How Do We Help Kids Through Divorce?
As divorce numbers rise in the pandemic, we take a closer look at how divorce affects children. Dr. Lisa walks us through how children at different ages process their parents' separation. How can parents make the transition easier? Reena asks how do you make it work when you can’t stand your ex? Lisa details how couples who no longer want to be married can still work together as effective co-parents.
December 14, 2021 | 28 min
Transcript | How Do We Help Kids Through Divorce?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 60: How Do We Help Kids Through Divorce?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: You know we’re talking about divorce this week, and something you told somebody years ago still sticks in my mind when you said, just because you get divorced doesn’t mean that the marriage was bad.
LISA: That’s right. I think, you know, we get married, and we’re one age and we’re one person, and then we grow and change, and we don’t always go in the same direction, and I was talking with a friend of mine who had recently divorced, and I don’t always assume people are heartbroken about it, though sometimes they are, and it became clear that she was not heartbroken about it, and I said, you know, just because something’s not good forever doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.
REENA: That’s such a good quote.
LISA: It helps. It helps, and it’s even true with things like friendships that don’t last forever and ever, and I think sometimes we can have this idea that if it doesn’t have a happy ending the whole thing’s bad, and that’s not usually the case.
REENA: I never had that perspective before until you said that, and a lot of people are reevaluating the relationships with everybody, you know, from spouses, to friends in this pandemic. So, this letter we got. I want to read this to you. It says: ‘Hi, Dr. Lisa. My husband and I are getting divorced, and my 6-year-old daughter has been hammered this year with life in a pandemic and her parents’ separation. She seems fine on the surface, but I’m very aware of how sad and stressed she is deep down. Last night, I asked if she’s been sad since her dad moved out. She said yes, and that quote “things feel complicated now.” I feel her pain and wanted to know what a single parent like me should do to help. Also, I want to get help from a psychologist for both of us, but I find it’s hard to find a good one and she doesn’t like to sit and open up in a virtual session at all. Can you talk a little bit about the general methods of searching for a good psychologist? Thank you.’ It sort of broke my heart because you know there’s so many other kids also going through this, first off, right?
LISA: There were a lot of divorces in the pandemic.
REENA: Yes. Yeah.
LISA: That is of the early statistics is a lot more filings for divorces, and so it’s happened. Man, that’s a really good letter.
REENA: Yeah. It is a good letter. So, the child was saying that it’s complicated here is sort of vague. What worries do kids’ whose parents are getting divorced have that adults might not think about?
LISA: That’s the key, right? Right out of the gate, right? That’s the question, you know, that this kid is saying, you know the mom can sense that she’s in pain and the kid says, yeah, it’s complicated, but complicated is fake, and it’s such a loaded thing for a child when parents divorce, even if there’s been a lot of open disagreement and there’s been a lot of friction, it’s a big deal, always a big deal when parents decide to split up. I do like to think about developmentally about what the likely culprits are. So, for younger than six, but maybe even still at six, kids can have a lot of causal questions. They cannot be entirely sure how cause and effect works. So, if you’ve got a child zero five, for sure, well obviously zero is not going to be that verbal, you want to be very clear that the child didn’t do or say anything that brought the divorce about, which of course wouldn’t occur to a parent, but it would occur to the child, and also that the child has no power to do or say anything to make the divorce go away. You know kids can think, oh if I had just not spilled the juice and then got you upset and then Daddy was upset because you were upset, maybe then you wouldn’t get a divorce. So, with littler kids we definitely want to say, you know, this is a decision that, you know, we’re asuming here that the letter writer’s in a heterosexual relationship, this is a decision that your dad and I made, and it has nothing to do with anything you did or didn’t do. You know kind of insert that, and it’s worth saying probably that well into development, and then to say, and just because we we’re not wanting to be a couple anymore, that love has died down, doesn’t change at all our love for you and our shared delight in watching you grow. You know something like that to really help the child make a separation between choices the parents are making and what the child may be thinking or worrying about themselves.
REENA: Is that for any age groups? I’m hearing you say one, letting them know this wasn’t anything they did that caused this, and two that that love, support and structure will still remain and be there. That doesn’t change.
