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Listen: Helping your kids navigate separation

  • Summary
  • Transcript

Putting children through a family separation isn’t something anyone ever wants to do. So, how should you approach it if it happens? In this episode, we speak with Bron O’Loan from O’Loan Family Law about:

  • telling children about your separation
  • what to say if you can’t answer their questions
  • involving children in decisions about their future
  • messages you give children about the separation
  • support networks for parents and children
  • resilience in children
  • talking about the future after separation.

Listen here, or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

You can purchase Bron O’Loan’s book The Splits: How to help your kids navigate separation and divorce here.

If you know someone who will find this podcast helpful, please share.

 

The Separation Guide aims to make separation and divorce simpler, more manageable and less stressful. To find out more about how one of our Network Members could support your separation, take our free 3-minute Q&A.

Disclaimer
The information in our resources is general only. Consider getting in touch with a professional adviser if you need support with your legal, financial or wellbeing needs.

Kate Russell

Separating from your partner is one of the hardest things you can go through in life. Breaking up a family when you have children adds even more layers of emotional difficulty. Welcome to The Separation Guide podcast. I’m Kate Russell, and in this episode, I’ll be learning how to help children navigate separation and divorce.

When you have children, you can spend a lot of time questioning if you’re doing it right. We want the best for our kids We want to protect them, and set them up to be successful, resilient, well-rounded humans.  Putting children through a family separation isn’t something anyone ever wants to do. So, how should you approach it if it happens? What should you tell your kids and when? How can you understand what your kids need, and help them navigate their new normal?

To help me answer these questions, I spoke to Bron O’Loan. Bron is a passionate family lawyer from Sydney.  At her firm, O’Loan Family Law, she assists with parenting issues, property settlements, child and financial support, and divorce order applications. Outside work, Bron is the mum of three teenage children. She’s previously been a guest on our podcast to discuss parental alienation, and I invited her back to talk about her recently published book, The Splits: How to help your kids navigate separation and divorce.

I started by asking Bron about background.

Bron O’Loan

Yes. Look, I haven’t always been a lawyer, and I always get asked this question because I think that people always expect their lawyers to have come straight out of school and then straight into uni and then straight out as lawyers. My background was actually in primary school teaching. Which I dearly loved. I really enjoyed it. But I did want to go off and do something different. And I found when I started in law many years later and I started working in family law, that wow. The experience from teaching just couple so well with what I do for a living and what I do on a day to day basis working with parents and children. So it was a very good background to have. I would recommend it if anyone was looking to use that as a career change option.

Kate Russell

I think that sounds amazing. So, you obviously have a real understanding of children.

Bron O’Loan

Yeah, look, I do Kate, and I also have my own three children. That always helps, of course, but yeah, just understanding the different development stages that children go through and also what parents go through as well. With kids, you spend a lot of time as a teacher speaking to children. Usually, they’re happy discussions. The discussions that I have as a family lawyer now are usually not happy discussions, but interestingly, they’re all the same kind of issues that come up about children.

Kate Russell

And what made you decide to make that career change from primary school teaching to become a lawyer and then to practice family law?

Bron O’Loan

Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I’d always wanted to be a lawyer. And it got to a point in my life where I thought, you know what? I’m going to do this now. I’ve got the time to do the extra study and move on. I wasn’t always a primary school teacher. I also worked in the corporate sector for a while and is a lecturer at university. And it just got to a point where I thought I’d always wanted to be a lawyer. So, I’m going to get going and start that career. And then when I actually started to think about what kind of law I wanted to specialise in, which is something that you go through when you’re studying law. It’s always good to have a specialisation. I feel it just became a no brainer to me, Kate, that it would be Family Law because it’s law for humans. It makes me happy to think that I’m assisting people to move on with their lives. And that emotion is really important to me as well because as I said before that humanness is something that drives me in my everyday life. So, I thought that I could find that in Family Law, and I certainly have found that. And the other thing I loved about Family Law, which drew me to it, was that there’s a lot of advocacy that goes on and you can get in there and get into Court and actually stand up and speak, and that interested me as well. So, it’s been a good merge of a couple of different careers for me.

Kate Russell

Well, you’ve also found some time to write a book. So last year you released The Splits: How to Help Your Kids Navigate Separation and Divorce on top of starting your own firm and having three children of your own.  Bron, what made you decide to write a book to support parents and children in separation?

