Divorce with Kids

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Divorce With Kids

Divorce is devastating under any circumstances. But if you have kids, divorce is even more fraught. In my experience as a marriage and family therapist and breakup recovery coach, divorcing parents are often worrying about how the end of their marriage will affect their children. I know that this can really ratchet up your pain and distress, and make a difficult situation even more challenging.

If you’re like most divorcing parents your number one priority is the mental and emotional wellness of your kids. You’re probably looking for answers to questions like, “how to tell your kids about divorce,” or “the impact of divorce on children,” or “healthy co-parenting strategies.” I’m so glad that you found this resource today!

Here’s something you should know right off the bat: The fact that you’re working so hard to educate yourself about how to help your children means 1) that you love and care about them so much and 2) you’re already doing a great job. Your efforts to help them through this mean that you’re the type of parent who’s going to get them through this in the healthiest way possible. You’re already doing it!

To support you in the work you’re already doing, I have put together another educational resource for you. On this episode of the podcast, I’m speaking with Dr. Amy Smith, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist on our team here at Growing Self who is an expert at helping families get through divorce. She has tons of experience coaching parents and many years of experience in helping divorcing parents learn how to help their children with the emotional and relational aspects of divorce too. 

If your marriage is ending and you’re worried about how your children will be affected, you’ll want to listen to this conversation. We’re talking about how to talk with your kids about the divorce, how to navigate co-parenting with your ex, and how to be the unwavering foundation your kids need — even when your own world feels like it’s falling apart. 

I hope you join us for all of this and more. You can listen here on this page, or find the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts (and subscribe to the show while you’re there!)

I sincerely hope that today’s show helps provide you with some insight and direction on how to help your children through divorce and that it helps ease your anxiety along the way.

You’ve got this!

Xo, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Divorce with Kids

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

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Kids and Divorce Podcast : Episode Highlights

As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve seen couples counseling transition to breakup or divorce recovery work many times, and I know it’s never easy for either partner.  

But if you’re worried about your kids, I have some good news: Research shows that divorce does not cause irreparable harm to children in and of itself. In fact, children actually may do better with divorced parents, if the alternative is living in a high-conflict environment. 

The key factor that determines how well children will cope with divorce is whether or not they place blame on themselves. It’s normal for young children to not have a clear sense of self, and blurry ideas about what they do and don’t control. For this reason, it’s critical to help kids understand that the divorce is in no way their fault. 

Effects of Divorce on Children

As kids come to terms with their parents’ divorce, it’s normal for them to have a lot of questions. They may be uncertain about where they’ll live, when they’ll see each parent, and what the future will hold. 

It’s also normal for them to feel a sense of loss and grief. Their family is changing on the most fundamental level, and they’ll need some time to accept this new reality, and to adjust to it. They may experience sadness, anger, anxiety, and withdrawal as they grapple with this change. 

In the short term, you may notice some behavior changes, like more tantrums, or getting into trouble at school. It can be helpful for parents to recognize that there are big, difficult feelings behind these behaviors. Giving your child an outlet to talk about these feelings will be more effective than taking a punitive approach. 

Being There for Your Kids Through Divorce

If you’re going through the stages of a breakup or divorce, you’re sorting out some big, messy feelings. It’s important to remember that you are there to support your children emotionally, but that they can’t be there for you in the same way. Avoid putting that responsibility onto your kids. Take good care of yourself, and look for other adults who can talk with you about the details of your split or who can support you as you work through painful feelings about your ex.

Talk with your kids about how they’re feeling, and acknowledge that what they’re going through is really difficult. Keep the dialogue open and encourage your child to come to you with any questions they have. 

Avoid talking negatively about your ex. However they’ve treated you, your child deserves to have their own relationship with both of their parents (as long as those relationships are safe). As hard as it is, this is truly a situation where if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to say nothing at all. 

Create Clear Co-Parenting Rules

As difficult as it can be when you’re in the midst of emotional turmoil, it’s important to work out a co-parenting plan with your ex that’s as positive and peaceful as possible. 

Getting really specific about what is ok and what isn’t can help you sidestep future conflict, and spare your children from the stress of their parents fighting. Will you pick up, or drop off your child when it’s your time with them? Will you come inside? Can the kids have video calls with their other parent while they’re in your custody? How will you communicate with your ex about your child? Think through questions like these and try to create an amicable divorce agreement that puts your kids first. 

Also, keep this in mind: You will make mistakes! This is very difficult, and sometimes your feelings will get the best of you. If you don’t navigate co-parenting as gracefully as you hoped, don’t be afraid to acknowledge that to your child, apologize, and try to do better next time. 

When You Don’t Like How Your Ex Parents

Co-parenting goes from tricky to exasperating when you don’t like the way your ex parents. Maybe they let your child eat too much sugar, or spend too much time on screens. Maybe they’re not being as ethical about how they talk to your child about the divorce as you’re striving to be. 

The first question to ask yourself is, is my child safe? If the answer is no, you should absolutely step in. But if the answer is yes, pick your battles carefully. You won’t parent exactly the same way your ex does, and you won’t be able to control everything that goes on when you’re not there. 

If your ex is badmouthing you to your child, it can be tempting to retaliate with the same behavior. Avoid this. Your children will make up their own minds over time about the divorce, and pulling them in opposite directions will only do harm. 

Parental Alienation

One of the most heartbreaking outcomes of a divorce can be a child becoming alienated from one of their parents. Parental alienation may happen because of an ex “turning the child” against the other parent, or because of how the child interprets the divorce. 

