Episode 49 – How to Talk to Your Children About Divorce

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Woman-Comforting-Child | New Direction Family Law

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Podcast Episode 49


Elizabeth Stephenson, Sarah Hink, and Dr. Lindsey Ohler, Psy.D.

Elizabeth: Hi everyone, I’m Elizabeth Stephenson with New Direction Family Law. 

Sarah: And I’m Elizabeth’s law partner, Sarah Hink. Thank you for joining us today. We have a wonderful guest, Dr. Lindsay Ohler from LaPage and Associates. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Ohler.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Hello everyone. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Sarah: And we have you today to discuss a question that we get asked a lot as attorneys. And honestly, I do my best to answer, but I do refer them to people such as yourself, doctor—

Elizabeth: We’re not psychologists. 

Sarah: Absolutely not. But it’s how to discuss separation and divorce with your children.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Oh it’s really hard. No doubt about it and can be one of the most emotional things a parent has to tell their children ever. But one of the things I want you to consider though, before I even talk about how to tell your children about divorce, is the major impact the divorce has on the kids. This is a major rupture in their lives, regardless if they’re two, eighteen, or twenty-five, and they can experience it as a large emotional setback. So it can be akin to grief, just like the loss of a parent, grandparent friend, or somebody retiring from work. It’s a major change in life, so we really wanna make sure that we touch upon it with care and with ease and with gentle hands, regardless if it’s a 17 year old or a three year old.

Elizabeth: And separation of divorce is fraught with stress and anxiety, and parents always say to me, “Oh, we don’t do it in front of the kids. They’re not around. They don’t know what’s going on.” Well, kids are smart and they generally know a lot of times that something is up. Do couples come to you together and ask these questions? We’re thinking of separating and how should we tell our kids?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah. So I have parents come in together to ask, or one person will come in to say, “Hey, we’re getting ready to prepare for divorce. Let me take some notes. What can we do to talk to the children?” First off the bat, number one instruction—it’s better together for both of you to do it. I know that may be hard, but I need both parents there with the kids. So we’re a united front.

Elizabeth: And so you were talking about, it happens at two, it happens at fifteen. What do you say to a two year old so a two-year-old can understand and comprehend about divorce and separation?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: So essentially, with a two year old, we wanna keep it very simple. So what we tell them is, “Mommy and I are having a hard time being friends and being married and living in the same house, so we are going to live in separate houses for a while. We are both still your parents. We both love you. You’re not any part of the reason for this, but we get along better when we’re in different places. You are very fortunate right now because we both love you. You get two neighborhoods, you get two sets of friends,” and we really build everything up. But it’s so crucial there. A two year old doesn’t know what separation or divorce means, and sometimes a six or seven year old doesn’t either. So we really have to paint the logistics for them. And ensure that they know it’s not their fault. 

Sarah: And what else can we do besides that conversation? I always recommend that clients make it fun in their new house. Let them design their new room and create some excitement and comfortableness with this new home and the new family.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah. And let them have their belongings from their own house. So often, it’s one parent moving, not necessarily two parents getting two new homes. So you want ’em to create their new room, pick out the color, have, have a blast, but also be able to have mementos from their old room too. “What do you wanna bring?  How do you want it to look?” And encourage photos of the other parent and the family on that side of the house as well.

Elizabeth: And I find a lot of times there’s one parent that doesn’t help, like they say, “I bought that. You can’t take it to mom’s or dad’s, or whatever.” And that’s really sad. I think that’s so harmful to children to say, “You can’t take that to dad’s, or you can’t take that to mom’s. This stays here.” It separates the house and sets up one against the other a lot of times.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah, and we really want them to have security items to be able to feel aligned, so that they can go back and forth. So when they’re unable to take those blankets or that beloved stuffed animal, it really causes them some stress because in this time of their life where they’re going back and forth and trying to figure things out, those items really offer a sense of consistency and permanency for them. 

