Ask Her: How to help kids cope with divorce part 2

In our latest Ask Her column, clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson – who specialises in therapy, treatment, and counselling for individuals, couples and families – shares more insight on how to deal with kids and divorce:

My husband and I have decided to separate and ultimately get a divorce. I’m not sure how to begin to handle it. How do I tell the kids? How do I treat him, especially during times when he makes me so angry? Is there a ‘right’ way to do it? Any help is welcome.

In terms of telling your children about the separation:

  • Discuss it between the two of you first, and plan how you would like to approach it
  • Tell your kids together if you can, ideally as a united and collaborative front
  • Let them know about the separation ahead of the time that you plan to physically separate, so that they feel included in the process rather than blindsided
  • Offer simple, age-appropriate, non-blaming explanations for your separation (eg “We like each other and care about each other very much. We just have trouble living together.)
  • Make it clear that your children are not responsible for the separation. Younger children can be particularly prone to blaming themselves
  • Stress that you will both remain their parents. Reassure them that their relationships with each of you will endure
  • Give them some idea of what to expect practically in the short term, particularly with respect to housing, school, and their contact with both of you
  • Talk also about positive aspects of the separation and the parts of their life that will remain the same
  • Check in on how they are feeling as you go. Invite them to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Validate, support, empathise with and soothe their emotions. Answer their questions in an age-appropriate fashion. Make room for whatever experiences they express.
  • Above all, be loving, affectionate and kind. Let your children know that your combined presence and care will remain a constant in their lives

To make good on these commitments to your children, after your separation treat your ex-partner as civilly, respectfully and co-operatively as you can, particularly in front of your kids. Do your best to honour and facilitate any care arrangements that you have made, and address your differences when your kids are not around.

This often involves finding new ways to manage your feelings towards your ex partner, particularly your anger. Rather than venting your feelings at him directly, develop ways to soothe yourself at the time and work through your emotions later, whether with a trusted friend, through journaling, or with a therapist.

For your own sake as well as your children’s, get plenty of support and understanding in this process, and make your own physical and emotional health a priority.

There are a range of invaluable community resources to help you with this and with all aspects of separation. The earlier you equip yourself with support, knowledge and constructive strategies the less likely that destructive patterns will evolve.

Relationships Australia, for instance, offers information and booklets, courses, family dispute resolution, and counselling for individuals and couples separating. Federal Government Family Relationship Centres also offer information, advice, referral and dispute resolution, as well as help for families come to practical arrangements without having to go to court.

Other resources include the Australian Psychological Society position paper on parenting after separation, and the family relationships advice line, on 1800 050 321.

And remember that of all the resources you possess as a parent, the most powerful is your love.

But given that you are asking these questions in the first place, you already know that.

This is part 2 of our series, read more from Dr Lissa Johnson in our first post on helping kids cope with divorce here.

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