Losing your relationship with your child, or seeing that relationship grow distant, is truly painful. The best thing you can do is offer your continued, unconditional love and support. Avoid trying to retaliate against your ex by interfering in their relationship with your child. This will be damaging to your child, and is likely to backfire. 

The best thing you can do is to continue letting your child know you are there for them, no matter what. Never give up on your relationship with your child. As they mature, they’ll have a more nuanced understanding of the divorce, and they’ll have opportunities to reconnect with you. 

Kids and Divorce

If you’re going through a divorce and worrying about how it will affect your children, stay strong. This is such a turbulent time, and I know it can be overwhelming. 

I hope our conversation gives you hope that your divorce does not have to be profoundly damaging for your kids. With support and an open dialogue, you can help them adjust to this new reality, and grow into happy, healthy adults. 

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: On today's show, we're talking about divorce with kids. Nobody wants to get divorced, and it is not the most pleasant topic to discuss on this podcast or elsewhere. But divorce is also incredibly real, and it's common. If you are looking down the barrel of a divorce right now, I know that you need help with this. You need guidance because this is really hard. It's a difficult experience for anyone. But it's especially hard if you're a parent, and trying to figure out how to have a healthy divorce with kids involved. 

There are just so many things to figure out: How to talk to your kids about divorce? How to separate your lives with children? How to co-parent? The biggest thing I think is how to meet the emotional needs of your children while it feels like your own life is kind of falling apart, at least for a while. This is tough stuff for anyone. Again, it's just so incredibly important to be talking about this so that you can get good information to help guide you through this transition.

That's what we're talking about on today's show. That is why I have invited my colleague here at Growing Self, Dr. Dr. Amy Smith to join us because she is a true expert on helping divorcing families get through this transition in the healthiest way possible for all involved, and I wanted you to have the very best help. I have invited her to chat with us today. 

Dr. Amy, thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Amy: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here today.

Dr. Lisa: It's gonna be a great conversation. Now I do need to formally introduce you. With other guests, I would probably ask them to share a little bit about themselves. I know you are so modest, and you're not going to toot your own horn. I'm actually going to go ahead and get that horn for you, okay? 

Dr. Amy has a Ph.D. in applied developmental science, master's degree in human development and family studies with a specialization in marriage and family therapy. She is also a university professor at Colorado State University. She's the author of multiple peer-reviewed journal articles, encyclopedia articles. She is an expert on parent-child relationships. She also is a certified family life educator through the National Council of Family Relationships. All that to say, Dr. Amy, you know what you're talking about on this topic?

Dr. Amy: Hopefully! I feel that we always have things to learn but it is an area that I love to work with. Because it's so hard to be going through divorce. It's hard to parent anytime. Sometimes, we just need a little extra support when we're going through all of those changes as well.

Things to Consider When Divorcing With a Child

Dr. Lisa: It's so hard, it is so hard. To your point, especially hard when divorce is on the table. Let's just jump right into your topic. I mean, I know you're a wealth of information around how to go about this in the best way possible. I think on today's show, we've talked a lot on shows in the past about what it's like for adults and relationships, and how to stop the divorce potentially, or things to consider if you are thinking about getting divorced. I would refer you back to other podcasts on that topic. You can scroll back through our feed to find them.

Really today, this is for somebody who has either decided that this needs to happen, or who is in a relationship with someone who has decided for them that this needs to happen. They are just so agonized about not just their own feelings in relationship, but like, “What is this going to do to our kids?” And “How do I help the kids with us?” I think the biggest fear for a lot of parents in the situation is that the divorce is going to harm the children emotionally, relationally, irreparably. Can you speak to that a little bit? I mean, what does the research say?

Dr. Amy: The research in this area really does show that it's not irreparable harm to kids. It's hard for kids. Anyone going through that kind of transition, or there's a lot of uncertainty and unknown. And so often, kids can struggle a little bit. It's hard to go through that. Kids might have a lot of questions. It varies a little bit depending on how old they are. With an older kid might have a few more questions, and a one or two-year-old just from where they're able to have questions. There’s an adjustment period. It's difficult. There's research outcomes that say kids tend to do okay, particularly when they don't place blame on themselves for the divorce or the conflict, or when they're able to sort of recognize “This isn't my fault that it's happening, but I'm able to know that it is happening, and have that support through it.” 

They tend to turn out okay, and it goes away. They can have healthy relationships after that, as well. There's actually some research in kids that says that, “When there's really high conflict, or there's a lot of conflict going on in the home, the kids actually have sometimes better outcomes when there's a divorce, and the conflict is reduced in their lives.” If that's sort of the decision that's happening. Really, when that conflict is able to be de-escalated, or there's just less conflict around that — not to say divorce is the only path forward to reduce conflict. But that high level of conflict between parents also has negative outcomes for kids.

Recognizing there's lots of different paths forward, but paths forward that allow kids to know this isn't their fault — that they are loved going through it, and that they still have their parents who care about them. They still tend to turn out okay, even if it's a difficult adjustment period, or there some questions, or things that they want to explore. They still turn into good, healthy functioning adults most of the time.

Dr. Lisa: That's so reassuring. Everybody, you heard it here from a legitimate expert that going through divorce is not going to ruin your child's life, or damage them forever, and that it's going to be okay. 

Dr. Dr. Amy, I did also hear you say that it is normal and expected to have a transitional period where it is hard. I also heard you say that there are certain ideas or messages that kids really need to be getting from their parents in order to have those positive outcomes. Let's just take those one at a time. If it's okay. What would you say is normal and expected for kids to be feeling or going through as their parents are making this transition that may be some of the harder stuff and again. Not wanting to talk about this to be all negative, but sort of to prepare parents for what they can expect and how to help. So, what’s normal? 

