Heart of the Matter: Addressing Divorce and Separation with Children and Youth
Divorce or separation can be an emotionally stressful period, regardless of age. When children and youth experience this change in their family dynamic, it can bring forth a range of emotions including sadness, fear, and even betrayal. While this period can be very challenging to both child and parent alike, there are ways to strengthen the child’s coping strategies to help them build resiliency.
To learn more about these coping strategies, I sat down for an interview with the members of the Child and Youth team at Some Other Solutions Society for Crisis Prevention. Among the many services Some Other Solutions provides to the community, this team of trained mentors offers an in-school support group called ‘Heart of the Matter’ intended to support children and youth coming from a recent divorce or separation.
What is the Heart of the Matter group?
Isy Castillo: Child and Youth Program Manager: Heart of the Matter is a six-week support group for children that are experiencing divorce and separation and helping build resiliency skills and the situations they may be dealing with and anything they might face in their lives. It’s a group that brings people together that are faced with the same things – the experience of dealing with a loss of another parent at the result of a divorce or separation.
How does Heart of the Matter approach subjects like divorce or separation?
James Rousse – Community Outreach Worker: Sometimes we do simple activities. I never expected to get feedback about this activity. Like, it was just drawing what your home looks like, and they would draw their home with their parents or their grandparents.
Then, each kid presented it and each kid realized how different each home is, and that there is no normal. They all remember that. I guess some kids don’t realize it’s “normal” to have a non-traditional looking family, so to speak.
Lydia Berger – Community Outreach Worker: Certain activities we do focus around some of the thoughts that enter their mind as these changes are happening, and what do we do those thoughts and what those thoughts do to their day. We talk a bit about their negative emotions and what they can do to cope with those emotions. We talk about who’s in their support network and different stuff like that.
James: Kids are open books. And, sometimes they haven’t really talked about it before, with anyone. I think they love to get it off their chest. I feel like there’s this kind of stigma that’s like: ‘We don’t want to talk about it. Let it happen in the background, we don’t need to ever mention it.” But, the kids want to talk about it.
In my experience, you’re never pulling teeth – they’re just open. So, I think being upfront about it, like ‘this is what the group is about – divorce and separation. We know you’ve gone through it and we’re here to talk about it. You’re not the only ones going through this right now.’
Lydia: I love the group. When kids get into the subject, they just start to get so into the conversation they feel like they finally have someone who understands what they’re going through. It’s neat to see these kids get excited to share. Like: “I go to my dad every weekend.” Then, “Oh, I go to my dad, every other weekend! Where does your dad live?” It’s great to see them make those connections, so they realize they aren’t the only one who doesn’t have their parents together anymore.
What advice would you give to a parent or caregiver who wants to open up with their child about the subject of divorce?
Isy: Based on my experience the number one thing I’ve heard is the biggest loss in quality time. I would give parents advice to explain, what they can, about what that separation or divorce is, and being consistent with the schedules and what’s going to be coming up. Keeping them informed and spending that quality time – because they’ll always mention the lack of that with the changing of family dynamics.
Lydia: Be sensitive to age appropriateness because one of the things I’ve experienced is that these kids are so smart and so aware of what’s happening, and just having that open conversation and not pretending like the kids don’t know what’s going on.
The biggest feedback I’ve received from kids is that they just don’t want to be caught in the middle of it all. So, by having those conversations and asking their kids how they feel and what’s going on for them. I think as adults we get kind of lost in the idea of keeping kids out of it. But kids are very intuitive, and they know what’s going on. So, just have that conversation and open that door so that they know they can approach you.
James: There’s talk about ‘toxic stress’ – a lot of kids see fights around them, or when a parent talks to a kid badly about the other parent. But I think if parents could avoid doing that around the kid that could avoid toxic stress, which can follow you throughout life. There’s good stress like: “Oh, I have a test tomorrow, I’m a little nervous.” That’s healthy stress.
Toxic stress is like a persistent extreme situation, like seeing your parents fight all the time, or abuse – you carry that with you for a long time. Studies are indicating that you can be at a higher risk for cancer or diabetes or mental health disorder because of toxic stress. Let the kids ask questions, and let them drive the narrative a bit.
For more information about Some Other Solutions Society for Crisis Prevention and their services to the community, visit someothersolutions.ca.
Picture: A child’s drawing of a house. Drawing pictures is one of the coping strategies at SOS. Supplied graphic