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Listen: How to discuss a separation with your kids

Tarnya Davis

Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, NewPsych

Tarnya is the Director and Principal Clinical Psychologist at NewPsych. With 25 years of clinical experience, Tarnya leads a team of psychologists, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, couples and family therapists who work together to bring about change.

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Divorce and separation podcast 3 with Tarnya Davis Clinical Psychologist Director NewPsych

(36 minutes)

Jack Whelan and Tarnya Davis talk through separating with kids, the importance of your mental health during a divorce, and supporting your children through this unsettling period.

This podcast will cover:

  • How to speak with children about divorce
  • How to manage your own wellbeing

Separating with kids

Jack Whelan:
Good day. It’s Jack Whelan here, barrister, mediator and founder of The Separation Guide and I’m delighted to be in Newcastle for podcast number five with Tarnya Davis, a clinical and forensic psychologist with NewPsych. Tarnya, wonderful to see you and thank you so much for being a part of The Separation Guide Network in Newcastle.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah. I’m really excited about it.

Jack Whelan:
Thank you. Now Tarnya, today we’re going to talk about the sorts of feelings, emotions and challenges that people are going through when they are separating and divorcing. And in particular, how that can affect children who are going through this as well.

Obviously, it’s not just the couple who are going through separation and divorce. Often it’s children who are going through it as well. So the first question is, how can a parent separating or divorcing make children feel, and how are children coping with this very difficult time in their lives.

Tarnya Davis:
The thing is, separation is probably one of the most traumatic and difficult times a family might go through. When you decide to choose a partner and stay with them, you know, most people kind of think it’s going to be forever and when it doesn’t turn out that way, as you stated, it’s hugely emotional. You know, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

And so there’s often a lot of hurt and disappointment and grief and loss that each parent is feeling, each partner is feeling. But I think the important thing to remember is that although you might not be a couple forever, you’re still the parents of those kids.

And it’s really important to understand that although you’re approaching this separation with an adult’s mind and an adult’s perspective, for kids it’s huge. Their family is supposed to be their safe place.

So at many levels … and we see a lot of adults still coming into counseling and some of what they’re dealing with is how their parents separated when they were kids and the impact of that upon them.

Jack Whelan:
Really?

Tarnya Davis:
I think one of the main things that kids need from their parents is attachment, which virtually means ‘I create a safe place for you and I hear you, you’re important, I’m available to you’. And also ‘I teach you how to manage your feelings’. But also you look to me as to how to manage difficult feelings myself.

And so a big part of what kids see and learn is how their parents might manage their difficult emotions around the separation.

Jack Whelan:
So children will grieve in a sense, for the family unit, which they had anticipated would be permanent.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah. Yeah. And I think sometimes that grief certainly might continue right into their adult life. But it might be a grief for the family that they wished that they’d had. But it’s not always black and white. I mean, sometimes the kids are living in a situation where there’s been conflict and the evidence says that for kids – once the separation has occurred – if there’s no longer any enduring conflict, then they are much better off than having to live in a situation where there’s a lot of ongoing conflict and obviously violence.

So in those situations, kids are much better off with parents that are separated and that they are able to be safe. But it’s also important to understand that the kids still deserve to have a relationship with both parents.

Jack Whelan:
So Tarnya in respect to the attachment, which is a word that you used before, it’s kind of intuitive in a sense, isn’t it. Because there’s obviously right, there’s a separation, but in the state of parents being able to still provide that level of attachment.

What’s your advice to parents who might need advice for how to construct that attachment in the context of a separation?

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think we probably don’t have the time to talk about where kids are unsafe, if there’s domestic violence or sexual abuse.

Jack Whelan:
Of course.

Tarnya Davis:
So if we exclude that group, and we’re talking about kids that still have the right to have a relationship with both parents-

Jack Whelan:
Sure, sure. And Tarnya just on that for our listeners, on our side, on The Separation Guide side there is of course reference to all of those sorts of services being available and it is important plainly if there is domestic violence or violence in the household those services are accessed.

So as you’re saying, circumstances where that is the case, people should be accessing those services. In circumstances where they’re not, please continue, how do parents construct that relationship in that separation?

How to manage relationships between kids and their divorced parents

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, I think it’s important that both parents are on board with understanding that the child has a right to have a relationship with both parents. You know, if your partner has hurt you, and disappointed you, and things haven’t turned out as you had hoped, that shouldn’t get in the way of the child still maintaining a relationship with their other parent.

And so perhaps a starting point needs to be a respectfulness and a fostering of that relationship with the other parent and how that looks might be in how you speak about the other parent. The kind of information you might share about the conflict that you have with that parent. Being mindful of the impact of that upon the child.

