Helping Parents through Separation and Divorce Handout FLCA Conference 2020

Posted: June 4, 2020

Helping Families through Separation and Divorce:
Navigating Turbulent Waters

Tina Feigal, M.S. Ed.
Parent Coach and Trainer
Director of Family Engagement
Anu Family Services


  • Teaching Children to Row
  • Acknowledge and affirm their feelings
  • Legitimize those feelings
  • Help them put the feelings into words
  • Keep the details in check
  • Practice self-care as a parent
  • Get help
  • Acknowledging and Affirming their Feelings
  • Say, “I see you’re feeling upset. If I guess how you’re feeling, will you tell me if I’m right or wrong?”
  • Use reflective listening: “You wish this wasn’t happening.”
    Leave “I know” off the beginning of this phrase.
  • Be willing to be wrong. The correction the child offers will be what you need to know, and you can express gratitude for it.
  • Just listen.
  • Legitimizing the Feelings
  • It’s absolutely normal for you to feel this way (lost, lonely, abandoned, unseen, angry, frustrated, confused, sad.) Who wouldn’t?  You’re experiencing a huge change.  Go easy on yourself, as this is a hard time. 
  • Helping the Child Put Feelings into Words
  • Keep the Details in Check
  • The urge to assign blame is almost overwhelming to divorcing parents.
  • Expressing these feelings to children will always backfire and will hurt the kids.
  • Keep in mind that no matter how awful the other parent has been, it’s still their parent, and their response will often be defense.
  • When parents look back, they’ll feel very glad they didn’t put the other one down.
  • Criticizing one parent implies permission to criticize the other.
  • Encourage Practicing Self-care as a Parent
  • Acknowledge that especially during this pandemic, which makes navigating divorce and non-stop care of the kids, who are also grieving, feel like an overwhelming assignment.
  • Self-care comes in many forms, small and large.
  • Small efforts will pay off. Reading an enjoyable book, talking to a friend, watching uplifting videos, taking a few minutes to breathe each day, gratitude journal every night, calling your coach. 
  • Getting Help
  • Parents need a crew to navigate these waters.
  • Therapy is online, so it can happen in these difficult times.
  • Parents can utilize their Employee Assistance Plan for counseling if they work for a company that has one.
  • Help parents find a therapist by Googling their zip code, “divorce”, “help for parents.” The Psychology Today website will show them who’s in their area that does this work.  Also, for the kids they can search “children” “divorce”. Groups for kids through church or the community are powerful.    
  • Parent coaches are great resources for navigating divorce, as well. Some specialize in it. 
  • The American Bar Association has this helpful website: Divorce Coaching. It includes financial, mental health, legal and mediation professionals.

  • More for parents
  • Encourage parents to be real with their feelings, as a modeling tool for the kids. “I’m feeling sad about the divorce, too.”
  • Parents keep the feelings appropriate for the child to hear and express the rest in therapy, with friends, or with their coach. No bad-mouthing, no blame.
  • Always validate the child’s feelings without putting the parent down. Also, it’s OK for parents to explain that the other parent has been hurt in his or her past, which is why things didn’t work out. But use caution with this, as the child can go back to the parent with it and trigger defenses.
  • Validating without putting down
  • “You’re feeling hurt because dad said he would be here and he’s not coming.”
  • “You wonder what could have made mom act the way she did.”
  • “You wish this wasn’t happening.”
  • “If you could have us get back together, you would.”

This is not agreeing with the child, but simply seeing and hearing the child’s feelings, which is highly effective in healing their hearts. 

  • Parents Share How They Cope with Big Feelings
  • Encourage parents to say, “When I feel upset, it helps me to go for a walk or a run. Want to come along?”
  • Kids Blame Themselves
  • It can’t be mom’s fault or dad’s fault. They’re my heroes.  It must be my fault. 
  • Help parents communicate that it was never the child’s fault. The child may point to incidents that “prove” it was his fault.  Parents can acknowledge and validate the feeling, “You’re feeling it was your fault.” Then say, “We are the adults and we’re responsible for our relationship.  Kids can’t break up marriages, only adults can do that.”
  • Children’s Perspective Changes
  • Coaches can help parents be aware that listening, reflecting, and reassuring will be an ongoing endeavor, as children grow and change. Growth brings new awareness, which  changes how kids see their lives.  
  • Dealing with Each Other
  • Feelings run so high during divorce, often it’s hard to talk. Using an online calendar platform for planning the week can be very helpful.
  • Mediation divorce is a powerful way to reduce harm to each other. Look for attorney resources in the area.
  • Encourage specific therapy for divorcing couples.
  • What about Narcissism?
  • When a parent is divorcing a narcissist, the challenges are much greater.
  • Encourage parents to learn about the language to use with narcissists, as that can alleviate some of the conflicts.

