I was recently invited to speak at a Second Saturday Workshop, a free informational session for individuals in the process of separation and divorce. Attendees are in various stages from contemplating separation and divorce to already having filed and anywhere in between. The workshop is licensed and hosted by DYSNYD (Divorce Your Spouse Not Your Dollars ©) and each workshop features a presentation by a Certified Financial Planner, a Family Law Attorney and a Mental Health Professional.
I was so thankful for the opportunity to share resources and provide support and direction to individuals who are going through such a difficult emotional process. As I listened to the Certified Financial Planner and founder of DYSNYD, Bonnie Sewell, and the Family Law Attorney, Lindsay Jeffries Mohler of Atwill, Troxell & Leigh, P.C. of Leesburg share their knowledge and guidance, I began to feel my own stress levels begin to rise.
Decided to Divorce? What About You? What About the Kids?
As a licensed professional counselor and trained play therapist, I came to realize how I mostly deal with the emotional side of separation, divorce and adjustment to change in families. To hear the other professionals speak to the legal, financial and logistical processes was enlightening and overwhelming! I was even more inspired to provide guidance and resources to the participants on how important it is to take care of their own mental health and well-being as they endure the stressful, tumultuous and uncertain process of finding the "new normal."
I spoke to the effects divorce and separation can have on children and some best practices to employ when it comes to how to tell the kids, how a child's age and developmental level impacts their understanding and reactions, signs of internalizing negative emotions, how stress impacts a child's development and ability to learn, and how to protect their children from the negative impacts of divorce- and yes, it is possible!!
Your Child is Equal Parts You & Equal Parts Your Ex: Be Mindful
The most important thing to remember when talking to your children about divorce, or any change in the family for that matter, is to send the message that you (the adult) will handle the adult problems and they (the kids) will continue to be loved, cared for, attended to and nurtured as they always have been- by BOTH parents. The fights, arguments and ill feelings you may have towards your soon to be ex-spouse should not be witnessed or involve your children. As much as possible, keep the arguments to times when the kids are not present or, put the argument on hold until you can do it without them around. Your child feels that they are equal parts of mom and dad, so when you disparage your ex-spouse, you actually disparage your child. The long-term goal is for your child to have a healthy, positive relationship with each parent, so keep that in mind when dealing with the day to day decisions and interactions.
Learning to Have "Recovery Conversations" With Your Child
We are all human and it is impossible to keep everything hidden from our kids- we slip, we roll our eyes, we sigh, we say things we shouldn't in moments of anger and frustration. It happens, but when it does, you can have a conversation later on with your child about it and explain that in that moment, you were feeling angry or frustrated and that you are sorry that they had to see that. Model the behavior for your child that you would wish to see in them. Everyone has moments where they say or do something out of emotion, it's how you choose to handle that moment after the fact that will be remembered.
Do You Need Your Own Professional Support?
For individuals who are in any stage of the separation or divorce process and feel you could benefit from having the support of a therapist to help you process these difficult changes and emotions, if you are looking for help in how to tell your children, how to co-parent and how to protect your children, or if you are concerned about changes you are seeing in your child's behavior or the effect of the divorce/separation on them, please reach out to me today for a free consultation.
The experience of divorce is very difficult for families and couples, help is available to support you through each step of your journey. Believe in the possibility that life will be better and you will feel happy again.
About the Author:
Chelsey Brooks, LPC holds a Master's of Science in Professional School Counseling and is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed School Counselor. In addition, she has taken numerous graduate courses in counseling, development, and family systems. She is currently pursuing certification as a Registered Play Therapist (RPT) and in Theraplay, an attachment focused, play based practice of Play Therapy. Chelsey has completed extensive training in Play Therapy, Trauma and other clinically focused continuing education and is in private practice in Ashburn, Virginia.
As therapists, we support many families as they walk through the darkness of divorce. Passions often run high while transitioning through such a difficult change. Divorcing as a couple is different than divorcing as parents with children. While you and your ex are walking through this difficult time, take time to remember what this experience can be like from the perspective of your children. Below are are a few tips and nudges to help you remember to protect your precious little and big ones while you transition from one family unit into two.