Sometimes kids will take on the emotional pain of their parent and they become parentified in a way. Wanting to make sure that mum’s feeling okay or dad’s feeling okay when ideally that’s not what childhood should be about. Childhood should be about the kids.

And so perhaps making sure that that relationship continues, starts with how you speak about the other parent, encouraging time with the other parent, and letting the child know, do you know that it’s okay with me for you to go to dad or you go to mum and have a good time with them. That that’s okay and I’ll still be here and I’ll be okay while you’re away and I’ll be looking forward to you coming back.

Sending those kind of healthy messages I think is a really important part of making sure the child feels like they have permission to still love dad or love mum or enjoy time with dad or enjoy time with mum or whichever combination it might happen to be.

Jack Whelan:
Putting the child first and being able to agree on those rules between the parents and whether that be respectful dialogue or even just in principle that we are going to put our child or our children first. That can be a hard thing to do when people are hurt or angry.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah.

Jack Whelan:
What’s your advice to people who might intrinsically know that they need to do that, but it’s very hard. How do they cross that bridge because plainly it is in the benefit, obviously speaking in fairly general terms, of children for there not to be that high level of conflict, have equal time.

So it’s also the appropriate time with parents that their needs are met. But in many cases it must be harder to do than it is to say.

Tarnya Davis:
Well of course it is. Yeah. Of course it is. It’s really tricky. You know, if we’re talking about threat and the most difficult thing that you’ve been through and talking about the separation itself falling into that category, then the idea that there might be some pain and suffering that comes to your child for having time with the other parent, for example, or them being away from you and you’re worrying about how that will affect your relationship with your child, that’s even a high a threat for people.

So the idea that this is going to be difficult for their kids is really highly emotional. And I talked about attachment before. That’s where we learn in our childhood how to manage our emotions and regulate our emotions. That’s what we do as adults when we’re going through a really difficult time.

So some of the challenges as you say, how do you stay calm? How do you settle yourself? How do you manage to accept the situation for what it is and still kind of wish the best for your children? And it isn’t easy, you know. We feel angry, but quite often it’s like the saying, resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.

Jack Whelan:
It is, it is, wow.

Tarnya Davis:
What actually happens is resentment affects you, but then also to understand that resentment is affecting your children as well. Now this is the idea of radical acceptance that we use in therapy that says sometimes when things aren’t … when something is not fair or it’s unjust or it’s wrong, then we have that situation and then we feel really, really upset about that situation even when we can’t change it.

Sometimes if we can’t change something that we think is unfair, then we have a second problem. Like the first arrow is the injustice. The second arrow is the impact of that emotional pain upon us. If you can change a situation, if something can be fixed, negotiated, mediated, then fix that.

But if it can’t be changed, continuing to rally against that only just causes you more emotional pain and suffering and the idea of radical acceptance is accepting it is what it is. This situation is what it is. We’re separated. My kids are having time with the other parent.

The other parent started another family and all that isn’t fair, but it is what it is. I can’t change that. By accepting that, then perhaps I can learn to soothe myself, settle myself, and when my emotions are in check, that’s in fact the greatest gift I can give my children in this situation.

Jack Whelan:
When you speak to people about these things, about these, in many ways it’s a recognition of their behaviors and how to change and so forth, it must take people in many cases time to be able to achieve that radical acceptance and then to modify behaviors. Is that true?

Does it tend to take people time to kind of figure out what is the best way, the best behavior to model for the benefit of their children in model mediating these sorts of disputes. A person who you say at the start who might be contemplating litigation for example and is full of rage and anger can be a very different person a year down the track.

There must be some benefit in kind of accelerating that personal growth given what’s at stake. I just wonder how long does it tend to take people to kind of figure those things out? Again it’s obviously entirely case specific.

Tarnya Davis:
That’s such a useful comment because I guess there’s some kind of average of period of time of the shock and coming to terms with, you know, this is what I’ve lost and the grief side of the change. Obviously there’s huge social financial changes, losing your partner and sometimes their extended family and having to move and changing your work situation. A whole lot of changes.

And then after a period of time, for some people it may settle, but we would both know families who 5, 10, 30 years down the track are still, you know the child is getting married and can’t have mum and dad at the same event. Sometimes the pain of that in fact doesn’t ever settle. Those people choose to continue to hold onto those feelings of resentment and pain and injustice and suffering.