Bron O’Loan

Kate, what I did at first, when I first started the idea of writing the book, I thought, this is going to be a really good way for me to get my name out there and to show people or potential clients that I know what I’m talking about. So, I started to research the book. And as I started to work through the process, I began to also realize that this information will be so helpful for parents or for people who are separating because it brings a realness to what actually goes on in the process. And I also found that, of course, I was repeating myself a lot with the kinds of things that I was saying to clients. And my view was that a book like this would be a great resource to be able to get separating parents to a point where at least that first stage where they could understand how is our separation going to impact our kids? And what should we do be thinking about whether we’re talking to each other or not? Whether I’m talking to my ex or not, what should we be thinking about about our kids and how we’re going to get them through this process? Because at the end of the day, we know that there absolutely are impacts on children when parents are separating. Sad but true.

Kate Russell

I’d like to talk to you, Bron, about some of those ideas and suggestions and strategies that you touch on in your book that are going to be helpful for our listeners. Do you have some suggestions about how parents might approach their initial chat with the kids about separating? Is that something they should bring up early when they’re planning to prepare their kids, or is it best to wait till they have a clear idea of what life is going to look like once they’ve separated?

Bron O’Loan

Do you know what, Kate? It’s actually really hard to know, and it depends on a lot of different things, including the ages and stages of your kids – where they’re at. This is my view on it. If you’re lucky and your situation is amicable, and perhaps you’ve already started to discuss the big stuff with your ex, for example, where you’re all going to live, splitting of your assets, who’s keeping the family dog, all of those kinds of things – if you’ve been lucky enough to have that discussion – then you should absolutely start sharing that information with the children so they know what’s going on at the point of separation.   It’s one of those things where kids worry about what their new lives are going to look like and you’re not in a silo when you’re separating from your partner in a family environment. Often kids are well aware of the situation. I’m not, Kate, talking about kids under four, really. It would be hard to have a conversation with children of that age, but as children are older, they do become aware of that. There are things that are happening, so it is best to raise it with them and let them know what’s going on. They want to know things like: if Mum and Dad are separating, am I going to get to see my relatives from both sides of the family? Am I going to have to change schools and get new friends? Am I going to be able to go and visit our family friends at Christmas time like we always do, or is that all finished now because Mum and Dad aren’t together? As my parents aren’t together. So, all of those things that I’m talking about now, I think the common theme that runs through all of those concerns for kids is essentially a fear of change. Right? Like, if you boil it down to the one thing it’s about kids being concerned about change.

Kate Russell

If you don’t know the answer to all those questions and you’ve spoken to your kids already, how can you approach those things that you don’t know the answer to when they ask you about it?

Bron O’Loan

Yeah, that’s a good question. In my view, it’s important to be able to be very open and honest with your children and to let them know what’s going on. And I would be saying to children, and I always say this to my clients as well, let your kids know that it’s okay for them to ask questions, ask away, but also let them know that they may not get all their questions answered because you may not know the answers to those questions yet. And also they may not get the answers that they want to hear either. So, for example: Dad, where am I going to live? If you and Mum are separating, where am I going to live? And if dad doesn’t know the answer to that yet, he needs to share that with the kids and say, well, Mum and I haven’t actually made a decision about that yet. But as soon as we have made that decision, you will be the first to know. So, it goes back, I think, to the change idea, again, to help kids to understand that it’s okay to feel a little bit uncomfortable. It’s okay to perhaps not know exactly what’s going to happen next and surprises can happen. But we’ve got you. And when we know what’s happening, we’ll let you know what’s happening.

Kate Russell

And you’re not going to leave the kids guessing about what might happen.

Bron O’Loan

Think about a 14-year-old. They’re big enough and smart enough to start really thinking about: hey, how’s this separation going to impact my life? So the more facts that you can give to kids, especially those age groups, the more you’re empowering them to be able to accept that change and to accept what’s happening moving forward.

Kate Russell

And Bron, do you think any of those decisions about what their future might look like – where are they going to live – are those decisions something that the children should be part of making?

Bron O’Loan

That’s a very good question. Look, I’m not sure if everybody would agree with me or people who are listening to this would agree with me. But from my experience as a family lawyer, I think that there’s a lot to be said for parents not putting pressure on children to make those big decisions. Right. There’s a big weight on a child’s shoulders when a parent says to them: who do you want to live with? That’s a very big weight, because usually in most cases, unless there’s been difficulties, such as family domestic violence in a relationship or even if that does exist, usually the kids still love both of their parents.  

Kate Russell

I want to live with both of you.

Bron O’Loan

Yeah. And they don’t want to hurt one parent’s feelings. So, if mum comes to their daughter and says, who do you want to live with? The daughter’s going to feel that pressure to not upset Mum. And that weight on a child’s shoulders, I think, is not a good place to put a child in. So, in answer to your question, the decisions in a perfect world are the parents’ decisions. Both parents are on the same page. And if that’s not the case and one parent has to make a decision about the children, then it should be that parent’s decision and not the children’s decision. But can I say, Kate, also, just from a Family Court perspective, the children’s wishes are taken into account that they are taking into consideration. But it’s not the only thing that the Court thinks about and looks at. And it’s for those reasons we don’t want to be putting that pressure on children to have to choose and make decisions.

