I’m a child psychologist – the three-step guide to helping your kids through divorce and how to have THAT conversation

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IT’S arguably one of the most difficult things a person can go through – as a parent or as a child.

But if you have separated from your partner and are planning a divorce, there are some vital things you can do to make the process easier for your kids.

It's important to avoid conflict around your children while getting a divorce, child psychologist Vincent Papaleo has said


It’s important to avoid conflict around your children while getting a divorce, child psychologist Vincent Papaleo has saidCredit: Getty

Child psychologist Vincent Papaleo spoke to Maggie Dent on the latest episode of her Ask Me Anything podcast about the impact of divorce on children and the things he’s learned throughout his career that can help people get through a marriage separation.

“A nine-year-old girl said to me, ‘My mum and dad don’t get it. I’m half my mum and half my dad and when they fight, it feels like the two halves of who I am are in conflict and I can’t feel whole’,” he began.

“The enormity of that statement is breathtaking.

“And it is so true. I’ve shared that anecdote with so many of the young people I’ve seen and they say, ‘That’s exactly what it feels like to me, it feels like the person I am is broken and split’ – and that’s what we want to avoid.”

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This boils down to one main factor – limiting the “level of conflict between parents and exposure to children of that conflict”.

And within that, there are three key points that Papaleo has come to know as common issues children suffer from while their parents are divorcing.

Firstly, “they do not want to hear their parents’ story”.

Secondly, “they do not want to carry messages between their parents or be responsible for their parents’ communication”.

And lastly, that “they do not want to hear their parents or others close to them speak badly about their parents”.

“Many of the children I see say that their parents are constantly embroiling them, constantly telling their conflicting stories, speaking negatively and badly about each other,” he explained.

“And for children that creates an unreasonable tension and conflict.

“The overwhelming social science research is that the one single predictor of a child’s level of post-separation is adjustment is the level of conflict, and their exposure to that conflict by their parents.

“So it’s our job to protect them and in my world, I think one of the best indicators of parental confidence is the capacity of the parent to reflect upon the needs of their child and have a good relationship with the other parent.

“Make decisions through the eyes of your children – do what’s best for them.”

For many people, the conversation with their children about their divorce is an incredibly difficult hurdle to get over.

But Papaleo also had some advice on how to deal with that as well.

“Trying to choose the right words can feel overwhelmingly difficult,” he said.

“Depending on the age of the children it’s my observation that you want to say a little bit less, not a little bit more.

“Don’t give complicated, detailed, lengthy narratives and dialogues as to why you’re separating – rather give factual material – ‘Mum and I, dad and I have been having some difficulties, you can see that we’ve not been getting on, we’ve not been friends, we’ve decided not to live together anymore and we’re going to separate.’

“Firm, direct and to the point.

“No ‘we want to remind you how much we love you and things will be ok’, because that gets lost in the narrative.

“That’s still an important conversation to have, but in that first delivery, having less information that children are able to take the core message from is so important.”

And keep an eye out for certain warning signs if you’re worried your child is not coping well with your divorce.

“Primary age children often display quite transparent behaviour that they’re not coping, and it’s usually seen by the people around them fairly readily,” he said.

“Teenagers are a more complicated group, especially around loyalty – their understanding of the separation and its circumstances is quite different.

“They can think about thinking, they can imagine how other people feel, they can have a view of the behaviour of their parents and they’ll have a judgement about that.

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“What we do not want is we don’t want children who are confronted with conflict and in response flee to their peer group.

“And depending on how their peer group functions, it can be really supportive or it can in fact expose them to quite significant problems.”

Papaleo also advised being "firm and direct" when you tell your kids about your divorce - to make sure the "core message" gets through to them


Papaleo also advised being “firm and direct” when you tell your kids about your divorce – to make sure the “core message” gets through to themCredit: Getty

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