Dr. Amy: Sure, normal can look a lot of different ways. So I'll try to… 

Dr. Lisa: I said that. I was like, “What am I talking about? What's normal?”

Dr. Amy: There’s a lot of variation there. Kids can often… I would say they still have lots of questions about it, or, it's a confusing thing about life has looked one way. Up until now, and now there's a big change in my world. I don't know what that… I don't know why it's happening. I don't know what that means for me. A lot of kids might have friends that have divorced parents, and they see their parents every other week. But then they have another friend and they do summers and holidays. There can be so many questions that they have like, “Who am I going to live with?” “Do I still get to see my dog?” “Do my favorite toys even get to go with me if I'm changing home?” Often, there's a lot of confusion and questions. Sometimes those questions… Kids often ask, “Is it my fault?” “Did I do something wrong that led my parents to not be wanting to be together?” “Is it because of me?” 

When we think developmentally, kid’s brains are also still learning that idea of self, and then “How do I influence the rest of the world?” That idea that probably “I'm influencing everything that happens in the world” is very developmentally normal for kids. It can be a little bit tricky when we have that normal perspective, and we're going through this big outcome to say, “Well, I'm sort of influencing everything.” Or “I'm figuring that out that probably I influenced this divorce.” And maybe they didn't really at all. 

Some of those questions, and confusions, and wanting clarity, there can also be, a lot of grief or loss for kids of, “I've gotten to see both of my parents all the time, and I love both of my parents. Now, I don't get to see them all the time.” Or “I don't know what that's going to look like and I'm sad.” Or “I'm sad that I don't live in the same house all the time if we have to move.” There can be that sort of element of loss for them too. That makes a lot of sense. Whenever we have changes, and changes are hard. There's uncertainty that they could still be okay, and they're losing something so often that confusion or loss tends to come into play. 

Sometimes, there's that… Kids tend to either go internal to themselves of how we see that. That can look like, “Maybe I'm withdrawing some” or “I seem more sad” or “ I'm crying more.” Those kind of internal behaviors that could maybe be a little bit feeling more anxious, or “Can I control things” or they could also have external symptoms. That might mean more pushback, or maybe if you're a kid that's usually pretty mild-mannered is starting to talk back a lot or really resist rules. Sometimes, that is a really normal reaction, or if we start being a little bit more flamboyant in our interactions, and even beginning a few more arguments at school, or more tantrums, if they're in that age. Those would be external behaviors that also sort of saying the same thing. 

Sort of seeing some of those changes. Short-term can be normal to see and wanting maybe to support your kids through that, and really being able to identify where are those things coming from, what are they feeling. Helping them explore that can be really helpful. But it is normal either to see some behavior changes too at times.

Dr. Lisa Wow, that was just so much information! To make sure that I'm following — developmentally, kids are very self-referential. They're little narcissists. Everything is about them, right? Because of that, they can blame themselves, or feel a sense of responsibility, or guilt. That can be normal, and it needs to be really addressed directly. I'm also hearing you say that, because this is a loss, they will also commonly have really big emotions, sometimes it is sadness. 

But sometimes, that can look a lot of different ways. Anxiety, which turns into controlling behaviors. Anger, which can be difficult as a parent, and withdrawal, isolation, rejection of others. These are just symptoms, I guess, of these really super big feelings that are going on in kids. They need help from parents in order to be able to manage those. I'm so glad we're talking about this because we're both family therapists. Sometimes, you see kids…  And here come my air quotes. You can see this on the video if you're watching, but if you’re on audio you can't. My air quotes is that kids are behaving badly because they are doing weird controlling things. 

They are lashing out, or breaking rules, or being defiant, or not doing their homework, or stuff. It can be easy for parents to take a sort of like punitive approach with kids like they tried to start managing the “bad behaviors,” and sometimes miss the fact that there are big feelings. Normal, healthy, appropriate feelings. Do you see that in your work?

Dr. Amy: Often, when I work with families. Either I'm working with parents or a family that often we see behaviors, and we want to stop the behavior because they're not working for some reason. But often, if we're getting into fights, or we're really talking back or things like that make sense, as parents, we'd want to sort of stop that behavior. Often, those behaviors are a way of saying, “I don't really know what I'm feeling” or “I'm feeling something big, and I don't know how to express it” or “I'm trying to show you that I'm having those feelings.” Either way, we often pay maybe more attention to those big external behaviors. Those internal ones sort of have the same impact, even if we're keeping it all inside. 

We seem like we're functioning really well. Sometimes, those feelings are still all packed up, and maybe a tighter little bundle but they aren't coming out. But it's still important for those kids to have, the outlet and the space to talk about it, and to know that those feelings are okay and that they make sense. As parents, you're sort of still there of, “We care about you, we understand you can have those feelings. Let's figure out what we do about them.” Being able to recognize that it's not just the kids that act out, but sort of that act in, too, both wanting that support. Sometimes, it's easier to see the acting out as the problem behavior.

How to Tell Your Kids About Divorce

Dr Lisa: As opposed to the perfectionistic 14-year-old girl who's the star of the school play, and throwing up her lunch every day in the bathroom. Like that kind of… We miss that. The ones that hide. I'm hearing you say is that a lot of the outcome for kids really depends on the parents’ capacity and willingness to be that emotional partner in that place for kids. 

Certainly, a parent could send their kid off to therapy to have that one hour a week of talking about their feelings, or I'm sure a lot of the work that you do is really around that, as a parenting coach, helping parents learn how to engage with their children in a more emotionally substantive way. Do you… And I know that this is a podcast and beyond the scope of our 45 minutes together, whatever it is, and people… You do multi-sessions of family therapy around this. But what would be some of your recommendations or strategies to help parents just kind of reorient themselves and almost know how to be with their kids in a way that's helpful for their kids? 

