Family breakdown

Demographic and societal changes over recent decades have led to much greater diversity and complexity in family forms. Children today are more likely to experience parental separation, lone parenting, stepfamilies, half-siblings and new family structures.

Family breakdown is not a single event – but a process. Whether it affects children’s mental health, depends on the quality of parenting and the impact on either parent’s mental health, the extent of conflict that characterises the breakdown, and how much it affects the material circumstances of the family.

It will also depend on what other risks or strengths children have around them and how much they have been helped to develop resilience to withstand these risks.

The level of distress that a child experiences will also be influenced by their age, how much they understand about what has happened and the support they get from their parents, school staff, friends and family. When a family structure changes or breaks down a child may feel:

  • a great sense of shock, loss and rejection
  • anger
  • a strong desire to get parents back together
  • fearful about being left alone; if one parent leaves perhaps the other one will too
  • responsible – with feelings of guilt that they have done something wrong
  • torn between both parents
  • that they have to keep both parents happy by saying negative things about the other.

How to spot when a child is struggling

It is not unusual for children to show the following signs of distress after family breakdown. Children in this age group can have difficulty expressing their worries and tend to demonstrate them through their behaviour which can be hard to understand. Signs include: 

  • becoming withdrawn
  • regressing (or acting suddenly younger than their years) in some way – for example bed wetting, clinginess, baby talk
  • sleeplessness and nightmares
  • behavioural problems and anger
  • school refusal. 

Most signs of distress will settle as they come to terms with shifts in their family circumstances and if they are supported by school routines and warm parenting. However, where changes are long standing, children will benefit from additional help.

What schools can do

With the right support, children can recover from experiences of change or a breakdown in their family, especially if both parents are understanding, reassuring and responsive to their needs, and work hard to minimise ongoing conflict. When relationships have been of a good quality, ongoing contact with the absent parent remains important to a child’s healthy development – even if it is infrequent.

Schools are in a prime position to promote children’s resilience in the face of such challenges and offer continuity and support to children experiencing family change. There are several ways to help, with minimal time investment:

  • Creating an atmosphere that welcomes all types of families and encourages involvement of all adults who play an important role in the child's life. This celebration of diverse family groups can be expressed through books and PSHE resources.
  • Helping children develop resilience. Ensuring your school has programmes/PSHE activity in place to develop children’s social and emotional skills – with these protective skills being further developed across the curriculum.
  • Building a sense of belonging and positive relationships in the classroom/school – based on trust, safety and security, promoting pupil wellbeing and provide the protective benefit of a strong relationship with a healthy adult.
  • Noticing when a child is struggling and showing general concern and comfort.
  • Some children will need a little extra help, either through school pastoral care/counselling support, through referral to the school nurse or discussion with your SENCO lead. Where children’s wellbeing continues to deteriorate a referral to local community-based support may be required (e.g. community counselling, specialist CAMHS, voluntary sector and family support and children’s services).
  • Showing kindness and providing resources/signposting for a parent who may be under pressure. Focus on the strengths and assets in the family rather than the problems.

Related topics

Resources

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MindEd: families and their difficulties

MindEd is a free educational resource on children and young people's mental health for all adults.

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Children's books dealing with divorce

Children's books dealing with divorce

Range of children’s storybooks, some of which are focused on divorce and separation.

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Stephen's Story

Stephen's Story

A child’s perspective of their parents splitting up.

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Millie's Story

Millie's Story

A child’s perspective of their parents splitting up.

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Getting through a separation

Getting through a separation

Advice to help children get through parents’ separation.

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Separating: what about the children?

Separating: what about the children?

Video (13 mins) on the impact of family conflict, divorce and separation on children.

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  • New Zealand Ministry of Justice

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Divorce and separation

Divorce and separation

Information and leaflet for parents on supporting children after divorce/separation.

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How children cope with family breakdown

How children cope with family breakdown

Report on how primary-age children cope with family breakdown.

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  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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