So it’s not … There’s no … There will be people that choose never to let go of that, choose never to come to a place of acceptance. But their life is far more difficult. They’ve got that double arrow that I was talking about before. They’ve got twice the pain to deal with over that period of time.

But to come to that place earlier obviously is much better for each of the partners, but certainly much better for the children for that to settle sooner. And I think sometimes an influencing factor is who you choose to share with and who you choose to be on your side.

I think if you’re choosing to go to a legal professional or maybe even a therapist or if you’re telling your friends who fueling your sense of that’s unfair and you need to fight that and et cetera, et cetera, then I think that that can continue people in that place of being warring and being angry and taking it longer to come to the time when it does return to being about what’s basically the kids.

Jack Whelan:
Is it possible to do both? That is to say is it possible to keep that grudge and sort of maintain that rage in relation to your partner? I’m not talking about physical rage, of course, but that anger and that hurt and that guilt and perhaps it manifests in silence, who knows.

But can you exhibit those behaviors and not have that amicability, yet still provide the children with what they need? Because it seems to me that that will often be the case depending on what stage of the journey people are at. I’m interested on your views on that.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. As long as they choose to foster the child’s relationship with the other parent. It’s when their rage and resentment seeps out into how they talk about the other parent, or the subtle or not so subtle ways they may denigrate them. That’s when it’s not providing what the child needs.

And sometimes, you know, people will say, well the kids don’t want to go to that parent’s house. And sometimes that might be the case, but also sometimes that might be about the child feeling like they need to take care of their parent’s emotional needs rather than their own.

Jack Whelan:
So that’s the consensus. It’s likely that children will pick up on actually what was going on.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah.

Jack Whelan:
And can it be the case that you know the children in the context of separation can in a sense be weaponized with one parent using the children against the other? Does that happen and if that’s happening, and say for example, this is a very tough question without notice, Tarnya, just say that’s happening either the grandparents are observing it, for example. You know, what can those other parties do?

You’ve spoken about being mindful not to escalate where it’s inappropriate to do so, how can other parties assist in deescalating if they have a view that that might be necessary when they are talking to their friend or their child or brother or sister or whoever it might be?

Tarnya Davis:
That’s a huge question. You know, I’d like to think that parents aren’t consciously, as you say, weaponizing. I think that they genuinely, that’s what being a parent is. Parents, I think virtually always love their kids and want the best for them. And with the high level of emotion at a time of a separation, they in fact feel that what’s best for the child is maybe not time with the other parent or more time with them or fostering that relationship with them, for example.

Jack Whelan:
True.

Tarnya Davis:
So I don’t think it’s out of any intention to cause harm for their children. I think they genuinely believe that this is what’s best and they, in fact at the same time might genuinely believe that the other parent wants to undermine their relationship with the child.

So, I think the conflict accidentally finds itself that way and impacting upon the kids. It’s tricky. So, are you saying if you know someone who perhaps is having a skewed perception of what’s best for the kids and not seeing the other parent’s perspective.

Gosh, the world is so full of those situations, aren’t they? Where it’s really difficult to be able to say to someone, do you know what? Like maybe there’s another story here. And sometimes it feels like you’re being the best support for the person by agreeing with what they say.

Jack Whelan:
Yeah, yeah.

Tarnya Davis:
I think it just takes courage to be able to …

Jack Whelan:
Not cheerlead.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, not cheer lead. To be able to say, I can see you’re so distressed, this situation is so difficult. What do you think is going to be best for the children, you know? And the evidence is, as I touched on before, if kids are in a high conflict family environment and that conflict might, as you say, look like not speaking to each other for six months at a time, and then that ends with the separation, kids are better off.

But kids where the conflict continues or there’s evidently more conflict even than before, after separation, those kids are worse off.

Jack Whelan:
Yeah.

Tarnya Davis:
So it’s really the amount of conflict that kids are exposed to that has a longterm impact. So maybe that’s what grandparents can talk about. Maybe they can be saying or friends can be saying, this is really tough and I can see they’ve hurt you and you’re feeling really hurt and you’re wanting the best for the kids. I can really see that.

But this situation keeps, you know, nothing’s changing, no one’s budging. What do you think you might be able to do that might deescalate this so that it settles more for the kids? It definitely is tricky though.

Jack Whelan:
As long as examples whereby in a very practical sense, I’ve seen it myself where for example, the parents can turn up to watch Saturday morning football and on opposite sides of the field. And you often wonder about the impact of that on children for example.

Tarnya Davis:
Yes, yeah.

Jack Whelan:
Perhaps a practical way to frame the question is to ask what do kids really need? They need attachment. Preferably not being in a conflict environment. They need their parents to speak well of each other where they can. What other practical things do children need, Tarnya, which people who are listening to the podcast may be able to start thinking about and do modeling studies if they need to?

