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Child anxiety in divorce and separation

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

Divorce and separation can bring change and uncertainty, along with a whirl wind of emotions from denial and anger, guilt and rejection, sadness and eventually acceptance. It is one of the most stressful life events an adult can experience.

Imagine then what a child might experience in the lead up to the separation, and what follows thereafter.

Some children are more resilient to this change and rebound faster than others. However, those that struggle are more likely to have issues with their mental wellbeing in the future.

When faced with heightened anxiety, we do our best to keep ourselves safe. This might take the form of avoidance and withdrawing, or the opposite, becoming restless and energised.

If you are a parent going through a divorce or separation, you might notice your child:

· Having trouble relaxing.

· Worrying a lot about different things.

· Seeming more nervous, anxious or on edge.

· Noticing that they are more restless than usual.

· More irritable and argumentative.

· Trouble sleeping and experiencing nightmares.

· Withdrawing from and losing interest in activities they used to enjoy.

· Troubles at school and with friendships.

How you can help today

As a parent, you are in a unique position to provide support for your child in overcoming their anxiety.

· Understanding and managing your own emotions: You are a role model for your child, they will look to you to see how you manage your emotions. What has helped you, or someone you know, when an emotion is overwhelming? Rather than getting swept up in that emotional storm, becoming more aware of your own emotions and learning strategies to manage helps you to ride that storm so you are more able to support those around you.

· Listening and validating: Encourage your child to share with you their own story of worry thoughts. Their worries may seem irrational but to them it would seem very real, and very scary – “What if my mum/dad doesn’t love me anymore.” “What if it was my fault.” “Will I need to leave my toys behind?” “Will I need to change schools and leave my friends behind?” By listening to their story, you will be able to better understand the worry, and they will be comforted that you have just listened. Comments like “Don’t worry” and “It’s not that bad” or “You’ll be fine” can dismiss what your child is feeling and gives them little space to explore. Instead, naming emotions helps your child identify what is it they are feeling. It confirms that their experience and emotions are valid and normal. You can further reinforce and reassure by saying something like “Many children feel scared/ angry/ sad when parents separate/ divorce.”

· Problem solving: Listing all possible solutions together, even the silly ones, helps to look at the bigger picture and what options there are. It enables you to choose a realistic and achievable solution and have a go. You can share plans with them on where they will live, how often they might see the other parent. If you don’t have those details then you can say “We don’t know yet but when we do have a plan we can talk it through.” Planning and making small steps forward can build their confidence, especially if you can recognise small achievements. Finding ways to increase their independence will also empower them, build their resilience and sense of self.

What is Parent-led CBT?

· Parent-led CBT is an opportunity to work with a therapist to explore what maintains your child’s fear and anxiety. Strategies and tools can then be introduced to break that negative cycle.

· The process of working with a therapist supports you in helping your child understand and manage their worries and fears. As a parent you are able to continue the work after therapy has finished, implementing the tools to maintain progress, and manage any potential future setbacks.

If you would like to know more about Parent-led CBT, you can contact me either by using the form on my homepage, or email me at


· My Instagram page @amy.langshaw – watch out for dates of my free workshops

· ‘The huge bag of worries’ by Virginia Ironside

· ‘Mindfulness for Children’ by Camelia Gherib

· ‘The kids guide to staying awesome and in control’ by Luren Brukner

· ‘Starving the anxiety gremlin’ (for ages 5-9) by Kate Collins-Donnelly

· ‘No Worries’ activity book by Dr Sharie Coombes

· ‘Find your calm’ by Dr Katie O’Connell and Lisa Regan

· Out of the Box Fun – Guide and activities about emotions

· CAFCASS website

· – free divorce clinic every Tuesday afternoon 2-6pm, call or email for an appointment

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