Lifelong Impacts on Children of Family Separation

The loss of a parent is one of the most common adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) worldwide. It can have massive lifelong impacts on a child’s emotional and psychological development.

The table below highlights things a child may experience as a result of family separation in childhood and the impacts of that on their adult lives. These experiences have been pulled from real life reports by adults who were once children that experienced separation of their family. The findings are not in any order of prevalence (frequency of occurrence) but it aims to show just how hard family separation is for children and how difficult it would be for even the most attuned parents to support their child through family separation.

For those who have not yet left their partners the following will give them pause to consider if they would be doing the right thing in separating from their partner, particularly in scenario’s where there is no domestic abuse. For parent’s who have already left the home it will no doubt make them feel anxious about what this means for their children and they will want to do what they can to reduce the strain on them.

Potential Childhood ExperiencePotential Outcomes in Adulthood
Feelings of:
Devastation, betrayal, abandonment, loneliness, insecurity, confusion as to why this has occurred in their family, fear, grief at the loss of a parent and their family, disappointment as a result of broken promises, jealousy of intact families or the new children in their parent’s life, suspiciousness of people’s motives, worry about money, being a burden to their parents, guilt, embarrassment, shame, anxiety, fear, shock, stressed, anger, self blame for the family breakdown, being unloved and being unsafe/unprotected where they are left with a an abusive (neglectful/psychologically/physically/sexually) parent/new partner. Some felt emptiness learning to ignore/shut off their feelings.
Feelings of:
Sadness for the loss of a relationship with their parent, loneliness, insecurity, anger, low self-confidence, low self-respect, deficiency, fear of rejection, fear of having children, fear their parents will find out how they feel about the family separation and the impact it has had on them, worrying about finding the right person to have a relationship with, guilt and or shame for their actions in relationships or towards a parent they rejected. Some felt their emotions were stunted.

Exposure to problematic parenting:
A parent committing domestic abuse, abusing substances and or having mental health problems. This may have been both before and after family separation. Some felt pressurised to take sides and were manipulated by a parent who made them feel guilty and or fearful. Feeling that they had to badmouth a parent to get love from their other parent. Some were negatively compared to the parent being badmouthed.

Ultimately their needs were not being met. Some experienced a lack of guidance and role model.
Relational problems:
Don’t know how to receive/accept love, broken marriages, trust issues as they were unable to trust their own perceptions or understanding, being vigilant looking for warning signs in their partners behaviour, intimacy issues, inability to solve problems and give up, over independence unable to feel that they can rely on anyone. Some got into abusive relationships or sabotaged their own relationships to avoid the pain of ultimate rejection.
Some experienced their children having an emotional cutoff from them when their own families separated.
Being put in adult positions before their time:
Dealing with major upheaval or change, being a sounding board for their parent’s complaints about the other parent (bad mouthing) and worries, being put in the middle to referee or act as a go between for their parents, responsible for protecting or meeting the emotional needs of their parent or brother and sisters, being a surrogate partner for their parent, having to work to earn money to support the family and pressure to be strong. Some reporting being forced by the courts to chose a parent.
Health problems:
Stress, anxiety, depression, self destructive behaviours including food disorders, substance abuse, promiscuity, self harming, suicidal thoughts/attempts, trauma and PTSD.
Health problems:
Depression, self destructive behaviours including food disorders, substance abuse, promiscuity, self harming, suicidal thoughts/attempts, trauma and PTSD.
Loss of trust and or bitterness towards their parents, emotional cutoff from one or both of their parents, a loss of identity, vigilant behaviours to avoid offending/angering a parent or avoiding arguments e.g. making sure they brought special gifts and cards or watching what they said or lying to make the other parent happy.
Inability to relate to their parents or bothers and sisters, a desire to punish their parents, have a replacement family, a need for acceptance and to be reliable for their own children.

Felt they lived with instability.
Many wanted their parents to get back together but some with abusive parents were relieved their parents had separated.
Some felt that they were mistakes that caused the family breakdown or that they did not mean enough to their parents to stay together.
They dreaded holidays because of fights over their time and awkwardness of parents/family that couldn’t get on together.
Developed a longing for a strong family unit and craved intimacy.

Some adults were able to draw some positives from their experiences of family separation. These were:
– Learned ways to face adversity
– Still being able to find happiness and joy even through life’s challenges
– Learning the value of marriage
– Having an appreciation of the value of family relationships
– Having an understanding of the hard work required to have a successful marriage
– A strong desire to have a family and not to repeat their parents’ mistakes.
Some experienced dread of all future family events and holidays because their own children were exposed to the awkwardness of having to learn how to cope with family members that do not get on.

Where children are put in the middle of parental conflict (triangulated) the outcomes can be grim and children can demonstrate protest behaviours which cover up the real problem, a parent’s lack of boundaries which place the child under immense pressure.

There may be a gender effect in triangulated relationships with daughters responding to marital triangulation with passive-aggressive strategies, e.g., eating disorders, personality disorders, and drug abuse… Sons may more often use overtly aggressive strategies such as risk-taking, and antisocial behaviour e.g., ADHD and conduct disorders. In either case, triangulated relationships reflect anger away from the parent and to the child, thus clouding the causal conditions… Children who have elicited attachment behavior through simulating the spousal role often become conflicted about their parents and sometimes about peer relationships. In addition, cross-generational relationships may be established in which the child both colludes with the opposite gender parent to demean or expel the other…

Dr Patricia Crittenden, Raising Parents Attachment, representation and treatment.

Sources that were useful in pulling this information together: