Family Court of Western Australia

Emotional impact of proceedings

Adjusting to separation is a process and people rarely feel the same emotions at the same time.

It is normal for your feelings and moods to change frequently as you move through this process.

People have different rates of adjustment and if you hold on to unhelpful feelings for too long you may need to seek expert help from a counsellor or psychologist. You can visit Family Relationships Online for information on support services.

Feelings you may experience can include denial, disbelief, a sense of loss, grief, shock, anger, guilt, confusion, sadness or a sense of failure. It is important to remember these are all normal mood changes.

Your reactions may be different to the other party, depending on issues such as whether you instigated the separation, or if you have had to move out of your home. Managing your reactions helps children cope with the separation. Children tend to pick up on their parents’ emotional states, either directly or indirectly. It is important to remember they are also experiencing their own loss and grief and trying to make sense of their world as it changes.

Children and separation

The Family Court of Australia website has information about children and separation. Children aged between birth and 5 are also affected by parental separation and you may notice some of the following behaviours in your child or children:

  • Infants may experience changes in their eating and sleeping habits, become distressed if they are separated from their primary carer and be more fearful or anxious. For example, a baby who has been sleeping through the night may become difficult to settle and get off to sleep and may wake several times during the night.
  • Toddlers may become clingy, cry, throw tantrums, sulk or have problems with eating, sleeping or toileting habits. For example, a child may revert to wetting his or her pants after being toilet trained for months.
  • Preschoolers and older children may feel a sense of loss and they may fantasise that their parents will get back together. They can worry about what is going to happen to them, blame themselves for the separation or behave in an inappropriate manner towards the parent they blame for the separation. They may become depressed, show anxiety, and misbehave.
  • School age children also may show signs of social and learning difficulties or have a range of physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, and feeling sick or have problems sleeping.
  • Teenagers may become sullen, withdrawn, depressed, anxious and uncommunicative.

You can help children of all ages in the following ways:

  • Protect your child or children from the conflict between the adults. Parental conflict is one of the critical factors that affects children’s adjustment after separation. Take responsibility for how you communicate with the other party and work out a plan how to do that.
  • Recognise and focus on your child or children’s emotional needs. Be willing to listen to them and find outside support if they are not coping, for example the school psychologist or a children’s counsellor.
  • Reassure your child or children that both parents love them.
  • Explain that they are not to blame for the separation. With the absence of information a child or children will develop their own version of events which may not be correct or helpful.
  • Parent cooperatively with the other party and learn to recognise when the child or children get caught in the middle so they do not have to struggle with divided loyalties.
  • Respect the other party’s different rules and different ways of doing things. Just because it is not your way does not mean it is the wrong way.
  • Family violence can include behaviours such as physical, sexual, verbal and psychological abuse, controlling finances, socially isolating a person from family and friends, threatening to harm self or others, destroying property or harming pets.
  • Family violence occurs when one party feels the need to have power and control over the other party. When that control is threatened by the other party leaving the relationship, the risk of violence increases. Many domestic homicides occur around the time of separation.
  • Social isolation, emotional abuse and physical assaults can have long-lasting effects for all family members, including children.

Children who witness family violence may:

  • Develop stress related illnesses, with symptoms ranging from an upset stomach or headaches, through to post traumatic stress disorder.
  • Copy the violent behaviour they witness, both as a child and an adult.
  • Try to protect an adult victim and be harmed themselves.
  • Develop relationship difficulties with others, such as finding it difficult to make friends at school or entering into healthy couple relationships when they are older.
  • Lose their confidence, become afraid and angry or blame themselves for the violence.
  • Take responsibility for keeping the peace by telling each parent what they think they want to hear, and
  • Find it difficult to manage their distress when they hear negative talk or ongoing denigration of the other parent and that parent’s friends and extended family.

For more advice on dealing with the emotional impact of changing family situations, visit the Family Court of Australia’s page Getting Help.

Last updated: 16-Apr-2018

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