LISA: That doesn’t change, and I think that those are things that we say at every age. You know just you know, we don’t want to be a couple anymore, but that doesn’t change the fact that we love parenting you together, or that we are going to continue to both be in now your mom and your dad, and I think in this letter, so thinking now developmentally, so zero to 5, you’ve got to cover those bases for sure, but probably a little later in the development. Six, one thing that 6-year-olds are very very preoccupied with is wrong doing and fault and guilt, you know, it’s very much the nature of being 6 years old. You’re very curious about that. So, when I hear a 6-year-old saying, it’s complicated, what I presume developmentally is they’re thinking, whose fault is this? So, you’ve taken them off the hook by saying it’s not your fault, but then they’re like, well whose fault is it really? You know they’re very curious about this, and so with the 6-year-old, and again older kids certainly may want this kind of information, it may be worth saying, and this gets very tricky about how the divorce actually came about, you know, this is a decision we came to together. The relationship was no longer working for us, you know, this is a place we’re saying just because it wasn’t good between us forever, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, and we have you and that’s the best thing to come out of this marriage and we both value that, but to try to address the, no one’s at fault. No one’s to blame. We’re all moving forward, Reena, what this really makes me think about is our most recent episode of the frontstage and the backstage.
LISA: Because there’s a lot of frontstaging and backstaging when you’re a parent who’s divorcing. There’s what you’re saying to your kids to support and get them through it, which may be pretty different from what the full reality is about, you know, how the parent themselves feeling about the divorce, how the parents arrived at the divorce, and I think that there’s often such a huge tension in divorcing families about how much do we explain that there was an affair? How much to explain that we couldn’t get along financially? I mean how much do we lay bare all of those details? Versus how much do we, and you know, I think the best term for it is put on a good face and say, whatever our challenges are, those are not for you to worry about. Here’s what you need to know. We love parenting you, and we’re no longer, you know, spouses, but we are still co-parents, and that is something that, you know, is what you need to focus on, and that’s what we’re going to focus on.
REENA: But, you know, I imagine when you’re divorcing someone, most likely you can’t stand the other person. You don’t even want to co-parent. How can you make divorce easier when you can’t stand that person and you want to tell your kid it’s his fault because you probably feel that way, or it’s her fault because you probably feel that way?
LISA: Absolutely. So, you know, right, people don’t get divorces because things are going well.
LISA: So, we have this very real problem of an adult who is, I will also just say, they’re a wreck. I mean getting a divorce is a horrible thing, even if it’s the one that you wanted the divorce and you’ve been wanting the divorce, right? When the moment comes, the parent is a mess. I mean and just so struggling themselves, and so then, from that position, to have to basically bring the best parenting to the table they’ve ever bought while also trying to be neutral and generous about the other parent who they cannot tolerate or who they feel badly hurt by, right? I mean if you want to watch people do some herculean stuff, it is this moment in a life. So, let’s go big here, Reena. Let me just say what parents really, really, really want to avoid, and then we can get into the nuances of what they might do instead. So, for decades we’ve studied divorce, and this research really took off in the seventies when divorce took off and, really, a devoted group of researchers started measuring everything that went down in a divorce. You know, whether there was financial difficulty, whether there were moves, whether kids were moved from their school, you know, visitations. Like all sorts of variables, and then looking at how kids fare over time, and, you know, there are a lot of data points to work with, and one thing came blazing through as a thing that’s going to really make it hard for your kids to thrive, and it wasn’t moving, it wasn’t finances, it wasn’t all of these really disruptive aspects of life that sometimes come with divorce. It was whether or not the parents were in conflict in front of the kids. Whether the kids were exposed to ongoing conflict between the parents was the number one driver of outcomes that we don’t want.
REENA: Oh, interesting.
LISA: So, what I would say to parents is that’s your focus, right? Whatever else has happened, your focus is not to expose your kids to ongoing conflict between you and your ex.
REENA: But that’s so hard. Lisa, it’s so hard because you try not to argue in front of your kids, first off this pandemic has had us all on top of each other and driving each other mad, we all know that, and just to not fight, like how do you set that up? Because you probably want to strangle that person. You’re so fed up.