Divorcing Nudge #1: Protect Your Sweeties From the Loyalty Guilt Trap
It is customary for parents walking through the processes of divorce to argue and fight. When children are involved, it is best to try to protect them from the fighting and discord. Whenever possible, send requests to your ex-spouse in an email or talk on the phone when children are in bed or away from the house. Children are wired to be loyal to those they love. When children overhear fighting, it often creates an anxiety in them and a sense of loyalty. How difficult it can be for a child to feel a split loyalty and desire to please or protect both parents. This is especially difficult for children experiencing an adversarial split in their family unit. Nudge #1. Protect your child from the loyalty guilt trap. When at all possible, notice this loyalty and help your child get to a place of neutrality where s/he does not feel the need to protect anyone emotionally but himself.
Divorcing Nudge #2: Teach Your Children to Protect Their Eyes and Ears
In a perfect world, parents would comply with Nudge #1 and protect their children from the stress and turmoil of parental discord. Unfortunalty, no one is perfect and divorce is stressful. Nudge #2 is to teach your children to walk away from parental stress. If an unplanned encounter occurs or unexpected fight begins, younger kids can be taught to run and play in another area of the house, and older children can go listen to music or watch a movie...but the key is to remove your children and teach them to removes themselves from stressful situations. Children do not need to hear the hurtful words and tones. Remember. You are talking to and about their mom/dad. Protect their ears from the words and their eyes from the nonverbal communication. Children see all. They see the intense look in your eyes and the balled fist near your side. While you are trying to work through the pain and grief of divorce, protect their eyes and ears.
Divorcing Nudge #3: Everything You Do with Your Attorney Costs Something
Separation and divorce can be expensive. Every email, phone call and subpoena that filters through an attorney costs something. Attorneys get paid for every minute task brought to them. This cost becomes quickly evident in your bank account, however what often takes longer to realize is the emotional toll taken by being in constant turmoil. Living in a state of hypervigilenece and scanning your environment for negativity will cost you and your precious bystanders. Beyond money, it will cost you peace and may cost you the respect of yourself and the respect of those who love you. Creating an environment of calm for your children takes purposeful determination and self regulation. Before you grab the phone to call or email your attorney, stop and think: in the long run, will this help or harm those I love the most? If it impacts your emotional health and your ability to create the calm atmosphere your children need during this transition, let it rest for a day and then decide.
Divorcing Nudge #4: Purposefully Create 2 Whole Homes for Your Children
Spouses divorce one another, but children do not. When dividing up the household items and furniture, be mindful of what the experience will be like for your child. It is best to move furniture out of the house when children are in school or away from the house and never ask them to help. It is important to remember what this experience will be like for them. Before your children come home, make sure that the furniture in the family house is rearranged to create natural looking rooms, not rooms with giant furniture holes in them. Our eyes take in information and help us determine how to react to situations. Help soothe this sensory experience by making sure the home still has the warmth of a home.
Do your best to make the second home look warm and inviting too. Often home #2 is an apartment or smaller house. Smaller spaces can still feel warm and family friendly. Maybe allow older children to help you pick out bedroom themes. Making mindful decisions about creating a second home for your children can help you decide what routines and structures to put in place. Home at mom's and home at dad's is the key. When children feel like visitors, it is hard for them to relax and renew.
When to Seek Professional Support During a Divorce
Divorce is difficult, but can be doable if you and your ex decide to navigate through the process mindfully and purposefully. Remember that your children are not divorcing anyone. Helping them walk through this change with love and validation will make all the difference in the world. If the process seems all too overwhelming and stressful or if your children appear to be struggling to adjust to the transition, it may be time to seek out professional help. A counseling therapist can help either parent or the children to adjust. If you or someone you love is struggling through divorce, nudge them to find help and support today.
Gabrielle Anderson is the Director and a Therapist at the Family Therapy Center of Northern Virginia, llc
She and the other team members can be contacted directly from the Center's Meet the Team page.
These blog entries are written by our very own clinicians. When inspiration hits, another entry will be logged.
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