Working with parents who are divorced, divorcing, or living separately can be both challenging and gratifying. In this excerpt from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen” we discuss some key issues and provide a case example. The main purpose of this post is to stimulate your thinking about working with this unique and interesting population of parents.
Here’s the excerpt:
Divorce will probably always be a controversial and conflict-laden issue within our society. In part, this is due to moral issues associated with divorce, but it is also due to the many knotty practical issues divorced parents frequently face.
Divorce and single-parenting choices still carry stigma and so parents will be monitoring for any judgments you might have about them. You may have very strong opinions about divorce or about people choosing to adopt or bear children while single. If this is something you can’t put aside and be nonjudgmental about, it’s best to put your views in your informed consent so parents know this explicitly about your practice. In most cases, professionals have values and beliefs they can keep in check while working directly with people who make choices far different than the professional might have made. For instance, you might firmly believe that all children should be born into a two-parent family with parents who are married and committed to the family, but you might still be able to be very helpful to a single gay parent who adopted a 10-year-old disabled foster child.
Because they’ve sometimes faced moral and religious judgments, divorced, divorcing, and never-married parents have substantial needs for support and education. Consequently, you should prepare yourself to provide that education and support. Their parenting challenges can be particularly acute and confusing.
The issue for practitioners working with parents is to avoid laying blame and guilt on parents for divorcing (generally, they already feel guilty about how their divorce might be affecting their children). Instead, your role is to help divorced, divorcing, or never-married parents manage their difficult parenting situations more effectively. What we need to offer is (1) emotional support for divorce- and post-divorce-related stress and conflict; and (2) clear information on specific behaviors parents can engage in or avoid to help their children adjust to divorce.
Providing Support and Educational Information
Most divorcing and recently divorced parents are in substantial distress and so parents and need comfort, support, and information. Consequently, we recommend talking with parents about divorce in a way that’s empathic and educational. In the following case, a father with three children has come for help in planning to tell the children. His children are 4, 6, and 8 years old.
Case: Talking about Divorce
PARENT: I’m really worried about how to talk with my kids about the divorce. I can’t get the right words around it. I know I’m supposed to say something reassuring like, “Your mom and I love each other, but it just hasn’t worked out and so that’s why I’m moving out because it will be best for us to live separately.” But then I worry that maybe my kids will think even though I love them now, it might not “work out” either and then I’ll end up leaving them, too.
CONSULTANT: This is tough. I respect how much thought you’ve given this. Even though the differences between you and your wife make it too hard to live together, it’s extremely hard to leave the home and torturous to talk with your kids about it.
PARENT: That’s for sure.
CONSULTANT: I can see you love your children very much and it feels really important to talk with them about the upcoming divorce using words that won’t scare them too much and that will help them know you and your wife tried, but you have now decided that the divorce is for the best. But before we do that, I have a different piece of advice.
PARENT: What’s that?
CONSULTANT: You should plan to have more than one divorce talk with your kids. I know you want to do this right and that’s great. But the good news and the bad news is that you’ll need to have this conversation many times. As your children grow older, they’ll have different questions. It’s your job to tell them you love them and to explain things in words they’ll understand, but not to tell them too much. There’s no guarantee they’ll understand this perfectly and so it may relieve pressure for you to know you’ll get other chances. Some people like to think of it like having a sex-talk. Kids will have different questions about sex at different ages and so parents shouldn’t have just one sex-talk. You need to be ready to have a sex-talk at any time as your child is growing up. The same is true for talks about divorce. You need to be ready to talk about it now and whenever your kids or you need to talk in the future. I’ve got a great tip sheet for parents going through divorce and I’d like to go over that with you, too. [See Appendix B, Tip Sheet 10: Ten Tips for Parenting through Divorce.]
In this situation, the family’s educational needs are significant, so the practitioner will probably offer the father a tip sheet, additional reading materials, and a recommendation to attend a group class on divorce and shared parenting.
It can be difficult for divorcing parents to talk with their children without blaming the other parent. This can be either blatant or subtle. We recall one parent who insisted he had the right to call his former spouse “The Whore” in front of the children “because it was the truth.” In these extreme cases, we’ve used radical acceptance to listen empathically to the emotional pain underlying this extreme perspective and then slowly and gently help the parent to understand that “telling the truth” to the children should focus on telling your personal truth and not on the other parent’s behavior. Although it can be difficult for divorced or divorcing parents to hear educational messages over the din of their emotional pain, it’s the practitioner’s job to empathically and patiently deliver the message. Usually divorced and divorcing parents eventually see that criticizing or blaming the other parent can be damaging to their children.
More information on this and other topics related to working with parents is available on this blogsite (see the Tip Sheets) and in the “How to Listen so Parents can Talk” book.