This page will cover:
- What can affect a young person’s experience of parental separation?
- What can be difficult for young people when parents break up?
- Tips for supporting a young person through parental separation
- What you can do as a separating or divorced parent
- Protecting your young person from conflict between you and the other separated parent
- How to talk with your young person about the divorce or separation
- Looking after yourself while dealing with divorce or separation
- Other resources and support
This article focuses on separation and divorce due to relationship breakdown between the parents or primary carers of young people. It might also offer some tips for families separated for other reasons (moving to another region or country, war, natural disasters, family violence or abuse in the family).
Families are diverse and can include Elders, kin, mentors and other community members as well as parents, caregivers, siblings and partners. Young people might be affected by the separation of caring figures who are not their biological parents.
The young person’s age and stage of development
Adolescence is a time of physical and emotional change, and for learning about the world around us and finding our place in it. When big changes are happening in the family at this time, it can feel like a lot to manage for a young person. They might feel guilty about looking ‘outward’ and focusing on their own lives when family members are going through a difficult time.
The younger the person, the more likely they are to depend on their parents and carers in day-to-day life. Their routines, activities, habits and social life might be affected when their parents move apart. Older children might be more independent, making it easier for them to keep to their routines and stay connected with friends and activities. They might feel a big responsibility to look out for younger siblings or even one or both parents, and parents might be more inclined ‘lean’ on these young adults for their own support.
Connection to friends, family, school, workplace and community
Whatever the age of your young person, their relationships with parents, siblings, extended family, community and friends are important to their wellbeing. Their experience of the separation can be affected by whether or not they can stay connected to their school or place of study, work, sporting clubs and the activities they enjoy.
What else is happening in their lives
Conflict between separated or divorced parents, moving house or not having a house to move to at all, financial difficulties, health issues and losing a job can all place extra stress on young people and their families already adjusting to parental separation. Stepparents and stepsiblings joining the family can bring both benefits and new challenges.
Identity and culture
Dealing with separation can be more challenging for young people when they face prejudice and discrimination in their day-to-day life.
As discrimination against LGBTIQA+ people is ongoing, and legal recognition of same sex marriage is only recent in Australia, young people with separating LGBTIQA+ parents are less likely to know people in similar situations to theirs. They might find others around them don’t understand how significant the breakup is. They might feel misunderstood, isolated and different to their peers.
LGBTQI+ young people’s experience of parental separation will be affected by how well they can stay connected with the people they love and trust, including chosen family and community.
First Nations communities
The effects of forced separation of First Nations families are still being felt. Child protection services are much more likely to be involved in the separations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families than for non-Aboriginal families. In some parts of Australia, Aboriginal families are more mobile, and children are more likely to grow up in a number of different homes.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people, cultural identity and connection to country are central to wellbeing. Ways of supporting these connections after separation might vary depending on whether one or both parental figures are Aboriginal and from the same nation or cultural group. In First Nations communities, it is not unusual for both parents to keep in close contact with each other after separating, which can affect the experience of the young person.
In some cultures and religions, separation and divorce might be something to be ashamed of, avoided or not allowed. Some young people from multicultural backgrounds might feel pressure to hide parental conflict, separation and divorce, for fear of what the wider family and community might think. They might feel alone and unsupported at this time. Depending on birth order and the gender of the young person, they might take on more responsibilities in the family after their parents separate.
No matter how well supported a young person is, parental separation is likely to be a big change in their life. Young people can have a range of strong feelings about it. They might feel relieved, uncertain, afraid, embarrassed or ashamed. They might be angry, blaming, sad or hopeful that their parents will get back together. Some young people feel guilty about the separation. They might believe it is their fault their parents are arguing or unhappy together. Some can feel pressured to ‘take sides’ with one parent.
A young person might also worry about how other people in the family (e.g., one or both parents, or siblings) will cope. Their role in the family might change, for example, to look after younger siblings. It is likely that daily routines will be disrupted, and they might be afraid of being cut off from the people, places and activities that are important to them.
