Family problems

Changes in family circumstances or structure can impact children in ways that they may not initially be aware of.

Now more than ever, children will grow up in families who don't necessarily fit the mould. Children may notice that their family set up is different to that of their friends. This could be for many reasons such as growing up in a single-parent family or in care, having a stepfamily, or caring for a parent with a mental health problem.

Impact on children’s mental health

Children can react in very different ways to changes within a family set up. For some children, changes can bring relief if there are things going on at home which have caused distress. For other children, these changes can bring feelings of anger, sadness, withdrawal and even shame as they try and make sense of their feelings.

The age of the child will also influence how well they understand what has happened and how distressed they may feel.

When the structure of a family changes children may feel:

  • 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.

Within the home environment, children can also be exposed to many other stresses that will affect their everyday life. They may, for example, experience neglect, abuse, violence, poverty, witness domestic abuse, see parents or siblings go in and out of prison, among other things.

The NSPCC reports that in the five years between 2009/10 to 2015/16 in the UK, there was:

  • 18% increase in children becoming looked after due to abuse or neglect
  • 39% increase in the number of children needing a child protection plan

Spotting the signs

When a child’s family situation changes, there are a number of ways that a child may react that could suggest they are struggling or not coping with changes at home. These signs could also suggest that other things are going on at home which are causing them distress. School staff should watch out for the following signs:

  • becoming withdrawn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.

Some children may benefit from additional help if they continue to show signs of distress – this may include one-to-one or group-based counselling, nurture groups, or working with parents and carers to come up with strategies to help the child cope and provide them with the support they need.

What can schools do

Schools and teachers can play a vital role in providing continuity, especially during periods of change. It’s important for children to feel that they belong and are comfortable in the classroom.

With the right support, children can learn to cope and adapt to changes in their family and recover from any distress experienced. This is especially the case if parents and carers are reassuring and responsive to their needs.

If the relationship between the child and their parents has been positive, then ongoing contact with the absent parent is important for the child’s development, even if this is infrequent.

Schools can help to strengthen children’s resilience and support them during these challenging times by focusing on the following:

  • creating an atmosphere that welcomes all types of families and encourages involvement of adults who play an important role in the child's life. This includes having a variety of books and PSHE resources that celebrate diverse family groups
  • helping children to develop resilience through teaching them social and emotional skills. This can be during PSHE and broader curriculum lessons, assemblies, through whole-school programmes, circle time or children’s books focusing on aspects of mental health and wellbeing.
  • building a sense of belonging and positive relationships in the classroom and school, which is based on trust, safety and security, and promoting pupil wellbeing.
  • teachers promoting warmth, acceptance and understanding, and showing the benefit of a healthy relationship with an adult
  • school staff noticing when a child is struggling and putting the best support in place, and if necessary, referring any concerns on to the designated safeguarding lead. Some children may benefit from seeing the school nurse or accessing one-to-one or group-based counselling. Schools can also contact local community-based support groups including community counselling, specialist CAMHS, voluntary sector and family support and children’s services
  • working in partnership with parents and carers to find the best strategy for supporting the child. Being aware that parents and carers may also be under pressure and providing signposting to appropriate support. Staff can also help parent engagement through greeting parents in the playground and providing an open-door policy.

Resources

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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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Impact of adverse childhood experiences

Impact of adverse childhood experiences

A range of videos explaining adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their impact on children.

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Ariana's story: being a bully

Ariana's story: being a bully

This animation explores why being undervalued at home drove Ariana to carry out bullying behaviour...

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Tips for supporting children affected by divorce

Tips for supporting children affected by divorce

A US site providing brief tips for teachers to support children affected by divorce.

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  • Teachnology

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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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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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