Tarnya Davis:
I think that the evidence says that kids need time with both parents and appropriate time and that varies depending upon the age of the child so they need perhaps more frequent visits when children are younger to form that attachment and quality time as we’re talking about.

And I think as well the evidence is shifting towards seeing that kids need somewhere that they call their home. There was a time when, you know, equal time was considered what was best, but equal time seemed to be more about what suited the parents at that time, and wanted to feel like they were sharing it equally.

But the consequences for the kids was that perhaps there was no way that was their predominant home. And so I think we’re starting to move away from that idea and more towards understanding kids’ need for safety and security. The attachment that comes with the relationship with both parents, that ability for them not to take on their parent’s problems as theirs and they don’t have to fix it.

Fostering relationships with siblings is really important as well, and extended family too. And validation I think, you know, for both parents to be able to say … have the space to hear what their child’s experience is and not to take it personally, it’s not about them. But just to acknowledge and validate their child’s experience of whatever it might be.

And also to understand that it’s going to change as they grow older, as they start spending more time with their friends, et cetera, that their time with each parent might change as well. So it needs to be a little bit of an adaptable model too.

But always making time to send the child a message that “mum and dad aren’t in a relationship anymore, but that was not your fault”, because kids usually try and … well not try. Kids virtually always think it’s their fault.

Jack Whelan:
Really?

Tarnya Davis:
And to send out a message, that it’s not their fault and that it’s okay to … That they are completely loved no matter what. And that it’s normal to have a whole range of emotional reactions with regards to this, and that’s okay and they’ll be loved no matter what and that it’s okay to love the other parent too. Yeah.

Jack Whelan:
So kids can feel guilty. They can feel as if what’s happening to the parents might be their fault.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, certainly. It depends on the developmental age, but certainly young children, even if it’s nothing to do with them, will think that it’s something that they’ve done that meant that mum and dad didn’t love each other enough to stay together for me.

Jack Whelan:
That’s the equation kids have, oh no.

Tarnya Davis:
So sad.

How can I tell my kids about my divorce?

Jack Whelan:
Yeah, it’s sad and yeah, very revealing. So Tarnya, if there are parents listening to this who are thinking about how to broach the subject. They’re getting … they’ve decided they’re going to separate or divorce and they’re thinking about having a very difficult conversation with their child or children.

What are the sorts of things they should practically think about? Is it the sort of conversation that you need to rehearse? Is it the sort of conversation that you need to practice with each other first? Is it a conversation that you have with the children together or separately?

And again, it’s very case specific, but I think any insights that you could offer would be very valuable because it’s got to be one of the toughest conversations for anyone to ever have.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, it is. And quite often we have parents come to see a psychologist together.

Jack Whelan:
Really?

Tarnya Davis:
To talk about, okay, how do we broach this? What words should we put to this? How do we manage it?

Jack Whelan:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s seems a very responsible thing to do.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, yeah.

Jack Whelan:
And a very wise investment to do that, to reach out and seek that sort of skill building, I suppose.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah. Yeah. And I think it starts with the parents being also on the same page of the words that they’re going to choose and what they’re going to choose to share with the kids. And it’ll be a different conversation dependent upon the developmental age.

And so it’s probably worth – if you’re not going to go and see a psychologist – it’s probably worth sort of having a look on the internet for some reliable sources that might give you some information for the age that the child is.

Tarnya Davis:
It’s important to be able to manage your own emotional reactions in the situation. It’s okay to be sad and to tell the children that you’re feeling sad and upset and acknowledge the emotional part of that.

But to keep it so that it allows space for the kids and not to make it rushed and to give them lots of space to answer any questions that they might have. You know, they all want to know if the parents are okay. They all want to know where they’ll be living. They all want to know how this is going to affect their lives.

And it’s not a, okay we’ve told you so. Now let’s move on. It’s an enduring conversation to check in over the coming days, weeks and months, how are you feeling about that now? Any other questions that you might have? Understand that as they grow older, things might come up for them that they want to know more information on or they want to question a bit more as the developmental age changes.

So again, it’s just understanding that it’s not a right, we’ve done that, tick that off, that’s it, you know. And just kind of reassuring them as well as they can that they’re loved and that wasn’t their fault I think is really important.

And really to think, okay, so how much of the story of what’s happened to us needs to be their story, you know. And do we keep the adult stuff to ourselves about a phase or whatever else it might be that the problem is, you know, daddy is drinking and mum’s gambling or whatever it might be.

