When Your Family is Splitting Up or Has Already - Helping Kids Navigate the Change

Posted: September 19, 2023

You're finished with the relationship with your child(ren)'s other parent.  Now what? 

Here are some tips for handling your own and your children's big feelings, along with creating more peace. 

1. Admit that this has been one of the most challenging times of your life.  Compassionately allow the feelings to surface, write them down, and talk to trusted adults or your therapist. This gives your emotions a chance for direct expression, so they are less likely to come out indirectly to your children. 

2. Recognize that your ex is still the kids' parent and that put-downs will only bring backlash, which you certainly don't need at this time in your life. Again, when you need to vent, use your trusted adults. If your ex is not honoring this rule, assure the kids that you won't say those things about him or her and that your love for them is your main concern. 

3. Allow the kids to have their own feelings, positive and negative, toward you and your ex. If we don't accept feelings, their expressions of them only get bigger and more intense.  When kids are upset, remember that they are saying, "See me! I need your attention to survive, and if you see me, my brain registers that you're helping me stay alive emotionally." 

4. When the kids' big feelings come out in phrases like, "I hate you. I wish I had another mom (dad). You didn't do anything to stop the break-up and I blame you," simply listen and don't try to fix them. After a pause, reflect the feelings to assure the child is feeling seen. "You hate me and you wish you had another mom (dad.) You're blaming me for the break-up." Pause again. Allow the child's brain to register that you have seen him or her. This is not condoning, nor is it agreeing with, the big feelings. It's letting the brain know the child is seen, which can bring the peace you're seeking. 

5. Per #4 above, be sure to also allow feelings that your child may be having about the other parent. It doesn't mean that you agree with the child, but do accept, welcome and reflect their feelings. Not doing this can leave the child on an emotional island, where there's no safe place to let out the anger, frustration, feelings of abandonment and even hatred. These are all normal emotions for kids of separation and divorce, and when we allow them, they can come out directly  in words instead of indirectly, with aggression, cruelty and sometimes withdrawal. 

6. Cultivate the loving atmosphere that you'd like to have had as a kid, especially in trying times. Understanding, listening, reflecting and just "being there," even without words, can help to set the nurturing tone in your home. This is something your kids will feel and likely never forget. Avoid trying to "please" the kids with unrealistic privileges, as when you change your boundary, it creates insecurity. Stick with your regular routine, even if they balk at it. Understand and reflect their disappointment. Use the phrase, "This is what parents who love their kids do. They encourage limiting screen time, getting to school on time, going to bed without arguing, and clearing their plates after dinner. I wouldn't be doing my job if I let all this go, would I?"

If you would like help with this or any other parenting concern, click here for information about parent coaching. 

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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