LISA: So, you might fight. If there’s any way to do it away from the kids where they can’t hear it. They can’t see it. If you’re going to fight, that’s the goal. Is to try to insulate them from that. Not easy. Not easy. Of course I would want people in counseling. Of course I want people to go, maybe have their fights in an office where they could get some help, even if they’re splitting up. The goal then is to resolve the relationship so that they can co-parent together, but I would just say, take it elsewhere. If you must fight, and if it’s ugly, like take it elsewhere. I’d rather there not be ugly fights, but I get it. The other challenge then is to not talk bad about the other parent to your kids.
REENA: That’s so hard. Come on. That’s so hard.
LISA: I know, and especially when it’s like right there in front of everybody and you are really, really undone by the divorce and, and to, you know, have a kid who’s maybe even asking questions like, why, why? It would be very hard not to be like, well, I’ll you why, right? And here’s what I would say about why if you need a reason to restrain yourself, here’s the reason to restrain yourself. Kids are made up of their parents. They identify with and admire and want to have good feelings about their parents, and so when you trash your ex, your kid feels an injury in there because they feel connected to that person and that person is part of them and they have that person in them. So when you’re trashing your ex, your kid feels it too, like that they’re being trashed a little bit too.
REENA: What? I have never thought of it that way.
LISA: Yeah. I think we want to think about it that way. So, if this mom is like, oh your dad, blah, blah, blah, blah, the little girl, the part of her that loves her dad, the part of her that feels like her dad, the part of her who has aspects of him that she wants to be like, those are getting hurt by what the mom is saying about the dad.
REENA: Wow. That’s so good to remember because even if you’re not getting a divorce, it’s been tough these past two years, and having everyone living together and so closely 24 hours a day, practically, you forget how that can affect development, even if you’re still together.
LISA: It can. It can. I’ll tell you, Reena, one thing that happened in the time I was in training, so I went to graduate school, I started in the fall of 1993, and email had just begun. It was the earliest iterations of the email, and I was doing a huge amount of work around divorce and helping divorcing families as email really gained traction. Email’s the best thing that ever happened to divorce.
REENA: Really, why?
LISA: Well because it used to be before email, which I know feels like basically historic times, right? Before email, that if parents needed to communicate or exes needed to communicate, they had to get on the phone or they had to each other, and then it could get very ugly very fast, and with email what needed to be communicated, because of course if you’re co-parenting there are a ton of logistics and things that have to be managed, so you do have to communicate, what needs to be communicated could be written down and then could be looked at to make sure it wasn’t nasty and then the person who receives it could have some time to respond to it, you know, without reacting just immediately to what’s being said, and the other thing, bluntly, Reena, there was also a written record of what happened. So, you know, a lot of families are in court, sometimes are in a pretty ugly court battle, and so all of those emails would then become sometimes swept into divorce court, and if they were nasty, they were nasty, and so you email was like this wonderful arrival in the world of divorce because suddenly parents didn’t have to talk to each other, didn’t have to be face-to-face, and there was a written record of what went down. So, I would say the more parents can shift their communications, if they cannot get along with each other and cannot separate being married from being co-parents, written communications are a real gift.
REENA: So, interesting. I was talking to a very high powered divorce attorney before we were taping this, and she was saying, Instagram. People don’t realize that Instagram has been used and text messaging has been used quite a bit in divorce cases because it lays out exactly where you’ve been, what you’ve done, what you’re thinking, and people forget. People forget that you leave traces, and those traces, your children can often see, and can be admitted into the record.
LISA: Yep, and so you can use this for problem or you can use it for good and and, you know, luckily email’s pretty private, so kids tend not to look at the folks’ email, but they do look at the folks’ texts. I want people to remember that, you know, a lot of our texts show up on our kids’ iPads or our family iPads, you know that they’re not nearly as contained as email are, and so I think, you know, we want to be careful about where we communicate and how, and, you know, this actually came up in our recent episode about, when do I give a kid a phone? Like what communication do you do under what channels? And email can make a big difference in things like this.