Elizabeth: They do. I got divorced when my child was two and he had a teddy bear, his name was Teddy. Very creative (all laughing). But I swear he brought that thing back and forth till he was like 14. So it really was a touch point and a lovey for him, and I think it got him through a lot of stuff that we didn’t know about.

Sarah: Yeah. Speaking of the age differences—teenagers, do you notice any more challenges with teenagers when there’s a separation? A lot of times I see them picking sides more than any other age group and having a hard time going back and forth. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: I do see that and for a lot of reasons. One is that a teenager has a natural affinity to one parent over the other. If we look back at our lives, we can see which parent we’re doing certain things with, et cetera. And that’s totally fine and totally appropriate. Teenagers also bring about a lot of logistics.

Sarah: A lot of stuff, a lot of clothes. Especially girls. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Like band practice, baseball practice, right? Girlfriend on the weekend. There’s a lot of stuff going on. One of the things with teenagers that becomes a point of conflict, not necessarily telling them about a divorce, which I can get to, is really for parents being able to balance their custody time with the teenager versus the teenager’s time with their friends. That’s where the big hiccup comes.

Elizabeth: So you brought that up. How is telling a fifteen or sixteen or seventeen year old, hey, mom and dad are getting separated and divorced different from telling the two year old or an elementary school age child.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: So the biggest thing, before I even get into the teenager aspect of it, is that we as parents, if we’re having this conversation, need to check our own emotions, right? I should not be bleeding my emotion, my upset, my anger onto the kid. And nor should I be oversharing. That’s the important thing. We have been trying to work on it, we are separating and getting divorced, and then it goes into the same type of thing You’re telling the two year old, it’s not your fault. These are issues between us. We’re not gonna give them any information about why other than these are adult matters. And I would argue at any age, whether the kid becomes 33 at some point, still not sharing the details.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: And then their questions are gonna be a lot of why, what happened? Did mom have an affair? Did dad have an affair? What? What’s going on? And then also questions about logistics.

Sarah: And a lot of times judges will order that too in the orders, you cannot speak about this case with the children. 

Elizabeth: Yeah, but I’m not, I don’t think you should talk about the legal aspects of it, but if I’m 17, I want to know, right, you’re curious.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah.

Elizabeth: You want to know what’s going on. So I’m not, I think you can say it in a way, like you said, with the two-year-old, “Dad and I just don’t get along. We’re better as friends. We don’t need to live in the same house.” So you don’t have to go into detail, but I think you do have a right as a parent to share something, to answer some questions. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Generally speaking, yes, but you’re not given the details of how your wife or husband was a jerk and spent all the finances and blah, blah, blah. And I wanna touch on a point with you with that, because teenagers are inquisitive. And you better be very careful that your legal documents are divorce related documents, whether hard or electronic, are under some sort of security because they will find them and that can easily tear a wedge in the family.

Elizabeth: That’s a good point. I hadn’t thought about that. 

Sarah: That’s good. Yeah. And you mentioned the older children who are of age. A lot of times I see a lot of problems with that in families that get divorced, with the gray divorces, and the children feel like they were lied to their whole lives. What was going on, we made it through high school, and now we are adults in our twenties, thirties. Then all of a sudden your parents, who you’ve seen together your whole life, are separating. That’s always really hard for them, and I usually will have a client with children who are siding, once again, even more so than the teenagers with one over the other. 

Elizabeth: I agree with that.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah it’s a rupture of identity too. Whether you’re five or whether you’re thirty-three, the family you once had, while still a family in many aspects, feels much different to the 33 year old. And another part when you age, not with the five year old or with the 10 year old, but when we get to the adult children, what does this mean about me and my marriage?

Elizabeth: I was going to say that. Yeah. 

Sarah: Like how people say that divorces are contagious. Like when your friends start getting divorced, and you start questioning your own relationship.  

Elizabeth: Yeah, like am I happy? What’s happening? 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah, so it’s also communicating to those teenagers and those adult children that you know, you still believe in love. And while it didn’t work out for me and mom, that one day it’s gonna work for you, and we believe you’re gonna find that happiness with someone.

