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How to talk to your kids about divorce (and when to get help)

Kristi Guadagnoli, Psy.D. of MindWell Psychology in Chantilly, offers her best advice for keeping communication lines open and respecting everyone involved.

© fizkes / stock.adobe.com

It’s not just taking off the ring.

As Amy Poehler puts it in her book Yes Please, “Imagine spreading everything you care about on a blanket and then tossing the whole thing up in the air. The process of divorce is about loading that blanket, throwing it up, watching it all spin and worrying what stuff will break when it lands.”

Often times one of the things couples are worried about, beyond the marriage itself, are their kids. When it’s time to let them know that you’re taking steps toward separation, how do you tell them?

We spoke to Kristi Guadagnoli, Psy.D. and co-owner of MindWell Psychology in Chantilly, about how divorce can be managed with everyone’s best emotional interests in mind. Highlights from our conversation are below.

What would be your first step when talking about a divorce with your children?
It always has to start with the parental communication. Parents need to be having really in-depth conversations about what kinds of messages they will be giving to the children. For couples navigating divorce, there tends to be more animosity especially, in terms of communication, but if you can agree on how you are going to talk about it, you can also agree on the reasons why the divorce is happening in the first place. If parents are having a difficult time agreeing on why the divorce is happening, they should seek out a counselor to practice discussing what decision they’re making and the impact it’s going to have.

What would you say to divorcees who may be against getting help?
A lot of folks say they don’t need to see a therapist because they’re splitting up, but they’re really going to be connected for their whole lives because of the children. And studies have shown that the better they deal with the divorce determines how well their children will do in the future. And there’s so much more that you can get help with than just that initial discussion and understanding your children’s emotions. You can figure out how you’re going to navigate splitting logistics, finances and unexpected challenges. And the better your communication is from the beginning, the smoother the whole situation will be.

What should not be discussed about the divorce around children?
Anything that is an adult-based issue should only be discussed with adults. Pick-ups and drop-offs should be pleasant, and kids should not be communicating for their parents. That can happen frequently when the kids are still living in the house with both parents. And remember that it’s painful for both the adults and the children. As an adult, you want to have a safe space, and if you aren’t working out your own feelings, you could empty them out into your children.

Even after the initial conversations or after the divorce is finalized, how do you keep communication lines open between you and your children?
I am a firm believer in family dinners and having that time to connect and really talk about the day with your kids, even if it’s about current events in the world, what’s going on at school and getting a daily check-in. This would be a great place to check in on how they’re doing emotionally and make sure they can communicate their feelings to you. If they can’t, it’s important to note that kids that shutdown continue to shutdown, and kids who open up tend to keep opening up as long as you continue to encourage communication.

What do you suggest to do if what your child has to say is hard to hear?
Part of being a parent is being able to hear what they have to say to us. We have to have the tolerance. We have to be able to say we’re sorry and that we don’t know exactly what we’re doing sometimes, but that we’re going to try harder. There is no perfect parent. And when you let them know that you’re trying to be better and that they are heard, it teaches them that they can speak about their feelings in a situation where they are hurt, angry, upset, etc. Kids also model themselves after what you do as a parent. If they have access to empathy where they know how to listen and can actually hear what people are saying, they can model themselves after that.

What do you do if you think your child needs counseling services?
They may need their own space to understand what’s happening because they don’t have the verbal understanding yet to explain it outright. When kids are really young, sometimes the more expressive things in therapy can be helpful. Any Google search should be able to bring up someone in the area, and make sure it’s someone who is close to you and convenient. If they’re not, the will to get the help tends to drop and you’re less likely to continue going for help.

For more information on MindWell Psychology, visit mindwell.us. // 14110 Robert Paris Court, Chantilly

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