Play Therapy, Divorce and Separation

The trouble with two: Two homes, two beds, two different parenting styles, different routines and rituals, time spent moving back and forth, shuttling their favorite belongings in order to ease the transition. Not to mention mom and dad preoccupied with their own affairs, frustrated, angry (or worse) with each other, stressed about finances and legal expenses, exhausted from single parenting.

Even in the most idyllic of separations, children feel the effects of divorce. They experience the stress of their caregivers, as well as their own anxiety and fears, whether conscious or unconscious, about a number of questions. Was it my fault? Will I get to see mommy or daddy when I want to? Will I have to change schools? Why am I the only kid among my friends whose mommy and daddy live in separate houses? Why can’t we all live together like we used to? Will they still love me the same?

With the prevalence of divorce in our country, these are questions that nearly half of us adults will have to answer for our children at some point in their lives. So it is vital to your child’s sense of well-being and ability to cope that you consider your child’s feelings and keep an open dialogue about the changes that are happening in your family. Assure kids that it is absolutely not their fault that their parents are separating. Let them know that both parents still love them as much as ever. And never, ever speak negatively of the other parent to or in front of your child (and remember that little ears can hear a long way). Kids often adjust to the divorce by exhibiting new and often difficult behaviors, meant to communicate the pain and stress they are under as a result of this major change. Be sensitive to the changes in your child’s behavior and, rather than punishing, listen to the non-verbal messages he/she may be trying to send you.

As a psychotherapist who specializes in Play Therapy, many of my young clients are struggling with the residue and the emotional impacts of their parents’ divorce. Typically, the higher the degree of conflict between parents, the more stressed the child seems to be; but this isn’t always the case. Even in amicable separations, children can become quite anxious and overwhelmed by the change.

In therapeutic play children process their internal emotional experience (which is often stored in the unconscious) by using the toys and the play to symbolize what they are feeling. With children of divorce, I often see an unsettling quality, a constant sense of back and forth, in the play: the water moves back and forth between containers, the child moves back and forth between the playroom and the waiting room, the characters in the play must unsettlingly move back and forth between places, often the child embodies this sensation by moving or rocking back and forth in his/her own body. I also see a great need for a sense of control and predictability. This child will announce into a toy microphone or loudspeaker what’s coming next each step of the way (communicating her stress around unpredictable changes). She will move not only her own pieces but mine as well when we are playing checkers so that she is fully in charge of what happens in the game. Children who are experiencing even higher levels of stress will often turn to protective and assertive toys such as handcuffs and toy weapons in order to exert the sense of power and control that they are needing to feel as a response to their parents’ separation. When we pay close attention to the subtleties of a child’s play we learn the ways that they strive to express their internal experience in order to feel understood and safe in themselves again.

Play Therapy allows children the space to explore these deep emotional experiences that are often stored in the unconscious mind. Through the play they process stressful and overwhelming feelings and integrate their capacity for self-soothing and self-regulating. Simultaneously, they gain tools for coping with their stress and words to express their feelings so that they do not need to use difficult behaviors in order to communicate. It also gives parents a snapshot into their child(ren)’s emotional world, ideally giving parents more opportunities to meet the child’s emotional needs. Children of divorce develop a very special bond with the therapist who becomes a trusted ally, outside of the family, in the child’s process of adapting to his/her new family structure. With the therapist’s support, the family can express the challenges that divorce has presented and heal by experiencing new opportunities for growth and connection with each other.

Divorce: Never easy but there are important ways to support your child

One of the most common reasons children are referred to my play therapy practice is for help and support in coping with their parents’ divorce. Some come to me because parents are seeing changes in their child’s behavior. Some kids are expressing feelings that let their parents know that they are suffering as a result of the separation. And other times parents are seeking support for how to talk to their kids about the divorce. No matter what the reason, these little ones have experienced a big shift in the world as they know it and they need as much love and support as we can possibly give them.

It is crucial that families are aware of the tremendous impact this change can have on young children. Kids’ lives change drastically when parents separate or divorce. They now have two houses, two neighborhoods, a visitation schedule. They’ve heard fighting, talk of custody battles, hushed conversations between one parent and his/her friends about the situation. Their lives become less predictable. They wonder why this has happened and often question whether it was their own fault.

While all of this can be difficult to swallow, it is unfortunately a reality of our society and culture. Statistics show the divorce rate may be up to 50 % in our country. But there are ways to support children, giving them coping skills to deal with the emotional impact of this transition and loss. These skills can be applied to any situation in which kids are grieving the loss of something they were close to. Read on for some helpful tips and creative ideas for helping children feel understood, resourceful and strong.