Elizabeth: Yeah, but I don’t know how that works. Going back to teenagers, what I find is that teenage girls are very much aligned with their mom for the most part, and they become more like friends. And so I think it naturally flows into one. The parent will start sharing things without really thinking about it, and that teenager becomes their touchstone or their support. 

Sarah: And teenagers are manipulative. 

Elizabeth: I know.

Sarah: They know how to play each parent against the other to get what they want. So how do you combat that in a separation and know, like going into the separation and divorce? Knowing that might happen, how do you put your own boundaries up with your children to make sure they don’t play you against the other spouse, which could easily happen? It happens when people are not separated in divorce.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah. I mean it does. The difference though, when people aren’t separated or divorced, and you let something slip as a parent which is negative about your spouse, they’re still in the same house. So the kids still have to live with it and resolve these issues. But when there’s distance we can create that gap more. And it’s easy to align with one parent. What I tell parents early in the process, especially with the teenagers, is, if you’re really struggling with this or I’m getting a sense in working with them, that we need to work out your issues so we can set those boundaries with children. So as attorneys, you might be referring some parents to therapists, like how can we keep your emotions internally so that it is not spilling over onto the children? Because really any slight can be added up over time as an attack onto the other parent, and we don’t want that to happen. 

Elizabeth: Divorce is hard. Like you need to be in therapy and your children need to have a safe place to go and talk about their issues and things. How early, when is therapy appropriate? What age is therapy needed to help them get through the separation or divorce for children?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: I have seen clients through separation and divorce with kids as young as three.

Elizabeth: Okay.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Because, at three, four years old, we might be saying they may not be able to express and communicate their feelings. I see all sorts of behavioral things taking place. They might regress. Might go speaking like baby talk. I might see bedwetting. They might know how to cope with their emotions and be angry and throw things. So there’s a lot of skills and a lot of processing I can do as a child therapist just by playing, working through family dynamics that can help them process the divorce, but also a child in therapy at three or seventeen provides them a safe place that’s also consistent. There’s a lot of change in transition going back and forth, and a therapist is one person they can count on who’s gonna be

Sarah: And we do see, I do tell parents that children are strong and they’re resilient and not all of them are gonna need therapy. Correct? There’s gonna be separations where we have two supportive parents that are devoted to making this as, as seamless as possible when it comes to the kids and putting their best interests first. So any listeners out there, I don’t want you to think that if you get separated or divorce, your kids are gonna need some kind of therapy 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: For sure. 

Sarah: Because if everyone’s in it together,  then it is possible to make a place for your children to be happy in both homes. 

Elizabeth: But I think looking out for those things early that Dr. Ohler just said, about regression or bedwetting or acting out and those sorts of things. Those are things to think about. Is it appropriate for me to get my child somebody to talk to? 

Sarah: And there’s probably other problems like are there co-parenting issues at that point? And, what can I do on my end to make this easier for my child, get my child in therapy, but what can I do? What can my ex do to help our children?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: And one of the biggest indicators for school-aged kids, from kindergarten to high school to notice if they’re having a difficult time is sometimes grades start slipping. Usually that’s the first indicator that they’re struggling with the transition into divorced living.

Elizabeth: So what advice, not all parents come together and Kumbaya we’re separated. Yeah. We don’t get that very often. 

Sarah: They are out there, we just, they don’t come very often or they’re with us very shortly. (laughing) 

Elizabeth: So what would you say to a parent who says the other parent’s not gonna sit down with me? Does your advice or how you say things change if it’s just one parent that wants to participate in that?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: So the advice remains the same. Essentially if one parent’s doing it, perhaps you give them an olive branch in your conversation. Daddy couldn’t be here to do this with us today, so I’m going to speak for both of us. But the biggest takeaway from that is when a parent is not there, if that parent also has the opportunity for open conversation telling them about divorce is not one and done to leave the door open, that you can come back to me or you can come back to the other parent even though they’re not there and ask us.

Elizabeth: Okay. That’s fair. 