Dr. Amy: Yeah! That was like very…  

Dr. Lisa: Oh, thank you for saying that because I just felt very convoluted as that came out of my mouth.

Dr. Amy: I think one of the first biggest tips is to recognize that even though you're, as a parent, being that emotional partner, like that support for your kids to process, sort of that recognition that it is a one-way street of you're there to support your kids feelings, but your kids aren't there to support yours. Sometimes, that's really hard because when we go through divorce, or we're thinking about our any of those process, as a person, there's a ton of feelings, and lots of things that come up, and we want support and validation. That makes perfect sense. When you're thinking of a kid that's maybe a little bit at the middle, we might want that reassurance that your kid does love you, or that they want to be with you. It's not necessarily your kid’s job to give that to you, or to hear the problems between parents. 

Wanting to be able to provide kids answers, provide kids information, without having it be their responsibility to take care of us because it's not a kid's responsibility to do, and that's a really big burden for a kid to carry. Doing things like saying, if a kid had a question, “Mom and dad have decided that we're not going to stay married together. We know that's a really hard thing to hear. We've been trying to figure it out, and it's not going to work for us. But we want you to know that we both still love you, and we care about you, and nothing's going to change. We're still going to be mom and dad.” Kind of providing that validation and information without making it their responsibility. That's sort of one of the steps is offering that support without doing that. 

The other thing is you can tell your kids that it's okay to have feelings like, “Actually, no! This is a really big change that we're going through, and it is going to be different. Do you have any questions? How do you feel about it. You can come talk to me at any time.” Maybe even checking in with them about things, and that's depending on the age. If we're old enough to do that, but as little kids too, just that reassurance that they're loved, and that it's not their fault. Answering those questions that they have. If they come to you and say… Maybe they say, “You know, I sometimes I feel angry.” Or I feel… Kids sometimes act out in their bodies like, “My tummy gets tight when I think about it.” That makes sense. 

It's okay. If you're angry with us right now, we made an adult decision, and that adult decision is impacting you. You can be angry at us, but we can talk about that. It's okay to do that. Saying whatever those emotions are coming up — same goes for sadness, or anything that they're feeling — that makes sense that you'd feel that way. This is really hard. Then, we can model those coping behaviors for our kids to, “What do we do when we're angry? Should we go get our pillow? We can hug our pillow really tight because no one gets hurt if we hug our pillow really tight.” Or “Is it that sometimes we just need a little extra cuddle time? Should we go read a story together?” There's also really great storybooks about families going through a divorce, like the things that won't change or… Families look all sorts of different ways. We've been having those kinds of resources available.

Dr. Lisa: Will you send me, If you think about it after we finished recording our interview, send me links to some of your favorite books, and I'll include them in the show notes of this podcast so people can find those links. But go on. This is great!

Dr. Amy: I will definitely send those links. Doing those things that make it normal, or even checking in with them. Sometimes,we might have family routines like we have pancake breakfasts on Saturdays, and that's something we've already done and you want to continue that tradition, and maybe you're doing it for the first couple times without their other parent being there and saying, “It's a little different that we're doing this. Just me and you now…” Or “…me and your siblings. How are y'all doing with that? Should we still do that?” So, kind of checking in on where they're at, “Do we want to maintain that? Does that feel really good?” Or “Do we need to switch to waffles, and have something new and something fun?” Big on breakfast food today. Kind of checking in on what is that's important. 

The other thing would be to the extent that your parenting agreement has. Kind of validating that… Of course it makes sense they would still want to talk to their other parent, or they still love their other parent. That makes sense. When we have two parents that are really good, safe parents, kids deserve to have that connection with both of them, and they want that. That kind of goes into just maybe a what not to do. Not bad talking their parent to them. 

Sometimes not saying anything is better than saying. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. We'll go back to that that we learned when we're kids. If we can't say something nice about their parent, don't say that they're a bad parent because what a kid can sometimes hear is that, “Well, if my two parents. I came from two parents. If one of my parents I'm hearing is really bad. What does that mean for me? Does that mean I have the bad? Or what does that mean?” Or “Is it bad that I want connection with this person that I still love them.” Being able to separate the conflict between parents, and then there's the relationship between kids and their parents. Those are not the same thing. Someone might not be the best spouse for you, or there might be thoughts every since that ended, and it doesn't mean they can't still be a good parent for your kids. So, trying to recognize and balance that for them as well.

Dr. Lisa: So much to unpack here. I heard you say that how to explain divorce to a child and how to tell your kids about divorce… It matters the way that you're describing what's happening, the way that you're communicating. That's something that parents can do to shape this experience for children is to get real clear and intentional about how am I talking about this.

My other takeaway from what you said is that it's incredibly important for parents to be very actively managing their own emotional turmoil in a way that helps them be not just emotionally present, but emotionally safe for their kids. Don't send the kids to therapy. You go to therapy. You have a place to talk about all these feelings of anger and rage, and hurt, and fear. That one-way street… Do not share that with your kids. It's your job as a parent to be a safe space for your children, to talk with you about how they're feeling. That your job is to invite that, and just be extremely validating and affirming, and make it okay to do that. 

I also heard you talk about the need to be really intentional about routines, and things that help children kind of maintain that sense of… I don't want to say sameness, but our new normal and positive ways, “This is the breakfast and dad's not here. That's kind of weird, but we can have pancakes anyway. You want to talk about how weird it feels that dad isn't here.” Without trying to  talk them out of their feelings. 

