It is not unusual for me to be asked about counseling for families and children going through a process of separation or divorce. Obviously, it is a traumatic time for everyone involved, as one of the main foundations of life that family members had come to depend on – the family structure itself – undergoes a complete transformation. Interestingly enough, some children are able to come through this process in a positive state and return to full emotional health, while others can struggle with the effects of a divorce for years and even decades afterward. So the obvious and critical question must be posed: what determines whether a child in such a family ends up in a relatively healthy state, or in a more negative one?
In the 5 years that I have run a counseling practice for kids, teens and families in Kelowna, as well as over a decade working within the school system providing specialized supports, I can say the following factors are the most critical in helping everyone (but especially children) through a divorce or separation situation in a healthy way:
1) Create and Maintain Safety
This includes two kinds of safety – physical and emotional. Physical safety refers to a level of comfort and confidence in one’s surroundings. This means not only are the physical needs such as food and shelter being consistently taken care of, but also that there is no fear of physical contact occurring that could be perceived as unhealthy or intimidating.
Emotional safety refers more to a feeling that one is being truly heard; this includes not only a belief that one’s thoughts and words are being meaningfully considered, but also that elements such as body language and facial expression support this belief. If a child is technically being listened to by a parent figure, but that child sees and feels anger looking back at them for example, that is likely reducing emotional safety, and any sense of comfort in speaking freely!
2) Support Respect
It really does boil down to that old phrase you were raised with: treat others as you would like to be treated. In my 46 years of life, I have yet to meet any individual, young or old, who genuinely wishes to be treated disrespectfully. Respect is immensely powerful: if a child or parent feels respected, they are FAR more likely to respond in a similar manner. We can in essence invite others to treat us in the same way. In so many families I have worked with, and in a countless number of couples, when mutual and authentic respect is present in interactions, the ground in which anger and resentment likes to grow becomes much less fertile.
So How Do I Best Help my Family Through a Separation or Divorce in process?
Remember that all kids (including teens) are looking for comfort and predictability in their lives. When there are suddenly questions about who will live at the family home, and whether it will need to be sold, this can often open a large “can of worms” that proves difficult to manage. Most kids will also begin to wonder if anything they currently rely on will be reliable and comfortable; this includes whether they will keep the same friends, or if mom and dad will become less approachable, less present, and even more angry than ever before. These are important questions! A healthy process of working through the separation and divorce will always seek to find answers for adults and children alike, and help them to understand how to preserve safety and respect during a very challenging time, and create practices that will help to restore comfort and predictability both immediately and over the long-term.
Here are a few practical steps to take that should help:
- As much as you are able, be fully present with each of your kids, regardless of age. Hear what they are afraid of and concerned with, but also continue to ask everyday questions such as “Tell me how school went today”, or “What did you most enjoy about hanging out with Jesse last weekend?” They will need to know and feel that your love and care for them has not changed, despite so many other elements that suddenly seem fluid.
- Keep intense discussions with the other parent away from the ears of others as much as possible. If this is not possible at times, be aware of your tone and intensity, and keep your responses healthy and in-control.
- Make every effort to keep playdates with friends happening, and allow this to remain as unchanged as possible.
Finally, I encourage all parents in this situation to STRONGLY CONSIDER engaging the Collaborative Law Process as a means to working through a separation or divorce process in a healthy way, and best supporting the creation of a new sense of normalcy for you and your children. This can be done right here in the Okanagan through the Okanagan Collaborative Family Law Group, and you can find more information about this formalized and effective process here.
Feel free to contact me regarding any questions you have about any of the elements discussed above. I would be very happy to answer them for you.
-Andrew Portwood, MC, CCC