Family Forum: Marital split is crushing daughter

Family Forum advise how to support children when parents separate, read on…


My youngest daughter has become increasingly withdrawn in recent months after I left my husband. She is also hurting herself, either intentionally or absentmindedly scratching at her skin until it bleeds and pulling out her hair. I think she even wet the bed once or twice, but I can’t be sure because she washed the sheets before breakfast. Should I take her to the doctor? Where do we begin and what kind of help do we need?


The Panel agrees that your daughter needs some professional support. Marital separation and divorce can have an effect on many children and each copes with it in their own way. Your daughter’s behaviour is characteristic of a child who is struggling with her feelings of grief and loss. While occasional bed-wetting is not abnormal depending on her age, self-harm and significant hair pulling (trichotillomania) can become serious. Hair pulling can start due to stress but may also become a chronic disorder similar to obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) if left untreated.

It is also important that both parents in a separation try to resolve their issues without involving their children. All children have the right to give and receive love from both parents. If one parent tries to alienate the other from the children this can also create childhood stress and anxiety and may result in the emergence of psychological disorder. It is important that both parents agree to keep “adult business” away from the children. Access to the other parent should also be facilitated rather than restricted for the sake of the children’s mental wellbeing, where appropriate. If abuse or domestic violence has been an issue and people are at risk, then professional domestic violence support and advice should be sought.

The Panel suggests that you seek help from your nearest CAMHS Office (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, a free community-based mental health service provided through SA Health’s Women’s and Children’s Health Network: or ask your GP for a referral to an experienced clinical psychologist who specialises in disorders of childhood.

Medicare rebates are available for psychological treatment by registered psychologists under the Australian Government’s Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative. Your GP will need to complete a detailed mental health assessment and prepare a Mental Health Treatment Plan before writing the referral. You should book a longer session with your GP to enable time for this.


Professional counselling is available from Relationships Australia SA, (08) 8223 4566; CentaCare Catholic Family Services (08) 8210 8200; Uniting Communities (08) 8202 5111; Unitingcare Wesley Bowden (08) 8245 7100; and Community Health Centres (listed in the telephone directory).

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Family Forum is a panel of general practitioners, medical specialists, lawyers, therapeutic and financial counsellors to discuss each letter before the appropriate professional answers it. The panel is appointed by Relationships Australia SA.

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