Dr. Amy: That's okay to feel weird. Weird isn't always bad. It's just weird. 

What is Parental Alienation?

Dr. Lisa: Okay. Moving on you were talking about… I think what is a really important topic…  Because it's almost like there's the short-term pieces of a divorcing family, divorcing parents around how do we manage the first conversations, the big feelings that might be occurring right around the time of the separation in those first few months. There's also this almost longer-term peace around the family dynamics that can start to happen when parents actually don't like each other, and sort of what to do with all that in a healthy way so that it doesn't begin to negatively impact the children and their feelings.  

For our listeners, in addition to other things, Dr. Amy is also an expert on the subject of parental alienation, and what all happens there. I think we were kind of dipping a toe into that pool a little bit around what happens when parents start talking about their negative feelings with their kids in a way that's really unhelpful for the children. I know, that's a big topic on its own. 

Can you share a little bit more about what do parents need to be keeping in mind when they are awash in big feelings that… Maybe your ex did cheat on you, maybe they were horrible to you through the divorce and hid assets, and are demanding, trying to litigate you out of existence. I mean, those things happen in yucky divorces. To be in a situation where you still need to be fairly positive with your child about their dad or mom or whatever. That's hard. Can you say more about this piece of experience like…

Dr. Amy: And it is still so hard. We talk sometimes about these solutions. When we're just sitting here having a conversation, they can sound so easy to do like, “Here's my step-by-step book.” They are so hard to do. It's more like the first step on the moon type step-by-step book. I do just want to say that it's not an easy thing to do, by any means. In recognizing that, sometimes we do have valid reasons why we might not like the other person all that much. I think one thing that's important to remember is they don't have to be a good partner for you. They don't have to be the right person for you to be with. They're always going to be your kids’ parents. We can't change who our parents are — a little bit of that recognition. 

Sometimes, we have to get a little creative. What can you do? Maybe there are situations where having an exchange for parents like, “I don't think I can see this person right now.” And have a good exchange for that. Maybe my sibling or your good friend, or whoever they do the drop-off, you have a neutral person. Maybe they're living with this new partner, and you're not ready to see that at all. We can't do those exchanges or drop-offs at their house. “Oh, let's meet at a coffee shop.” And have it be sort of a neutral territory. Being able to have those creative situations of knowing yourself, and maybe have to do a little bit of self-exploration to know those things for yourself. 

Saying, “I know I can't go into this situation and handle it well, then I'm not going to put myself and my kids in that situation. I'm going to figure it out on a creative other way to do that.” If there are situations where maybe there's those times we’re like, “If I have to answer something about my ex-partner, I'm not going to say anything nice.” You could say to your kid, “I'm really glad that you had a great visit with them” or “I'm glad that you still had a special time with mom or dad” or “That sounds like a really fun experience, I'm glad you got to do that.” 

Sometimes not saying anything about your own feelings, and then go have your person to go talk to it about, and whether that be your therapist, or your friend, or whoever your safe space is going to be like, “Oh my gosh, let me tell you everything that just drove me crazy…” Doing it not maybe outside the doorway where your kid is, where they can overhear. Kids are really good at hearing everything that goes on around. 

Finding your safe space and your safe person, and being able to have all of those emotions. In the moment, just saying what you can say and doing what you can. Sometimes, there's little tips in that too… Tends to be easier to drop a kid off versus pick them up. If one parent is posed to pick up, what if they come, and you're in the middle of something or it's hard or so being able to do the drop off on a scheduled time–-being able to follow that often.

If we're in an area where there's a lot of contention, or there's going to be a lot of disagreements, having a really clear parenting plan about what is or isn't allowed. It could be, “Are we allowed to FaceTime with our kids during the week?” If it is “Yes, you're allowed to have a video call every day” for either side when your kid isn't in your custody, you always have that fallback plan of “This is what we agreed to.” If one person's not following through on that, you have that safeguard. Sometimes, it's really thinking in advance of what do I want this to look like. 

Parenting plans can be very creative. Creating what you want it to be, with the exception of it's probably not going to be everything that you want it to be. Probably in an ideal world, you want your kids all of the time for it not to happen. Thinking of those priority things and being able to say, “Okay, we're each going to navigate that.” Sometimes, it's helpful to do a little bit of how do we effectively communicate with each other to whether… Maybe you go work with a therapist or a coach some time on. We don't need to solve all of our issues necessarily. We've decided we're not doing that. We do have to know how we can communicate effectively. And that's, “Can we do that? Can we at least get the skills to co-parent?” 

Even though we can divorce someone, they're still in our life for the rest of our life because they're in our kid's life. There's events like future weddings, or graduations or all of those milestones, they're going to be there. Finding out a way that we can maybe be around them without it ruining that whole event for you, it's so special as a parent. It can be really helpful too.

Divorcing with Kids

Dr Lisa: Again, so much good stuff. What I was thinking of just really briefly. As you're talking about like that parenting plan and the agreements. I don't know if you caught this, but there was a podcast — I think it was last year — excellent podcast with a family law attorney. Her name was Stephanie Randall. It was like how to have an amicable divorce. She just provided so much really great information for people to be thinking about, and just like ways of negotiating certain things like parenting plans in order to have it be as good as possible. I'll just refer our listeners back to that. 

What I heard you saying like emotionally, and relationally, for parents with kids is–-and this is a really simplified way — I think of saying it, no matter… In some ways, how bad things get for you, and how bad you feel that your job as a parent is really to insulate your child from that as much as you possibly can–-being very thoughtful and intentional about the things you share, and having a well-developed way of managing all of these feelings outside of the relationship with your kid. But also the high degree of emotional intelligence knowing, “This is a trigger for me, and I'm not even going to try to do a drop-off in this situation because I know I'm going to lose it.” Figuring out how you can solve the practical situation without putting yourself in a vulnerable situation emotionally. Like, there's so much there.

