Children in this age group will often display sadness through increased tearfulness. They can be particularly vulnerable to feeling rejected and unloved. This can lead to low self esteem and make previously happy-go-lucky children quiet and withdrawn. Reunification fantasies can be strong with children attempting to engineer ways of getting their parents back together. You may notice a drop in school performance or hear that they have become disruptive in class. Boys will very often miss their fathers intensely.
At this stage, children are going through what is known as the 'latency period'. It can appear as if nothing is going on in their development when, in fact, everything is going on under the surface. This is an important stage when they make big social developments in terms of relationships. Family separation can fracture their internal model of how relationships are built and maintained so try to show unity with your child's other parent wherever possible.
This age group tend to be more orientated towards their peers than younger children are and it can, therefore, appear that they're unaffected by what's going on at home. As a result, it can be at school where they show most clearly how they're affected by the changes in their life. Nevertheless, you will be able to see some changes that will alert you to your child's anxiety.
Signs of distress
Boys can become aggressive towards siblings or peers. This is particularly true if they are the oldest in the family. Look out for signs such as fights or bullying at school and keep in touch with teachers and club leaders who might detect changes in behaviour. Girls will very often become tearful, tired, quiet or withdrawn. Keep an eye open for a drop in performance at school – again, it will be helpful to keep in touch with her school. Both boys and girls may seem to withdraw into their own world.
Things that help
Make sure that your children know that they are not responsible for the separation. Talk directly to them and ask them directly about how they are feeling. If you have the opportunity, do something physical with them every day, or every time you are with them. This can be as simple as taking the dog for a walk or throwing a ball, but something like swimming is great. Spend time with them making things or drawing and painting. Go walking or cycling, visit the park and, through these activities, allow them time to talk to you and ask you questions. Deal with signs of aggression firmly but see it as a sign of distress about what's happening rather than a sign that your child is naughty. Make sure that you keep up with what's happening at school and, if it's at all possible, keep the communication up with your child's other parent – they may have spotted something that you have missed or missed something that you have spotted. Working together will help your children adjust.
Things to avoid
No one likes feeling like they're under the spotlight being interrogated, so try to avoid probing your children about what's going on for them. Offer them the opportunity to talk but don't make them feel scrutinised. This is not a great time to let them disappear off into their rooms to watch TV – there is a danger that they will switch off and withdraw. Don't ban television, but make sure that you provide activities for them to take part in and make sure they can spend time with their friends. Avoid chastising too heavily for aggressive or inappropriate behaviour – be firm but don't undermine their sense of self by telling them that they are bad.