Parental separation is not in itself a bad thing for young people, and how it is managed can make a big difference. Young people have a better experience when they are cushioned from conflict that might be going on between separating parents. As long as it is safe to do so, fostering the relationship between the young person and each of their parents will help. Staying connected to other important people in their lives, as well as opportunities to make new connections, will also make a difference.
- Ask the young person what they need. ‘Support’ might look different from young person to young person, family to family, and who is doing the supporting
- Be a listening ear - you don’t have to ‘fix it’, or find solutions
- Acknowledge how the young person feels and respect their feelings and concerns. There is no right way for a young person to respond to the separation of their parents
- Take care not to involve the young person in problems that are the responsibility of parents or other adults to manage
- Do fun things together or share a laugh
- Use a Social and Emotional Wellbeing approach like Take a Step to support a young Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person through separation in the family
If you are a parent going through separation or divorce, you are not alone. There were around 56,000 divorces in Australia in 2021, and many of these couples have children aged 12-25. Some separations occur with little or no conflict, while others involve high levels of conflict and/or abuse or family violence. Some need to be heard in the Family Court, Criminal Court or both. Court processes can take a long time and there can be legal requirements to maintain silence about criminal matters, making it harder to get much needed support. See below for support with family violence and family law issues.
If you are a separating or divorcing parent, here are some ideas for what you can do to help your young person.
Let your young person know you love them. Reassure them that the separation is not their fault. Even if you feel the other parent has behaved badly, respect that your young person might still feel love for them. Understand that your young person might be angry or blame you for what they are going through. Although this can feel unfair, try not to take it to heart. Don’t over-react or try to justify yourself. Be patient with your young person as they adjust. You will be adjusting too, and are likely to have your strong feelings at this time, such as anger, relief, sadness, worry or fear. Look for your own supports rather than relying on your young person for emotional support.
Take responsibility for making changes to meet your young person’s needs. This lets your young person know you have heard their concerns and are prepared to do what you can to help. Explore with your young person what ‘home’ means to them and how you might create this environment together. It is usually more about belonging and feeling comfortable than the physical house or apartment itself.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander young people, develop a cultural parenting plan to support their ongoing cultural connection and guidance.
Encourage the young person’s friendships and activities. Wherever possible, keep consistent routines. Where you can, involve your young person in the day-to-day decisions that affect their life. This can give them a sense of some control. Finally, find ways for you and your young person to do fun things together and with other family and community!
Understand that, even when your young person is angry at the other parent, they may still love and need a relationship with that parent
- Avoid ‘offloading’ your frustrations with the other parent onto your young person
- Avoid criticising the other parent
- Avoid involving the young person in your disagreements or using your young person as messenger or ‘go-between’
- Recognise opportunities to role model to your young person constructive ways of responding to differences of opinion or conflict
- Where co-parenting is not possible due to conflict between you, consider a ‘parallel parenting’ approach
Just like adults, children and young people benefit from being kept informed about important things that affect their lives. Depending on the situation, they might be worried about anything from “Who will take me to basketball practice?” to “Will I ever see my mum (or dad, grandparent, best friend) again?” You can be upfront with them and share relevant, age-appropriate information about your separation or divorce. Clear communication allows them to prepare for what is to come and shows them it is OK to talk with you about this and other issues that matter to them.
Wherever possible, be willing to listen to the young person at the times when they are ready to share their feelings and concerns with you. You can also try having short, impromptu chats while doing something you both enjoy.
Take your time with the hard questions. If you don’t know the answer, tell your young person this and come back to it later when you have a response. Be honest and don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Separation brings many changes. It can be one of the most stressful steps people take in life, so try to be kind to yourself.
- Connect with others. Make time to spend with friends, extended family or community
- Share your experiences, concerns and hopes with other adults you can talk to about your separation to about your separation
- Accept help when it is offered and ask for help when you need it
- Make time to do things you enjoy
- Find the information you need to make informed decisions
- Watch for signs that your own wellbeing is being affected (feeling tired, emotional or irritable, distracted and unable to concentrate, or changes to your sleeping or eating patterns)
- Seek professional support if needed. Children and young people often worry about their family. It will help your young person to know you are taking care of yourself and getting the right support
By taking care of yourself, you are role modelling to your young person good strategies and skills for coping with life’s challenges.