Jen: I have a question. Jen here, sorry, random voice popping in. I don’t know if this makes any difference if parents have multiple children at different ages and stages, so if you’ve got one that’s 15, 16 and you’ve got one that’s five; the 15, 16 year old’s gonna be more inquisitive. Like we were talking about, probably more perceptive and assumptive as to what’s going on. So how do you set that boundary of the 15 year old, maybe not communicating in a certain way or talking badly, maybe about one of the parents or anything around the five year old or, I don’t know if that’s necessarily an issue, but I had an age difference in my, when my parents separated and my brother knew things that I didn’t know.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: So yeah, we definitely have to set boundaries with the teenagers and it’s really referring them back to you can talk to me, you can talk to your friends, right? There’s other things we’re not telling a five year old about that. They’re gonna learn the realities one day, think about holidays and things like that. In the same regard, we’re not gonna talk to the 15 year old who’s not gonna tell the five year old what’s happening personally in this house. So just to keep it clean, focus on the present, all of those things.

Elizabeth: So let’s say that you’ve, you married early, you have a stepdad that’s been there since your child is two now they’re 16. So they’ve already gone through one divorce and now they’ve gotta go through another one, but they’ve become attached to this person. Is that more traumatic or is it just, oh, I know what’s gonna happen? I’m okay. Kind of thing.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: It depends on the child and it depends on the family situation. And the bond that they have with that stepparent. And whether both parents want that to continue post divorce. It’s hard to say. It depends. Family by family and child/parent relationship on an individual basis.

Elizabeth: So a lot of times you know, a lot of times legally they don’t have any right for visitation or anything like that. And if one parent is in the middle of a divorce and spiteful, they may not see that, and may not have the opportunity to see that parent again. Kind of thing. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah. So then it’s processing another loss, another grief, right? Another caretaker. So we have to watch that, we’re not acting out, we’re not seeing signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal. Those, again, are indicators that the kid or the teen isn’t coping as well as we’d like them to. 

Sarah: There’s a lot of complex relationships. Thinking about the stepparent and maybe they go to moms and all she does is talk bad about the new stepmom.

Elizabeth: Yeah. 

Sarah: It’s tough and I think that, I just hope that parents take that into consideration and I don’t know how many times we say it, and the judge tries to emphasize like, don’t speak poorly about not only your ex, but the family around your ex and their new relationships. And it’s gonna create a lot of trauma and baggage for your children to  instill all these feelings and emotions surrounding these relationships. And when they’re young and they don’t quite understand and they look okay, that’s supposed to be love, but mom says it’s awful and bad, or vice versa. And just, pause and think about what you’re gonna say and how it might affect your children.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Not that kids can necessarily express this, or a teenager sometimes in more of these conflictual families that we have, maybe not to the extreme, but just some co-parenting challenges, I find that the child doesn’t feel like they can love both parents at the same time.

Sarah: Yeah. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: So there may be, for a period of time there’s allegiance with parent number one, and then the tide switched and there’s allegiance with parent number two. So my job as a therapist is trying to create a place where you can love both of them. You can be upset with both of them, but the tide, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. It doesn’t have to be black and white.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s good to understand that. So if you feel like you’re the parent, that is not the most liked at the moment to not lash out about it and understand that, that it can be something normal that happens and stand your ground with it and not react. But also it’s sad. 

Elizabeth: Yeah. But it’s also really hard that you gotta keep your mouth shut when you wanna say something so bad. And what I tell parents, I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think kids are really smart and they figure it out without you having to say anything. And you always come out the better person taking the high ground and just focusing on making sure they’re okay and loving them and not bashing or saying anything about the other parent.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yep. And they’re always watching.

Elizabeth: I know. Remember that. Okay.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Also on, on the same extent for the younger kids, the school-aged kids, even a little bit younger, one of the things that parents often bring kids to my office for is, okay, they’re having difficulty with the transition and it takes two days to unwind, get back to themselves, what’s going on in the other house, something has to be happening there. Not necessarily, it’s just the transition itself. You go from one house with one set of rules to another house with a different set of rules and a different bedtime. It’s hard to adjust, and it doesn’t necessarily mean something bad’s happening anywhere.

