How can educators help support children through parental separation?

According the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2016), in 2015 there were 48 517 divorces granted in Australia and 47.5 per cent of these cases involved children. This is without considering the number of parents who were never married and separated. It is then an unfortunate fact that many children who will come into our care will be exposed to parental separation. McIntosh (2010) recognises the impact parental separation can have on the child’s psychological growth and development. Thus it is of great significance that we understand what this means for the child and how we can help support the child and family through this difficult time.

The children that we cater to in early childhood, who experience parental separation, are at a stage of development where they cannot properly comprehend what is necessarily occurring between their parents and can become confused, distressed and are more than likely going to suffer a sense of loss over one parent which they may blame themselves for. So how can we help support them through this? It is important that we reinforce their sense of belonging and their primary relationships within the service. Parents may speak to us about their situation, but we must be mindful not to take sides and to reinforce both parental relationships with the child.

We know from our research in early childhood how important stability and smooth transitions are for young children. Parental separation can be a time of great instability for the child and the smoothness of the transition is often hindered by conflict between the parents. As educators we can support this sense of stability for the child within the early childhood setting. Again reinforcing the child’s sense of belonging is fundamental. Adhering to the child’s routines and encouraging parents to do so is also a good idea.

Family Relationships Online (2010) recognises the changes that can occur in this time and the detrimental effect of too many changes at once. This is why routine becomes so important, and as educators we can reinforce this through the early childhood environment. To further assist in encouraging smoothness of transitions it is a good idea to understand the arrangements parents have in place. Knowing who will be picking the child up and dropping them off means we can reinforce this with the child helping them to adjust to any changes there are in the routine.

Of course having a relationship with the families is of the utmost importance. We cannot help the family through this difficult time unless we have established a secure relationship with them. They need to feel comfortable informing you of any changes which are occurring in the home. There are many useful online resources we can share with parents going through a separation ( has some excellent information) and it would be helpful to have these as part of your parent library at any service in case parents do not feel comfortable approaching you for advice, which in many cases they may not.

As educators we play a consistent role in the child’s life so it is of the utmost importance we understand the effects of parental separation on the child in order to understand children’s individual reactions and how we can foster their continued strength and confidence.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2016). Marriages and divorces Australia. Retrieved 5 May, 2017, from

Family Relationships Online. (2010). Children and separation [Brochure]. N.P: Commonwealth of Australia.

McIntosh, J. (2010). Children’s responses to separation and parental conflict. Every Child, 16(2). Canberra, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

Kate Hodgekiss

Kate has been in the sector for almost 20 years. Trained in Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University, Kate spent many years working as a teacher both inside and outside of Australia before commencing her management career. Over the course of her management career Kate has worked in a variety of roles including nominated supervisor, educational leader, start up consultant, regional manager and online program development creative head. Kate is passionate and known for her commitment to quality learning practices and environments, having directed a service as recently as 2016 through the assessment and rating process receiving the coveted exceeding in all 18 standards. Kate is the owner and director of Engaging Curriculum Solutions.

2 thoughts on “How can educators help support children through parental separation?”

    Lea Powell says:

    A step in the right direction, however, the article is light on in regards to the HOWS. Absolutely, the information provided is correct, but we need to be aware as people who work with young children, that almost certainly, by the time even the happiest and most convivial appearing parents separate there has been up to two years ( on average) of preceding events. During that time, the mental health of one or both parents perhaps has undergone a complete disintegration, which impacts severely upon the mental health of the child(ren) involved.
    By the time parents present the news and say we have or are shielding johnny from the damage, it is too late, Johnny has has two years of confusion and upheaval at a minimum. It is becoming more acknowledged in research and elsewhere that children are not shielded at all, and even more so when aggression, violence and or negative emotions on the part of either parent are present. We know children are not blank slates so why persist with believing that they are sheilded, when they are not. ( not your argument i know).
    Secondly, legal issues. As a 55 year old, I lived this as a child in the days before family courts, and unfortunately experienced it twice as an adult myself and freaking unfortunately am now experiencing it yet again as a grandmother. It is absolutley imperative I would suggest that staff are absolutely across what CURRENT law says versus what mary smiths aunts cousin went through 6 or even three years ago.
    Family law is constantly changing, but at its heart it always has and always will have the principle of best interests of the child. Yes it changed each time i went through it because it is a living document, rather than a static and set document. Staff need to be across what is current because many people get this information wrong or continue to use outdated information, and doing so can cause a service to find itself on the wrong side of favour with the law. This is the biggest and most consistent error we make in dealing with families that are separating.
    Last year as a part of my Masters programme I studied family law, and the emphasis on best interest is a very strong determinant of outcomes. Unfortunately, as in my day and still occurring with regularity is the notion that parents own or can make unilateral decisions in regard to the child(ren) involved. This is probably the biggest single NO NO going and the courts are responding.
    One of the best things we can do, in relation to children involved in divorce proceedings is to hold up our NO hand to both parents when they make any form of request involving ownership of the child.

    This could be as simple as NOT changing the emergency contact to people who would not contact the other parent if an emergency were to occur. This include NOT acceding to taking a parent off contact lists. This include NOT adding mysterious new contacts of any form.
    Keeping consistency is absolutely in the best interests of the child and this includes consistency with parents and who gets called. If they cant get along then its not your issue, call family services if they are fighting.
    Effectively, having as part of the centres policy out and open is a statement that nothing with regard to contact between the centre and parents will be changing is the most up front way to go. It ensures that you are less likely to get caught. Being across Family law changes and understnading what the elements of best interest entail are also excellent how tos that all centres should adopt.

    Emma Hughes says:

    Helpful article and reader comments.

    Parental separation is often a huge stressor for young children and their families. I would welcome more opportunities for educators like myself to undertake professional development about how to support children through parental separation. I am always searching for that best practice information.

    As educators we have a duty of care to not turn a blind eye to children going home to families experiencing high levels of stress and upheaval. In particular, educators may want to know points of referral for separating parents who need support for themselves and their children, to develop a holistic care plan for the child in collaboration with child psychologist / social worker and support networks/services as required.

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