Kate Russell

You talk about considering what’s best for your children in that outcome. When you think about the messages you’re going to be giving your kids about the separation and about your own relationship with their other parent, and about their relationship with them, what do you really need to consider about those messages you’re giving your kids?   

Bron O’Loan

Look, I think there are some very strong messages that are given to children that are inappropriate, but most of the time come from a place of love. Parents are wanting to do usually the best thing for their kids. But I think that there’s some things that separating parents can take away to ensure that they’re doing the right things by their kids and making sure that they’re getting the most important messages about their relationships. So things like always letting your children know that you love them and that their other parent loves them too. That probably then moves on to something such as it’s never appropriate to actually criticise your ex in front of your kids. You may feel a lot of animosity towards your ex, but that doesn’t mean that your children should be a part of that as well. You shouldn’t be crying on your kid’s shoulder about what’s going on. Separating parents should be helping their kids feel at home, wherever home is, not putting their kids in the middle, always trying to do what you promised to do. All of those kinds of things are the important messages. I think it probably just brings us back to that whole point of saying, well, we need to be, if we can, as separating parents, putting a united front on in front of the children, having a united front for their sake. Unless, of course, there are issues in relation to family and domestic violence and where that’s not appropriate.

Kate Russell

When a parent is going through a traumatic experience like separation, gosh, it must be so incredibly hard art for them to always be the grown-up and keep it together with their kids.

Bron O’Loan

Absolutely.

Kate Russell

And hard to not show those emotions. What would you suggest for parents who are perhaps struggling with being a support to their children when they’re going through something really difficult themselves?

Bron O’Loan

Yeah. Look, I think really it all starts with the parents. So we read about this all the time. Things like selfcare and finding a proper balance in life is actually really important because of you have to be able to look after yourself as a separating parent before put your life jacket on, before you reach over and put the life jacket on for your child. So what are those things that we can do as parents to ensure that we’re as strong as we can be and we’re the best version of ourselves so that we can then be there for our kids? I think, Kate, one of the big things that I would always say to a separating parent is have you thought about going to see someone and having some counselling sessions? I meet parents all the time who have never been to counselling or spent time with a psychologist. But when they go through separation, they do start to look at tapping into those kinds of support structures. And that, in my experience, just does wonders in helping a parent to get through, especially the initial phases of a separation and how to try and pull things together for themselves so that the parent has that capacity to be able to move forward and support the children as well through that process. It’s just always difficult, isn’t it, though?

Kate Russell

They’re in very difficult time, really hard when children are obviously going through that trauma as well. That’s right.

Bron O’Loan

That’s exactly right. And they need their own support structures as well, the children apart from their parents.

Kate Russell

That leads straight into my next question, Bron. So, what kind of support networks can you perhaps help your children set up so they’re not relying on you for everything? Maybe friends, extended family or a teacher? Who can they turn to?

Bron O’Loan

You’ve answered the question, Kate, and this probably harks back more from my days as a primary school teacher, but I remember teaching and teaching kids about the friendly five, where we get kids to hold up, choose their favorite hand – so whatever hand you write with, and hold that hand up and look at your five fingers and think about if each finger represented one special person in your life that you could go to that you trust. Who are those five people? So, to teach kids that they should always think about who their support structure is now, they may not even need their support structure. They may always have a mum or a dad, or mum and dad there where they don’t need to really rely on too much else for a long time. But kids coming out of a separated family, they do need other supports. So that friendly five concept works I think really well in that regard, where you would hope that a child would have their mum and dad or mum or dad as one of those.   Five support structures. But then there’s also, as you just mentioned, Kate, a trusted teacher. That can be a really big influence in a child’s life. In schools, if the child is in school, there’s often a school counselor that’s available. Extended family are very important and so are good friends. Now, again, for younger children, that may not be as good as support structure, but as children get older, they start to be an age group. Friends are really important. And I reckon you’d be hard-pressed to talk to a 13-year-old and not be able to find someone in their friendship group that has possibly come from a separated family environment. It’s fairly common these days. So kids are able to touch base with other kids who have been through a similar situation. And that always helps too, for all of us, doesn’t it? It helps to have people who have been through a similar situation to you. So you can discuss that. But I guess ultimately, at the end of the day, depending on the support that’s needed, I would always advise a separated parent if their child is struggling to always seek professional help, whether that be counseling or a psychologist. And you can go and get subsidized visits from your local GP. You can start off with ten visits that are subsidized to go and see a local counselor or a psychologist. And wow, what a gift to give to your children to be able to say to them, I found a person that you can just have a chat to and just talk about what’s going on. Mum and Dad don’t need to know what you’re talking about. You could just have a chat to this person. Those kinds of supports are important.