REENA: When you’ve helped counsel families, and I’m sure you’ve seen some really acrimonious divorces, what really helps people get through that angry point and focus on the children?
LISA: It can help to have support and can help have counseling, and there’s an important question in this that we’ll come back to about finding a good clinician. It can really help to separate out how I feel about the person as a spouse versus how I feel about that person as my kid’s other parent, and really try to support them as a co-parent, even if you can’t stand them as as a spouse. I will tell you there’s more parents can do, in addition to not bad-mouthing, which we really want to avoid, there’s two other things that parents can do that are very powerful in terms of getting things on the right track after divorce. So, the first thing, and this can feel like a stretch, but if a parent can do this, I think it’s an extraordinary thing. So, they be unable to stand their ex-wife, like just cannot stand her and have left for any variety of reasons or the marriage is over for any variety of reasons, but if that same parent can look at their child and say, oh that thing you do, you know, where you’re able to be so funny and charming with people, you get that from your mom. If they can admire within their child outwardly and openly the best aspect of the parent that they just broke up with, that is one of the most generous and decent things I’ve ever watched parents do, and it’s good. It’s good because what it says to the kid is, yeah, I know we are not together, but that doesn’t change my ability to appreciate your mom and what she’s done for you and appreciate the parts of you that are like the best of her. It’s like the opposite of trashing the parent, basically.
REENA: Wow. Wow. That really just resonates. I never looked at it as when you’re trashing the other parent, you’re also hurting the child because they see themselves.
LISA: Yep. And then you can flip it and you can actually admire your ex in them, but it also basically says, and this is a hugely important thing to communicate to kids in divorce situations, is I want you to feel good about both of us. Just because I don’t feel good about your mom, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel good about your mom, even though I don’t feel good about your mom as my ex. To start to keep inserting those different layers of what these relationships are really about because we don’t want kids thinking, you know, this parent is so angry at mom. This parent’s going to be upset with me if I have good feelings about mom. Like we really want to clarify that, and so that’s kind of a deceptively simple gesture of saying, oh that thing you do? You got that from your mom. It’s wonderful. It covers so much ground in saying, you know, I want you to feel good about her. I want you to feel good about both of us. I can feel good about her in terms of the best that comes from her into you. It does so much in a very small space.
REENA: So, if I have this urge. I’m getting divorced and I have this urge of really sticking it to my spouse who may have cheated on me, may have left me in financial ruins, definitely I feel destroyed. The life we had. What would you say to them to get them to stop poking the bear or sticking it to them that could affect their children? Like what’s one thing you think that can make people sort of realize why it’s important to work together?
LISA: I really think it is this piece around, we have the data. We have the data. I mean we have been able to study this over decades, and if you really want to get kids through a divorce, as unscathed as absolutely possible, the number one thing you do is you keep your conflicts separate. You really, really focus on being good co-parents, but then, Reena, this gets to the second thing. I mentioned there are a couple things parents can do. There’s a second thing that’s very, very tricky, which is, okay, so say the scenario you described. Maybe that person lied and cheated and you’re like, I’m done, it’s over. So then one day your 14- or 15-year-old comes home and says, I don’t think Dad was telling me the truth about something, right? So maybe that parent, you know, people, they are who they are. So, let’s go back to this heterosexual scenario, so the mom left the marriage because the dad lied and cheated, and then let’s say the teenage son comes home is like, Dad said something. I don’t think it’s true, right? And the parent’s thinking, I bet it’s not true, he lied a lot. Okay, this I find to be a very complex moment in divorce parenting because of course we’ve got the number one rule, which is you don’t trash the other parent, and so a parent who’s trying to to observe that rule is like, oh, ah, I don’t know what to say, but we also have the rule that we don’t want to lie to our kids, or we we don’t want kids to feel crazy, and so in those moments, if the parent can do it well, a good thing to remember is that even in good marriages, we explain our spouses to our kids, right? Even in good marriages, you know if you want mom to overreact, the way to do it is to leave your stuff in the middle of the dining room, and so we’re not trashing the parent, we’re just helping the kid navigate around the parent. So, in a good divorce, it is not out of bounds if a kid comes home and says, I don’t think Dad’s telling me the truth. For a parent, if they’re in the right space to say, you know, you may be right about this. That is one of the things I found challenging about your dad is that I could not count on him to be honest, and if you need some support around it I’m here to help you think about how to navigate it, but we’re both here for you, and I want you to know there is a lot good in your dad and I’m here to help you get the absolute best out of him. So, that’s like the asterisk on the no-trashing rule.