If you think your young person needs further help
Encourage them to reach out:
You can also:
- Talk to your GP about options for family counselling
- Find out if there are supports at your young person’s school or study provider. Many schools have programs for students whose parents are separating
Other helpful websites
- headspace Adults Supporting Young People fortnightly online group chat
- Family Relationships Online: Children & parenting after separation
- Family Relationships Online: Going through separation
- Family Relationships Online: Family Relationship Advice Line
- Family Relationships Online in languages other than English: Help for parents after separation
- Some Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations have recently been funded to deliver First Nations Family Dispute Resolution services. Contact your nearest ACCO for more information.
- General health information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Head to Health
- HealthInfoNet for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: Trauma Toolkit - Social and Emotional Wellbeing
- Raising Children Network: Separation & divorce: helping teens adjust
- Call 000 at any time if you are worried about your immediate safety, or the safety of a child, young person or someone else
- For 24/7 support about family violence, contact 1800 Respect or call 1800 737 732
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experiencing family violence can contact Djirra
- People within migrant and refugee communities who are experiencing family violence can contact inTouch
Support with family law issues
- For general information and advice, visit Family Relationships
- To speak with someone for information and referrals, call the Family Relationships Advice Line: 1800 050 321
- Information in languages other than English
- If you have a lawyer, you may wish to discuss your family law matter with them
The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.
Last reviewed 13th June 2023
Australian Institute of Family Studies (2018), Children in separated families feel left out and left "in the dark" about decisions affecting their lives.
Australian Institute of Family Studies (2010), Views of adolescents in separated families.
Balsam, K.F., Rostosky, S.S. and Riggle, E.D.B. (2017) Breaking up is hard to do: Women’s experience of dissolving their same-sex relationship. Journal of Lesbian Studies, 21:1, 30-46
Campo, M., Fehlberg, B., Smyth, B. & Natalier, K. 2018, The meaning of home for children and young people after parental separation, Australian Institute of Family Studies
Edwige, V. & Gray, P. (2021). Significance of Culture to Wellbeing, Healing and Rehabilitation Report. Commissioned by the Bugmy Bar Book
Farr, R.H., Simon, K.A., Goldberg, A.E. (2020). Separation and Divorce Among LGBTQ-Parent Families, in Goldberg, A.E., Allen, K.R. (eds) LGBTQ-Parent Families. Springer, Cham.
Goldberg, A.E. & Allen, K.R. (2013), Same-Sex Relationship Dissolution and LGB Stepfamily Formation: Perspectives of Young Adults with LGB Parents. Family Relations 62: 529 – 544
Kalmijn, M., & Uunk, W. (2007). Regional value differences in Europe and the social consequences of divorce: A test of the stigmatization hypothesis. Social Science Research, 36, 447-468.
Liu, M. (1999). Enduring violence and staying in marriage: Stories of battered women in rural China. Violence Against Women, 5, 1469-1492.
Qu, L. & Baxter, J. (2023) Divorces in Australia : Facts and Figures 2023, Australian Institute of Family Studies, March 2023
Singh, G. (1986). Violence against wives in India. Response to the Victimization of Women and Children, 9, 16-18.
Singh, S. N., & Kanjirathinkal, M. (1999). Levels and styles of commitment in marriage: The case of Asian Indian immigrants. In M. J. Adams & W. H. Jones (Eds.), Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability (pp. 307-323). New York: Kluwer Academic.
Sorek, Y. (2019). Children of divorce evaluate their quality of life: The moderating effect of psychological processes. Children and Youth Services Review 107.
Toth, K., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2009). Divorce Attitudes Around the World: Distinguishing the Impact of Culture on Evaluations and Attitude Structure. Cross-Cultural Research, 43(3), 280–297.
Walker, R. & Shepherd, C. (2008). Strengthening Aboriginal family functioning: what works and why? Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse Briefing Number 7