Dr. Amy: I'll say we're not going to get it right all the time probably. That's okay. Actually, we can model really great behaviors for our kids. Let's say, we did the drop-off, and you got really mad, and we argued, and the kid could even go back to them and be like, “Gosh, you know what? I thought about it, and in our drop-off, I got really mad that time. Did you see that? I had some big feelings too.” Or “I was really angry and I didn't handle that quite the way that I wanted, and I'm sorry that you saw your parents fighting like that. I want you to know that wasn't about you and that wasn't a ‘you’ thing. I'm going to try to do it differently in the future. I'm sorry that I acted like that.’ Sometimes, dad does make me mad, but that's okay. We're going to figure out where we go from there. 

Being able to apologize or model that of, “Yep, you're right. Sometimes we aren't going to do it perfect, and that's okay.” Really, that goal is that we're trying our best to get there, or we're doing our best, and maybe it gets easier over time, or we're a couple of years in and there's a thing or like, “Gosh, where did that come from? I thought those feelings weren’t there.” It's okay to figure that out, and that we can always try again. There's always the next day and we can try again the next day, and that's an okay thing too.

Dr. Lisa: That's wonderful. To direct very directly and explicitly, the creating emotional safety is by being authentic like, “Did you see me right there? Totally lost it.” And acknowledging what that was like for the child, but also modeling for the kid how we repair times when maybe we did make a mistake. 

In the back of my mind right now, I'm imagining that we have one of our listeners sitting with us right now in this conversation, who is one of these people who I know you and I have both worked with closely, Dr. Amy over the years, who is in a situation where they have maybe grave misgivings about the way that their ex does parent. They don't trust their ex to meet their kid’s needs. They're worried about their child, and they're part ex-partners care. 

I think a lot of times parents who are divorcing, that right there is the hardest thing for them because they have certain standards of parenting that maybe their ex isn't doing, or maybe it's not even about giving them candy and going to bed without brushing your teeth. But maybe the ex on the other side is actually bad-mouthing you to the kid and isn't trying to be as ethical emotionally with the children as you are being. 

Bad things are being said about you on the other side. Again, this is a big topic and we're not going to talk about everything in our short time together. I know people spend months with you trying to unpack all this. But do you have any basic ideas or thoughts that might be helpful, even just as a starting point for someone who is in this reality where they're trying real hard for their kids, and maybe their ex is slinging sauce and being mean, and being questionable? Do with that.

Dr. Amy: It is so hard because, on one hand, we can only control what we do. We can't make another person change, although sometimes that feels like it would be the easiest situation. There's sort of two scenarios you described. There's the one scenario of I don't really like how this person parents too. Maybe I have disagreements about it. The first question is, “Are your kids safe? If the answer is that they're not safe, you should step in and do something, and try to figure that out. Because we, as parents and professionals, we want kids to be safe, first and foremost. 

A lot of times, though, kids are safe and we don't like what's going on. Bedtimes a lot later than we think it should be, or they're eating a lot more sugar. In those cases, it's sort of… Let's pick our battles on that, if it's… This diet really is important for some reason. Maybe, here it is… Well, maybe then we need to negotiate that. But if it's, bedtime is 7 p.m. versus 8 p.m., and we don't like that it's 8 p.m., it's okay. Then we pick our battles on that because you're probably going to parent differently in different households, and that gets even more complicated if somebody gets remarried, or there's more kids added into the mix. 

Kids can kind of adapt between those two rules. Having routines or things for your own kids, when they come home like, “First night back, we do movie night,” or “We're going to have that meal together,” or whatever those routines are that you can establish. It's really helpful to provide that consistency or expectation for kids if they know what's going to happen. That can even be maybe that's not being done on the other side, but they know that routines there with you. That can be kind of grounding and hopeful. Doing what you can and helping that. 

Sometimes, it can be… I see it come up a lot of times of, “Are we going to church or not?” and that can be different, or maybe we have different political things we're telling our kids about, or different… Those value differences can be really hard to hear. Your kids are probably going to experience that sometime in their life too. We can practice it and be like, “Yeah, people really believe different things in this house. But we believe it's this, and this is what we've really been doing. You're right, that's different in that house.” That can be confusing. 

We need to talk about that more. Who can we find to talk about that? Sometimes that can be helpful. Sometimes, there's the other thing that you mentioned was really, when parents kind of bad-mouthing you or they're not doing any of these things.

Dr. Lisa: Or using the kids emotionally, or like doing all the things that you said to not do, right?

Dr. Amy: What we generally want to do is do the same thing back and to kind of defend ourselves. It makes sense of, “Well, they do that too” or, kind of we… 

Dr. Lisa: Let me tell you the truth.

Dr. Amy: What that does is it puts our kid in a very stuck position of having to choose sides. Kids don't want to pick sides, and that's really, really tough. Being able to say… came in and they're like, well, “so and so”, they said this, and it doesn't even have to be the other parent. It could be another step-parent or a grandparent, or anyone involved could be saying the negative things about you. “I really wish they hadn't said that to you. I'm going to tell you the truth, and the truth is that, ‘Yeah, we do disagree a lot,’ or ‘Mom and Dad, we don't get along very well.’ But one thing that's true is that we're both trying to love you.” Or they brought up a situation like “Oh, you don't like this” or “We can't do this because of you. Dad said that.” 