  • Case study: “Sara”
  • Divorcing a Narcissist

He or she:

  • is in it to win it.
  • is a game player.
  • doesn’t tally emotional losses.
  • is using court action to feel powerful.
  • wants you to capitulate.
  • Ways a Narcissist Operates
  • Strategies of obstruction
  • Refusal to negotiate or settle
  • Run up the bills
  • Paint the former spouse as evil, incompetent or mentally unwell
  • Go back to court even when all is settled
  • Helpful Strategies
  • Make sure the attorney knows the situation and can respond.
  • Keep copies of everything, expenditures especially.
  • Stay cool and avoid the traps.

  • When Children Blame
    a Parent for the Divorce
  • This can get complicated; feelings run very high.
  • Stay grounded for your child’s sake and get adult support.
  • Support the child with reflective listening, “You really think the divorce is my fault and you’re very angry with me.” No fixing or logic, just seeing him/her deeply.
  • This complete acceptance of emotion allows reflection on the child’s part and opens the door to new thinking.
  • Children and blame
  • Be curious about your child: “Are you thinking that I caused the divorce because of …. ? Thanks for letting me know.”  Then pause, maybe for several days.  Let the child process feelings inside. Don’t try to persuade him, as it just backfires. 
  • Trust him to his own experience.
  • Ongoing Support for Parents
  • Assure parents that they can always call, even after the divorce is settled.
  • If you’ve shared resources, remind them. The memory suffers during crisis. 
  • Listening to their emotions and experiences without judgment is vital.
  • Support them in their spiritual beliefs, even if you don’t share them. They need the familiar help from their communities.
  • Ask for, and remind them of, their successes.
  • Comments? Questions?

Tina Feigal, M.S., Ed.
Director of Family Engagement, Parent Coach, Trainer

Author, “Present Moment Parenting; The Guide to a Peaceful Life with Your Intense Child”

Anu Family Services/Center for the Challenging Child

Copyright ©2020 Anu Family Services. Do not duplicate.  


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I See You Letter

“I See You” Letter

Another tool for helping a child with a traumatized brain, or any child who is asking for attention by showing unwanted behavior, is an “I see you” letter. When something is put into writing, it weighs more. The child can read the message without having to hear the adult’s voice, which is more effective because adult voices have sometimes not proven trustworthy in the past. I encourage caregivers to write the letter in a notebook, so the child can write back, if she so chooses, and review the letter at any time. The re-reading can be very healing. When I’ve encouraged other adults to write this type of letter, they’ve told me that they’ve found it later, stashed in a drawer or other safe spot, but never thrown away, which speaks to its significance to the child.

               You can write a letter to a child of any age. If she is old enough to read, just leave it on her pillow. If not, write it out and read it slowly, then hand it to her.

               If the child is so hurt that listening to you read a letter is too much, try posting notes that say what you see in her all over her room. Use the components below to craft your letter or your notes.
               The components of the “I See You Letter” are:

  1. I see what you've been through (in details that are significant to her, maybe just the things you know she remembers). You may want to add, "And other things, too, that we haven't talked about." This could spark a response where she shares more.
  2. In light of your experiences, I realize that none of your recent behavior is your fault. You were just trying to express your pain.
  3. I'm sorry I blamed you when I just didn't realize that your behavior was your pain being expressed.
  4. Together we'll work on making it better, and here's how: ______

An example:

Dear Ana,

I just wanted to tell you what I see when I look at you. I see a kid who has had some very rough experiences. When you were younger, your adults did not do what they needed to do to keep you safe. No child should have this happen, as every child deserves and needs to be kept safe. Your mom left you with people who hurt you, and your dad left without saying why. That must hurt so much. I want you to know that this was never, ever your fault. You were an innocent child.

I see a kid who is sensitive and smart. I see a kid who is amazing at figuring out other people. I so appreciate hearing you express what you know long before others your age can do that. I see a kid with artistic ability, and one who cares deeply for our pets. When I watch you with younger children, I am so impressed with how tender you are.

I realize I have gotten angry with you and yelled when you were upset with me. I now get that you just felt threatened, and you did not mean to hurt my feelings or disrespect me. I’m sorry and I will try very hard not to yell in the future. If I make a mistake and yell (because we all make mistakes), I will apologize and have a do-over, because no one deserves to be yelled at.

If you feel like writing back to me in this notebook, that’s great. Feel very free to do so. If not, I’m fine with that, too. I’m just happy to be able to use this notebook to say what I want to tell you in writing.

I am so happy you are in my life. Thank you for all the gifts you give me, especially your smile.


Mom/Dad/Grandma/Grandpa/Other caregiver

I encourage adults not to ever mention the letter, nor to expect him to say he read it and liked it. For a traumatized child, this may be too much vulnerability. But what often happens is that adults notice a softening in their child, a better attitude, more affection, more focus, and more cooperation. That’s the goal of writing: to see the child clearly, communicate it, allow the amygdala to register that the child is seen and therefore will survive, watch the result in a much more relaxed and relieved child and in an improved relationship. I often describe this process as being “like physics,” as predictable as proven science. It’s truly remarkable how dramatic the results are! And when you think about it, the seeing is the tool for calming the threat alarm. No wonder the child can now function so much more rationally. The more rational front brain is able to work!

I See You Letter