Parental Separation and Divorce


Many people experience parental separation or divorce at some point in their lives. Whether you experience it as a very young child or a mature adult, it can have a significant and lasting impact on you and your life.

Some parents may decide to stay together until their child is at university before they choose to separate or divorce. For some, news of the separation or divorce may come as a relief, especially if the relationship has been fraught with difficulties over a number of years or for example there has been domestic violence. Perhaps it was something you have always dreaded and tried not to think about. For others, this could be the first time that you discover that your parents’ relationship is in trouble and you can’t believe it is happening.

Parents who take this step when their son or daughter goes to university may believe that their child no longer needs them or that they will cope better now they are older and more independent. You however may have very different feelings about it.

Whenever it happens and whether it is expected or not, parental separation or divorce can come as a huge shock. It is not uncommon to feel a range of intense feelings and emotions which may include:

  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Anger
  • Distress
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Abandonment
  • Numbness
  • Anxiety
  • Resentment
  • Powerlessness
  • Grief

You may be affected by a mixture of these emotions, experience different emotions at different times or even have no feelings about it at all. These are all completely normal reactions to a situation where you may be encountering various types of loss.

Loss of:

  • The life you have known up to now as a family
  • The family home and a sense of where “home” is for you now
  • Contact or relationship with a parent if their circumstances change
  • Emotional and/or financial security
  • Trust if relationships with parents or siblings change or are damaged by the separation process
  • Faith and trust in people and relationships more generally

After the initial impact – the longer-term consequences

The initial impact of the separation or divorce of your parents can evoke feelings of shock, grief and sadness. You may have to adapt to a lot of change as a consequence of the separation or divorce and this could signify a loss of the life and family stability you once knew. You may find this change very disorientating and this may result in you feeling lost, insecure and upset and this may have an impact on your motivation and ability to socialise or to concentrate on your university work. Again, this is completely normal.

You may suddenly face a whole set of new challenges:

  • Being drawn into arguments and pressurised into taking sides
  • Having to make a choice about which parent to spend time with during the holidays
  • Facing the prospect of becoming part of a new family with new step brothers and sisters if one or both of your parents have new partners or wish to re-marry
  • Losing some or all of your financial support
  • Experiencing role reversal as a parent increasingly relies on you for emotional or financial support
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Feeling concerned for your welfare, that of your siblings or even that of one or both of your parents

As the consequences of the break up gradually become clear, the turmoil that can come from family breakdown can stir up feelings of fear, anger and anxiety or depression. As a result, you may feel powerless and uncertain about the future. You may feel angry that you parents have not been able to sort out their problems and you may feel let down that they no longer seem to want to put your needs first. You may even feel that you are to blame in some way because you were unable to help more or to keep them together.

It is important to remember however that your parents are adults who are responsible for their own lives, decisions and mistakes. The decision your parents have taken to separate or divorce is their decision and is completely beyond your control.

To help you cope with the consequences of this decision and all the changes you are facing, it would be helpful to consider how you hold onto and maintain the part of your life which is about you and is separate from your family.

What you can do to support yourself

  • Try not to get drawn into the conflict between your parents. Remind yourself that this is their decision and they are responsible for sorting out the issues related to their separation or divorce.
  • What kind of network of support do you have? Perhaps there are other members of your immediate such as brothers and sisters or more extended family who you might be able to talk to e.g. an auntie or grandparent.
  • Consider talking to friends at university or home who you trust who might be able to give you some support. Parental separation and divorce are becoming increasingly common so it is very likely that friends in your circle have had similar experiences and may have a better understanding of what you are going through than you might think.
  • If you feel that a parent is relying on you too much for emotional or financial support, you might suggest alternative support for them e.g. their GP, good friends, other relatives or mediators through organisations like Relate. Setting some boundaries about what you are able to discuss with your parents will help you protect yourself.
  • Talk as openly as you can with your parents -individually or together – about what has happened and what is going to happen next. If you need moral support, ask a sibling or someone else you can trust to help. Talk to you parents about what you need e.g. you may spend less time at home but it is important to know that you still have a home to go to.
  • Try and stick to a routine and continue as much as possible to live your life as normal. Your emotions may be up and down so it will be important to look after yourself (eat healthily, get some sleep and exercise) and be gentle with yourself during this difficult time.
  • You may have to rely more on your own resources from now on. Think about how you can build your resilience and your independence while you are university to prepare you for this.
  • Consider talking to your Personal Tutor so that he/she is aware of what is happening and you are able together to take steps to minimise the risk of any adverse impact on your studies.
  • You may find it useful to talk to someone completely separate and objective. Your GP might be able to help you or you could consider coming to the University Counselling Service.
  • Moving on and recovering from the challenges of your parents’ divorce will take time. Perhaps an important part of helping you to recover will be to imagine how you will become more independent and able to shape your own course in life.

Getting support