  • Be as honest as possible. Children often have questions that put parents in a sticky, uncomfortable position. It is essential to tell kids the truth in an age-appropriate manner. i.e. Kids don’t need to know that daddy left them for the secretary. But they do need to know that daddy won’t be living with them anymore. Mommy and daddy have been fighting a lot and the best way to give the kids as much love as they can is for them to live in different houses. Let them know what their new arrangement will look like. If at all possible, have a family meeting with both spouses, in order to give kids the opportunity to ask whatever questions may come up for them.
  •  Assure children repeatedly that it’s not their fault. No matter how obvious it is to you that the separation was necessary, children are egocentric and will often assume that they made the situation happen. It is vital that they understand that it wasn’t their fault. This is even more important if one parent is no longer able to see the children regularly.
  •  Let kids know that they are loved unconditionally. While it is important to tell them you love them as often as possible, make sure that you are also showing them through your actions and your energy. Set time aside to connect with them on their level, through talking, playing and cuddling. Be specific—tell them all the things you love about them and what makes them unique and special.
  •  Refrain from criticizing or “bad-mouthing” their other parent. Although he is now your ex, he will always be a part of your child. Don’t put kids in the middle by having to choose between the two of you= this isn’t fair to them. By speaking negatively about your ex, you are indirectly speaking negatively about your child. By holding back and saving your complaints for your own adult support network, you are modeling respect, a sense of integrity and self-control—which will undoubtedly be recognized and appreciated by your children.
  •  Keep their routines as consistent as possible. While some changes are inevitable, given the nature of marital separation, it is ideal for children’s routines to change as little as possible. Kids need consistency and predictability—it helps them to thrive and removes some of the anxiety and stress from their lives. Nowadays, some divorced families let the children stay in one house and the parents go back and forth on their respective weeks/weekends. This gives children a consistent safe space and honors their need for a genuine feeling of home. While this arrangement may not work for all families, help your children by sticking to a visitation schedule, keeping school and other activities the same. Give them a lot of extra support and love if there is a parent who consistently misses visits. If this is the case, consider altering your arrangement to avoid this degree of unpredictability.
  •  It is normal for children to regress when confronted with stress, overwhelm and fear. Don’t criticize or mock them if they are acting younger than their age. Recognize that this is their way of letting you know how old they are feeling and meet them accordingly. It’s an opportunity to give them extra touch, affection and love.
  •  It’s ok for your child to see you grieve by showing emotions. Many parents feel that they are showing weakness by crying or emoting in front of their children. This is actually doing them a disservice by negating the value of their own, perfectly natural feelings. While I strongly advise you to save your big meltdowns for when you are alone or with adult support, it is perfectly ok for you to cry or miss your ex in front of your child. It validates their experience since chances are, they are having very similar feelings.
  • Give your kid(s) some extra one on one time. It is easy for parents who are going through a divorce or separation to be stressed out and distracted. Make it a priority to schedule some quality time with your child several times a week (even 20 minutes a day is ok, if that’s all you’ve got). Play, talk, cuddle and connect with your child, letting him feel your love through your actions and your sacrifice.

Finally, here are some creative ideas for processing the loss and change with your children. Many of these are adapted from Liana Lowenstein’s Creative Interventions for Children of Divorce.

Make a “Feel Better Bag”. Decorate it with pictures, stickers, stamps or anything else you like. Let kids know that they can use their bag anytime they want to. It’s especially helpful when they are feeling upset or anxious. Continue to add to the Feel Better Bag together and tell them they can add to it on their own whenever they’d like.

Here are some things you can put in it:

Worry stone—find a special stone in nature that you can rub when you are feeling sad or worried. Take a few deep breaths and let the stone know what you’re worried about. Remember that you can always tell a grown up when you feel worried and they’ll understand.

My helpers—make a drawing or a colorful list of all the “helpers” you have in your life. Your parents, grandparents, teachers, therapist, your friends and neighbors… anyone you want! When you’re feeling like you need a hand, look at your “helpers” page and remember that you have lots of people who love you and would love to help you.

4 count breathing—this is a technique to help you relax when you’re feeling upset, angry, hot, mad… Take big long breaths. While you’re breathing in, count to 4 slowly. While you’re breathing out, count backwards from 4 slowly. Breathe in 1-2-3-4, Breathe out 4-3-2-1. Wait for 4 seconds and start again. Practice this with your parents each night before you go to bed. It will help your body feel relaxed and calm.

Photo of your parents—ask each of your parents if you can have a picture of them for your feel better bag. Then you can look at the picture to remember how much your parents love you.

Free hug—make a coupon for a hug (or make a bunch) and keep it in your feel better bag. Then, when you’re feeling sad and need a hug, give it to the person you want to be close to.

Ways my parents love me—make a list or draw some pictures to show the ways your parents love you. Make one for each of your parents and ask them to help you. Your parents love you in many different ways.

Children who are experiencing the effects of a divorce may feel scared, vulnerable and overwhelmed. But with empathic, loving and attuned support, we can help them develop strategies to cope in this difficult time.