Well, you can own your truth and be like, “Gosh, I don't know why dad would say that, but I love this. Here's what I actually think is true for me.” And then sort of period. Stop. Don't go to the… say your dad is wrong, or they're saying that, but sort of owning or mom's wrong, “No, actually, this is what's true.” Sometimes you can even provide the data to choose it like, “Well, mom said we can't pay for the soccer game” and be like, “You know, you're right! I don't have the money for that, and that's really hard….” because sometimes money looks different, “That's right. But it's not because I don't love you, or isn't because I don't want to pay for that. It's just I can't really afford that right now. Maybe we can think about how we could do it in the future.” 

Being able to acknowledge what's true and what's your truth, and providing that consistency and stability that you can do, and kind of being there for that. Recognizing…  Again, you probably need to go to that safe person to handle that. While we want to be those people for our kids, getting a professional involved for your kids, and getting them to see a therapist can also be helpful during that time, particularly in that high conflict to say, “You don't have to try to take care of Mom or Dad. This is an adult that’s safe, and you can talk to it. You can talk about all of those confusing feelings.” And that kid doesn't have to worry about hurting anybody's feelings that are saying the wrong thing. They just have a safe space, and they can get the coping tools, and they can navigate it, and they can be honest about what's coming up. That can be really, really helpful for kids as well.

Malicious Parent Syndrome

Dr. Lisa: I could totally see. That would be definitely an argument. Get the kid therapy so that they don't have to try to take care of anybody emotionally, and can just feel what they feel and figure out their own truth. That's a good reminder. Just what a difficult situation, though, emotionally. As I heard you talking about how a thoughtful parent could handle those situations where maybe they are being bad-mouthed on the other side is that to balance how maybe good it feels to say, “Yeah, I can't pay for soccer because your father hid his retirement assets. When we…” The whole truth, versus this idea of, “It is not good for my kid to hear negative things about either of us. It's not good for my kid for me to say bad things about their other parent, even if I am completely justified.”

Doing so…  And that would… Is something that can be challenging to get to. There's a sort of other corollary here. I don't want to spend our time together without talking about this just a little bit because I know that parental alienation is a very real thing. I know you're an expert on this topic. This is a situation when there has been a lot of negativity or bad-mouthing about one parent from the other. It does have an impact. Can you say a little bit more about what parental alienation is, and how to manage it?

Dr. Amy: It's a really tough area. I'll say parental alienation exists on a spectrum. Often, when we talk about it, we talk on like, the worst-case scenario, situation of parents that are safe, good loving parents that don't have any access to their children for some way, or the kid has sort of turned against them, even though they are good safe parents. That's one sort of caveat, when we're talking about it that parental alienation really only exists when there's two parents that should have contact with their children. In situations where there was any abuse or neglect, that's not parental alienation to not have your kid have contact with them. 

That's being safe. It's one definitional point is that it's between when there's two safe parents, and that it can exist on any spectrum from that kind of bad-mouthing and confusion creating, and that can go really big to kids saying, “Well, I'm not going to go to your visitation” or “I'm not going to do that.” One of those things can be protective is, again, going back to those, legal orders that we have in those protected rights of saying, “You actually have to do this, or this has to be done” because sometimes what happens is you don't get to go to visitation or the kid is gonna say, “I don't want to go” or “I don't want to answer the phone.” 

The courts can be used as a way to kind of, “Nope, this is the order. This is what we're doing.” Having that safe ground and being intentional in how you create it can help, and navigating…   

That sort of navigating that support. There are cases I've worked with where people 

don't have contact with their kids at that point and that is just heartbreaking to do. Sometimes, the best we can do is try to maintain that consistency. 

One of the things we know that doesn't work is to do the same behaviors. On the other end of things, and sometimes, kids get to be adults, or they can change in the future. Recognizing that it was really hard, and it's really tricky, trying to navigate that continual contact, “I'm still here, I'm still showing up for you.” That looks different in different contexts of there's a little kid versus a teenager showing up might look very different. But often, it's very… 

Let's go to the preventative: Can we figure out where that's coming from? Can we do some couples work together? Or if I'm just having that time, I can… You can disagree with behaviors without bad-mouthing another person and say, “I really wish mom or dad wouldn't say those things, and I really hope that you can trust that what I'm telling you is what's true for me. We only get to say what's true for ourselves. I want you to know that I love you and I care about you, and I have fun.” 

Providing that alternate balance to kids can be really helpful, or not pushing back. The kid says, “I don't want to see you right now.” It's really hard to do these transitions, isn't it? “But right now, it's our parenting time. So, what are we going to do?” And kind of navigating through that. We've been figuring out if they say, “Where is it coming from or handling her?”, that gives us ideas of how do we move forward. Often, that alienating back doesn't work, or it will be met with resistance, or be used to confirm things even, and recognizing again that it's a full spectrum of anywhere. 

They don't always all go to those worst-case scenarios. I think that's a helpful thing to remember that they do. It's tragic and awful when that happens, and that they don't always or we can prevent it earlier on sometimes as well.

Dealing with Parental Alienation Syndrome

Dr. Lisa: That said that parental alienation is on a spectrum. There's sort of shades of grey. It's when one parent is very negative towards the other, and actually influences the child to think badly about the other parent to the point where it impacts their ability to have a relationship with that other parent. 

I've heard some people saying, “It feels like they're brainwashing my kid against me!” All of this, and you're saying to not use the same tactics about trying to talk back, but just really consistently like sticking to the visitation as much as possible. If the child is maybe like a teenager or something. He's like, “No, I'm not getting in the car!” To just find ways of just consistently showing up to the degree that you can so that your kid knows that you're not giving up on them. You're still there. 