Sarah: And it’s hard. To what extent can parents be on the same page about rules? And at times we know in our line of work that’s really hard for some people. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: It depends on how amicable they can be and their ability to always put the kids first in front of their conflict.

Elizabeth: And that’s, yeah, that’s a big step. And a lot of the time, if you’re the parent, let’s say it’s not 50-50 and you have every other weekend, then you get to be the fun one. You don’t have to get ’em up and go to school and work on homework, and I don’t wanna go back.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Yeah, but it’s also easy to be offended when the teenager wants to go to the football game, right? And hang out for three hours with his friends instead of you.

Elizabeth: Exactly. Yeah. True. What’s your best nugget of advice for parents to help them get their children through this separation and divorce?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Keep your thoughts to yourself. For the most part, whenever they’re negative, you probably shouldn’t say it. Kids are always watching your emotions, right? So if you have to take a minute or thirty to compose yourself, right? So the emotions aren’t overcoming and leaking onto the children. And really watch what you say about the other parent. Those little slights really do add up and you may think that the kid isn’t hearing it or making anything of it, but they really are. And then finally, the more information you can give them about logistics and how a divorce is gonna impact their lives the better. Because usually that’s the question, okay, where am I gonna be for Christmas? What time are we leaving? And where’s New Year’s gonna be? Those are big conversations. So generally I find myself as a therapist, but you can do this easily as a parent, just making visual schedules, even if it’s a teenager, so they know where they are for major events in their lives.

Elizabeth: That’s true. Kids are very self-centered and it’s, where am I gonna be? What time do I, kind of thing. That’s just developmental, there’s nothing bad about that, but that’s really good advice. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ll remember that.

Jen: I know in a different podcast episode, we were talking about custody schedules and you guys brought up holidays and we’ve briefly talked about it earlier today. And Elizabeth, you mentioned in that podcast about how sometimes people will start out with custody schedules thinking, oh, we’re gonna share the holidays and we’re all gonna be together on the holidays. What are your thoughts on that, Dr. Ohler? Do you think there are pros and cons? Do you think it’s better to keep it separate for the sake of the children, or where do you land on that spectrum?

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: I don’t have any families doing the holidays together, I’ll tell you that much. It’s hard to say. I grew up with married parents, but on those holidays we would spend time on both sides of the family. So for some it’ll just be natural, right? And wouldn’t be a difference at all. We really just wanna make sure that we’re minimizing transitions as much as possible and that they’re planned ahead and the kids know what’s coming next. The more structure you can give them the best, but you don’t wanna time it where they’re leaving grandma’s right before dinner is about to happen. So we gotta put Into the schedule.

Sarah: I always recommend that. Because a lot of parents, when they first separate, are going through the separation agreement trying to decide custody. “Oh, we both have to see them on Christmas.” I know. So I’m like, let’s slow down. 

Elizabeth: “I want to see them on their birthday and they need to see me on my birthday.” 

Sarah: It’s not about you, it’s about them. Do you think a kid wants to bounce back and forth on Christmas Day? No, give them two Christmases, let them have two full days with their family one day and a full day with a family on another day. And I think that’s hard. Adults are self-centered too. And that’s what they want, they wanna see their kid on their birthday. They wanna see the kid on Christmas. And it’s just hard. Slow down. 

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: And the Easter Bunny and Santa can find two houses. 

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Yes. Yes they can. 

Sarah: Exactly. Thank you so much for being here today. I think this was some great advice.

Elizabeth: It was great advice. Thank you.

Dr. Lindsey Ohler: Oh, thank you for having me.

Sarah: And anyone listening, you can find Dr. Ohler at LaPage and Associates and their information will be somewhere on the internet connected with this podcast

Elizabeth: Or you could just Google LaPage and Associates. 

Sarah: Or you can Google New Direction and find us. But yeah, that’s some good stuff. 

All: Ain’t that some Shit.  

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