REENA: I love that. You know, I want to go back to this letter because this parent raises such a good question about virtual sessions for kids and finding a good psychologist. How do you find a good psychologist, and for people who are lucky enough to have insurance to pay for it too, it’s sort of hard, but I think we’re also so sick of Zooms, right? How do you get someone to really jive with your kid?
LISA: So, I love the question about finding a good clinician, and what I would ask around, ask your kid’s school, you know, often the counselors at a school will have a good sense of the local talent, ask your kid’s pediatrician. There are people who specialize in divorce. I think it’s really nice to work with somebody who’s seen it all, you know, because divorces, they do fall in patterns. You don’t have to try to figure this out for yourself. The question about a 6-year-old in therapy, and certainly virtual therapy, what I would say is with the younger child, often the parent can provide a lot of therapeutic support with good coaching. So, it’s not necessarily the case that a 6-year-old needs to always be in therapy unless they’re asking for it or are clearly having a difficulty where you’ve worked with someone and it becomes clear that the child being in therapy makes sense. I would say to this parent, maybe find a good person, even if it’s virtual, who can both help you and then also help you have conversations with your child that might bring forward the feelings that need to be discussed. It can work really well with younger kids for the parent to be the one talking a bit more about feelings, asking a bit more about how they’re feeling. With younger kids, they’re accustomed to talking with their parents about their feelings. They’re not as accustomed to talking with strangers, and that sometimes what happens is there’s good coaching of the parent, I will do this, good coaching of the parent over time and then we kind of hit a limit. It’s clear the kid still needs help, but the what the parent can do is now fully done, at which point then I will work with parents about bringing kids into therapy and getting therapy started and helping therapy makes sense, but I guess the sum here is, especially for younger kids, it’s not necessarily always the best first move to drop on the therapy and try to help them figure out how to use that space. The parent can often do quite a bit with help from the clinician.
REENA: That’s really great. What if your child doesn’t want to go see anyone and has shut down over this?
LISA: Yeah, I would say that’s where a good clinician can help you, you know, start to figure out how to get in there and how to be useful and how to think about what might be causing things. I would almost feel like there’s a lot of coaching that can be useful in divorce. We, clinicians, have seen so much that there’s a lot of wisdom available and a lot of mistakes you don’t have to make because we’ve seen it all, and so I would say get someone who feels like they can really help coach you through how to make this work for you and your kids best.
REENA: Such a great point. What do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: There’s some great literature around divorce, and I’m going to recommend two books that are really like. One is very old. It’s called “Growing Up With Divorce.” It’s by Neil Kalter, and he’s actually one of the people who trained me, and it’s a very, very thoughtful and very sophisticated book that looks at divorce in terms of immediate crisis, short term, aftermath and long term, and also breaks it down developmentally. So, it’s just a fantastic book with a ton of wisdom in it, and then the other book I love by Corcoran and Ross, has a very provocative title. It’s “Joint Custody with a Jerk.”
REENA: That’s great.
LISA: It’s a great title, and I think that the book very clever in that once you open, it also leaves open the possibility that you might be part of the problem. So, it’s a wonderful, wonderful book, but it’s brilliant, strategic, thoughtful, and if you’re going to get two books for yourself about divorce, those are the two I would recommend.
REENA:That’s great. We’ll put those up in our show notes for anyone who missed it, and thank you. I learned so much that I didn’t realize, also about parents who might be going through a divorce, and if you have a friend, your child’s friend or something. It’s just so helpful. So helpful for all of us to hear. I’ll see you next week?
LISA: I’ll see you next week.
REENA: And I hope you all take a moment to enjoy the holiday season. We’re going to be off next week and we’ll be back the following week with an encore episode. My Kids Looked at Porn. What Should I Do? Happy holidays.