Kate Russell

Yeah, amazing. And I think children even knowing that person is there almost takes some of that pressure off.

Bron O’Loan

Yes, I agree with you.

Kate Russell

Just knowing helps on the way.

Bron O’Loan

Yes, absolutely. It’s like there’s a little flag there that they know they can just raise and say, okay, I need to go and see my person now, which is great. And, you know, I think going through COVID and all that kind of thing as well, I reckon kids these days – oh, my God, I sound old saying that kids these days, they’re very aware of support structures now. They’re aware of mental health issues and what anxiety feels like or looks like. And that if you’re not feeling okay, that it’s a good idea to reach out and talk to someone about it because they’re becoming more and more aware of that as it’s becoming very much acceptable thing to do.

Kate Russell

Much more open than perhaps we were when we were younger.

Bron O’Loan

Yeah.

Kate Russell

<p”>Okay. So speaking of COVID, Bron, we do hear a lot about the new normal now –  that we’re in the new normal after COVID. And I know that that’s a term you’ve used as well to talk about the new normal. How do you think parents can paint the idea of a new normal in a positive way for their kids?

Bron O’Loan

Yeah. Look, I love talking about talking on this topic because, as you said, COVID just turned everything on its head having it. And we’ve all all have to turn around and say, all right, how do we spin a positive out of this? And if we bring that back to separation, what is the silver lining of separation? What positive aspects can come out of that for kids? And I talk a lot about the fact that separation actually can help to build resilience in your children, but it doesn’t just happen. We as parents have to stand by them and guide them through that and help to teach them things like this is in my mind what helps to build resilience. Things like teaching them courage and to be grateful to have empathy for other humans is very important for kids to know how to be self-aware, which I guess harks back to talking about support and knowing if they need that. So to be self-aware. And I think probably the biggest one there is responsibility to teach children to be responsible. I always think of this one day my kids, they’re going to have to push through difficult times themselves. Yes, they’ve gone through COVID and everything, and that’s been very difficult. But as they’ve become adults, there will be other difficult times that they’re going to have to face. I imagine that my kids one day may have to shelter their own children from something. So, we’re talking about my grandchildren. My kids may have to do that. They need that strength of character to be able to accept that responsibility for their time and their actions and their feelings. So, it’s all about being accountable, and that builds responsibility for them. So, I think it’s having those conversations with the kids to understand those different values that they can learn that will ultimately help them to build resilience. It’s something that I write about a lot about building that resilience and how important it is for kids to know and learn that from us as parents.

Kate Russell

Bron, how do you think we can talk about the future with our kids and talk about the time after the separation in a positive way?

Bron O’Loan

I think that kids have to be masters of their own environment and to know that they have the resilience – that word again – to be able to move on and grasp their life and move forward openly and positively. So, I think we have to talk to our kids, particularly parents who are separating, need to remind their kids that there is life after separation and that this life is theirs to be able to move forward and do what they want to do with a whole lot of love and support around them and surrounding them no matter what happens. I think that that’s the important message that kids can take away from what’s been happening and what is happening in the world and also if it’s closer to their own backyards, i.e. if their family is separating, which for a lot of kids would be possibly one of the worst or biggest things that may have happened to them in their lives to date, that they know that they’ve got that strength of character to be able to move forward with their lives and know that they’ve got people that love them.

Kate Russell

Thank you so much for your time today, Bron. You’ve just given us so much useful and meaningful information for parents and thank you so much for being part of our Network.

Bron O’Loan

Kate, thank you very much for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it. I always love talking about anything to do with parenting and family law and separation. I think it’s what I live and breathe, so I love talking about it. So, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have a chat today.

Kate Russell

Bron O’Loan.  Every family is different. People parent in different ways, and you’ll approach separation with your children in the way you feel is best. If Bron’s approach has resonated with you and you’d like to find out more from her about helping your kids through this tough time, you can find a link to purchase Bron’s book in the episode show notes.

If you found the information in today’s podcast useful and you’d like to learn more about your options in separation, or you want to be put in touch with professionals who believe in de-escalation and Court as a last resort, please go to theseparationguide.com.au and complete our 3-minute interactive Q&A. If you know anyone who is affected by the issues we talked about today, please share the podcast.

In the spirit of reconciliation, the Separation Guide acknowledges the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.