Parental Separation and Play Therapy

Divorce and separation can be highly stressful for everyone. For children, it can feel as though their whole world has been turned upside down. All the big changes to the family can really shake their sense of security. They often express the pain of their parent’s separation through their behaviour. Sometimes mums and dads mistakenly think that their child is just ‘acting out’ or going through a phase. Play therapy can help children process their angry, sad, or confused feelings, through play.


Most kids will adjust to the new family arrangements in time. For some kids though, they don’t seem to ‘bounce back’ as easily as others. When you expect that they should be starting to feel a bit better, they may still seem quite sad, angry or anxious. They may also be showing other issues, like changes to their eating and sleeping, difficulties with separating from you, new fears, changes in school performance, physical upsets with no medical cause, unexplained tiredness or low-self-esteem, to name but a few.

If your child doesn’t seem to be ‘bouncing back’ therapy may be needed.

How you can help

  • Reassure them that it’s ok to be upset about their parents divorcing (or separating) for as long as they need to be upset. There are no time limits.

  • Use reflective listening rather than telling them everything will be ok or helping them to look on the ‘bright side’. For example, you’re so sad that mum and dad won’t be living together any more. You don’t know if you’ll ever be happy again”.

  • Be open to having similar conversations, several times. Children need time to process all the changes to their family.

  • Maintain routines and as many ‘normal’ aspects of life as possible. Keep the house rules and routines as similar as possible between houses.

  • Children adjust to divorce or separation better if their parents can get along, or if that is not possible, when they have a ‘business type’ relationship

  • Allow your child to have things that remind them of the other parent, in their bedroom at your house, such as photos etc.

  • Avoid talking negatively about the other parent in front of your child.


How Play Therapy can help

  • Play is the natural way that children communicate. Play Therapy allows children to use play to work through the many confusing emotions that can arise from family breakdown, such as sadness, anger, confusion and fear.

  • Feelings of loss can be quite scary for children to feel and talk about. With Play Therapy, children can distance themselves from the loss through symbolic play, for example, by making a toy dog feel sad. In this way, children can process their feelings without confronting the loss directly, which keeps them protected from being overwhelmed by emotion.

  • In Play Therapy, the toys act as the children’s words and play serves as their language. The child can use the toys to express thoughts, feelings and actions that they have not been able to find words for.

  • Through play, the child can gain a sense of control over things that seem unable to be controlled in reality.

Christine Harkin
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