.
  3. What response you would find comforting or helpful if you felt the above emotions and behaviours?

What do you notice about your answers for 1, 2 and 3?

What would you change about how you respond to your children emotions and behaviours in the future?

Understanding your child’s behaviour

I left Helen’s mum three years ago when Helen was nine. It was a difficult split and it took us both a while to find our feet. Helen’s now starting adolescence and I find her more and more difficult to manage. She won’t listen to me, comes in late when she stays and now has started to lie about what her mum lets her do. It’s like she’s playing us off against one another.

Your child needs time to grieve the loss of you and their other parent being together. Sometimes this can take many years. You need to find ways to support them and help them cope with their emotions as they adjust at their own pace.

They may at different times feel upset, frustrated, rejected or angry. They may express this by crying, being silent or hitting out. These are just some examples though. Your child may feel a range of emotions and express them in many different ways in the weeks, months and years that follow your separation.

It’s important to remember that a change in feelings may always lie behind a change in behaviour. So you need to try to deal with the feelings, not just the behaviour.

Tips for managing change

If you notice changes in your child’s behaviour, or how they interact with others, the following may help you support your child:

  • Talk to your child’s childminder, nursery or school about what’s happening.
  • Talk to your child’s other parent and explore how you can work together to support them.
  • Allow your child’s social life with friends and family to continue at both houses.
  • Talk to your child about their feelings.
  • Keep to routines and be consistent with punishments and rewards. It can be tempting to let things slide if you’re feeling guilty, but this may confuse your child.
  • Try to remain calm and avoid showing extreme anger or upset. This may add to your child’s worry. If you need time out, just ask for it.
  • Continue to reassure your child that you love them and the separation isn’t their fault.

Understanding the feelings behind your child’s behaviour

It’s easy to see the behaviour that is worrying you, such as your child being argumentative, or easily upset. It’s not so easy to see what thoughts and feelings are behind this worrying behaviour. Your child may not understand their own behaviour either.

  • Think about the behaviour that is concerning you; what feelings does your child seem to be expressing?
  • Help your child to talk about this feeling, and make connections with their behaviour, by talking about your own feelings, eg “when I’m feeling angry I sometimes pace up and down until I feel better – what do you do?”
  • With your child, or as a family, write a feeling down in the middle of the page. Around this feeling write or draw different thing that can cause this feeling. It’s best if everyone contributes at least one suggestion. Eg sadness: when the cat died; when my friend moved school; when Dad moved out…
  • Encourage your children to talk about how they feel; don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to say a lot, but be ready to listen if they want to talk about it another time.

Children’s reactions at different ages

Your children may react in many ways to your separation. Their reactions will be unique to them, but the information below will give you some ideas of what to expect and how you can help your children adjust. 

Up to 1 year-old


  • Crying
  • Clinging
  • Being irritable

How to help:

  • Be consistent and patient with your child

2-5 years-old


  • Behaving younger than they are
  • Complaining of mysterious pains and being in distress
  • Being aggressive, defiant, argumentative, attention-seeking
  • Being clingy, possessive
  • Poor sleeping
  • Blaming themselves and worrying about being abandoned or sent away

How to help:

  • Try to make your child feel more secure by maintaining routines
  • If you’re the main carer, try not to be away for long periods
  • Reassure your child that the split is nothing to do with anything they’ve done and that both their parents still love them
  • Talk to their nursery or school

5-8 years-old


  • Feeling lost, rejected, guilty
  • Feeling disloyal to the parent they aren’t currently with
  • Behaving younger than they are
  • Crying
  • Being sensible and appearing to cope well
  • Thinking it’s their fault

How to help: 

  • Explain the reasons for any changes to your child’s life
  • Avoid being angry
  • Reassure them that they’re loved, it’s not their fault and that it’s OK to be upset
  • Talk to their school

9-12 years-old


  • Taking sides
  • Crying
  • Appearing to want to grow up too quickly or behaving like your parent, a replacement partner or another adult

How to help: 

  • Assure your child that you’ll continue to care and look after them
  • Be positive about the other parent
  • Avoid arguing in front of them
  • Encourage them to see friends
  • Talk to their school

13-18 years-old


  • Any of the previous reactions
  • Avoiding their own feelings
  • Showing contempt to you or their other parent
  • Acting too independently
  • Having discipline problems
  • Being compassionate, arrogant, idealistic, angry
  • Suffering from tiredness and having physical complaints
  • Give your child space to talk about their feelings

How to help: 

  • Don’t rely on them to give you emotional support
  • Allow friends to visit them at both homes

18+ years-old


  • Showing extreme attitudes in their own relationships
  • Losing confidence and distancing themselves

How to help: 

  • Be honest about what’s happened and provide hope for the future of their relationships
  • Just because it hasn’t worked for you, doesn’t mean their relationships will fail

Professional support for children

There are many things you can do to try to support your child in the weeks, months and years following separation. When parents work together to support children through all the changes of family separation children usually manage better. However, there may be times when you need extra help. You can find advice about counselling to support your child or young person with your separation from Relate.

If you’re worried and concerned that your separation is having a severe impact on your child’s mental health you could also have a look at Young Minds.

Content originally produced for What Next? The Parent’s Guide to Separation © Copyright DWP 2015

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