Even if right now they might be under the influence of somebody who's highly negative, they'll grow up, and maybe have the opportunity to re engage and make up their own minds. That sort of summarize that.

Dr. Amy: I think that's great. I would also say, in those cases, get support for yourself as well because there's so much outside of your control, and there is so much grief and pain. To go through those experiences, that's traumatic for a parent. To have that support in place for you. as well is so important to be able to just… Because it's confusing, and it's disorienting and lost. I think that it's really important to be able to have your personal support system. Do the things that are right for you as well, but also have that sort of professional area where you can get that support and guidance, and have that space for yourself is really important too.

Co-parenting

Dr. Lisa: Can I ask you a question? Have you ever seen… I haven't but I'm wondering if you have because you have more experience than I have in this area. If there is a dynamic where one parent is really highly negative about the other, “Your father is the devil!” And is really like using their kids and manipulating their kids emotionally in an unhealthy way. 

Have you ever seen the parent on the other side be able to make contact with the parent who is being really destructive in a way that is able to help that destructive parent understand what they're doing, or work through the anger and pain that may be at the root of the lashing out on the negativity? Is there anything you've seen that works? Because that's like the source, right? Or is it just?

Dr. Amy: I think then, it doesn't always hurt to try. Sometimes, it gets so complicated in these cases of is it just from the other parent? There's so many other people. It can happen from a step-parent bad-mouthing someone or a grandparent. Some of it's sort of where is it coming from. Some of it's the why is it coming from. Sometimes it's, “Do we not know? Is it intentional? Where's that?” 

I think every person probably knows their situation better than I can hypothesize right now for each person listening. Being able to say, “Does it feel like reaching out?” or even saying “I don't know that we're doing this co-parenting thing well. Can we get some help on how we do it better?” Navigating those systems. Sometimes works well, sometimes those… Maybe they didn't listen to the podcast, or they don't have those information. It's not an intentional thing to happen. 

Dr. Lisa: So, they don’t know how destructive it is. They don't know.

Dr. Amy: A lot of times when it's, I say, “I don't know” or “I'm coping poorly”, those cases, there could be a lot of potential for that. There are also cases that we go to that more extreme end, where it is more intentional in nature. Maybe not always intentional consciously, but we're really doing this, or I want that custody or different things that happen in those cases. Probably there'll be less success in those areas as someone's trying to do it. 

Say, again, it's very complex, and there's so much different layers or different ways, say, no two cases really look alike, the being able to kind of figure out what's your area, and what's the sort of step forward that's going to work for you and trying to understand that is so key to do. Trying to recognize that not everyone’s story… You can go onto Google, and you see all the horror stories, see all the great stories, and recognizing that that support is wonderful, and finding that support for yourself. 

Seeing like, just because that's what this person experienced doesn't mean it's going to be what I'm going to experience and kind of holding that balanced perspective for yourself as well.

Dr. Lisa: No, I hear what you're saying. We can certainly find the darkest of the dark corners: Power, and control, and narcissists intentionally manipulating things. The thing all of its… But maybe a note to end on. Certainly, if listening to podcasts like this around what is actually best for kids emotionally when you're going through this and just helping people become educated, and how to manage their own feelings in a way that helps their child even if they're hurting. That would be a start. 

On that note, do you have other books or resources that other people or people listening could kind of learn more about these topics — how to be safe emotionally for kids, any other information on the impact of… I want to say negativity on children and sort of healthy boundaries for people in these situations. You might even send to an ex in the mail or something. What are books or resources would you recommend?

Dr. Amy: I’ll send… they send you a list versus the ones that just popped into my mind can leave you with a little storybooks too. I think that often there's some good websites. Looking at sort of any of these. There's a lot of parenting data out there that's not really research-based. Going with the ones that are really rooted in research tends to be the best.

Dr. Lisa: A blogger with a strong opinion is not always okay.

Dr. Amy: I think that a lot that have developmental perspectives can be really helpful because the way you're going to talk to a four-year-old is going to look very different than an eight or nine-year-old versus a 13-year-old versus a 19-year-old. Divorce can impact kids very differently at different ages. When you're looking for those resources, really wanting to be, “I'm not reading a book about divorcing with an elementary school kid if I have high schoolers.” It's going to be different. 

If you have three different ages of kids, you might want to read three different books on how to support kids differently. A lot of that I'd say that the emotional intelligence parenting too or sort of looking into those resources are helpful for any parent, and being able to have these emotion conversations. But they tend to be really helpful in guiding it about how do we talk to kids about divorce. I can certainly send over a list of specific titles and things. If you want to link that to be great,

Dr. Lisa: Wonderful, I will put your reading list in the show notes of today's episode, and that will be on growingself.com. We're going to be calling this episode, Divorce and Children. It'll be growingself.com/divorce-and-children. I'll be sure to put links to your recommended books and articles. 

Dr. Amy, thank you so much again, just for taking the time to talk through all this with me. I know it's a complex subject, but you shared so much information in such a short amount of time. I know it was helpful for a lot of people listening, so thank you. 

Dr. Amy: Well, thank you so much for having me. To everyone listening, I just want to say I really commend you for even taking that first step to get the information and resources. The fact that you clicked on a podcast to listen to it says that you really want to be there for your kids and to do that. 

Hopefully, there's been some good advice or some good resources, or even food for thought about next steps. I think that even listening to the podcast, and wanting to get that resource says that you care a lot about your kids. I just want to share that too. Dr. Lisa, thank you so much for having me as well. It was an honor to be able to be here today.

Dr. Lisa: This was fun and ditto. “Yay” to you mom and dad for trying so hard. Dr. Amy, thank you so much for saying that so beautifully. Thank you.
Dr. Amy: Thank you

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