Or can we just say, you know, it didn’t work out and we’re very sad that it didn’t work out, but we both still love you and we both can be in your life. And just talking about that.

Preparing for…

Preparation for divorce conversations

Jack Whelan:
That feels like … Here is a type of conversation, be it a dialogue over a long period of time rather than just a one time conversation. That feels like dialogue that could be done well would require some preparation and even planning for what happens next after that dialogue because presumably the children will have a reaction to it and think about it and stew on things as those little minds do.

Investing in a preparation must be a good idea, especially given as you’ve mentioned at the start of the discussion, that people can hang onto these issues for a very, very long time, sometimes the rest of their lives.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think you really encapsulated the important part that it’s not a sit and forget, it’s an enduring conversation and it’s an ongoing conversation that you have with people. And yeah, there’s a couples therapist who says, Stan Tatkin, his name is, and and it may be too late for your listeners to engage in Stan Tatkin.

Jack Whelan:
No, no.

Tarnya Davis:
But he’s a great therapist. And he says from a neuro biological perspective, when we first as a couple, when you first say hello to each other at the end of the day, how you connect at that time determines how the rest of the night will go.

So, if you take the time to say how was your day and hug and say hello, that kind of thing, even just for a minute or two, then neuro biologically your brains and nervous systems are connected and then you can move on and things will be much smoother.

And in a way that conversation that we’re just talking about is a little bit like that. If people can make it work, even though it’s emotionally hard in that moment to sit in the room next to the person that’s hurt you or you know you’re feeling so angry and resentful. But if you can manage that for the benefit of the kids and realign yourself as, or continue that relationship as parents, no longer as a couple but as parents, then perhaps that then sets the tone for how things will move on from there.

If you can manage that moment, perhaps it’s a sign that you’ll be able to manage other moments as they come up.

Jack Whelan:
Is that something which can get easier the more often you do it? It would be a difficult thing to do if someone is grieving or particularly angry. Is it something which if you’ve done it once and perhaps, say the benefit that that had was not to question the kids or the way there were feeling about it at all.

I suppose my question is, is that behavior ultimately rewarded as opposed to the alternative, which would be to say, blow up your evening metaphorically speaking.

Tarnya Davis:
I think by the time you’ve separated, you’ve already accepted the fact that there’s very little that you can do to influence the behavior or attitude of another person. The only thing that you have control over is how you think, how you react, how you behave and sometimes it takes a while for us to come to that place.

But accepting that that’s the thing you have control over and understanding if you change your thinking towards the other person, even if they are continuing to be difficult and it feels like they’re intentionally throwing poison your way, if you can manage your own emotion and settle yourself and almost have compassion for their suffering, which is a long step to take.

But eventually if you can say their distress is their distress and I feel for their distress but I’m settling myself and managing my own reactions and learning to deal with these difficult situation by soothing myself and being contained, then sometimes that change results in the change to come.

But continuing to kind of … Continuing to hope that the other person will change, and then once they change this will all be better is unlikely to succeed. And that’s where people get stuck.

And then that sometimes, that’s where the legal system kind of perpetuates that because there’s someone cheerleading your indignation at the other person and they’ve got someone cheerleading their indignation at you and it just keeps kind of throwing fuel on the fire.

Jack Whelan:
Yeah. And fuel which can be very expensive.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah.

Jack Whelan:
Financially and emotionally as well.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah.

Jack Whelan:
Tarnya, absolutely fascinating and incredibly useful. Thank you so much again for contributing to the Separation Guide. I feel like we need to speak many, many times again and hopefully we can. For those people who are listening to The Separation Guide, it’s Jack Whelan and I’ve been speaking with Tarnya Davis from NewPsych about how to speak with children when you are going through separation and divorce.

Tarnya, again, thank you so much. There’s so much, so many useful insights in that what’s been a very rapid 35 minutes. Thank you.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah. My absolute pleasure and I will just finish with saying there is no … Every person is different. Every couple is different. Every family is different. So, this conversation, you might take bits and say that doesn’t apply to me. It doesn’t apply to me.

But there might just be some little part of the way of thinking or dealing with your emotional reaction or your ability to settle your emotion so that you can do the best for your kids that hopefully might make a difference for you.

Jack Whelan:
Well, and I think it’s hard to put it all into one message. It is so complex. However, if having the children first is your true North, it’s probably a good place to start.

Tarnya Davis:
Yeah, that’s great. Yeah. Thank you.

Jack Whelan:
Thanks Tarnya. Thank you.

Tarnya Davis:
See you.

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