Family Therapy: Guiding Kids Through Divorce

Carl Grody
Carl Grody

For some couples, divorce is painful but straightforward. They disentangle their lives and move on.

That's not true of couples with children. Often, clients come to me during or after their divorce confused about how to help their kids. I've written about how to co-parent before (see the online version of this story for a link tothat column), but here are some guidelines as you consider therapy for the children:

First, if you want the kids to come through the divorce in good mental shape, keep them out of disagreements with your co-parent. Most parents try to keep the kids out of the middle, but they sometimes don't, rationalizing that their situation is “different” (it's probably not) or their ex is crazy (they're probably not). It's not unusual to see bad things in someone you're divorcing; the kids need you to see the good, too.

  • Don't hide the kids' therapy from your co-parent. They'll find out anyway, and then they won't trust you or the therapist.
  • If you're not involved from the start of therapy, ask to be included. Unless a court took away your parenting rights, you have a right to know what's happening.
  • If you choose not to be involved, you're probably making things harder for your kids. Assuming there's no abuse or neglect, it's important for the therapist to understand the family system from each point of view and to build a good working relationship with the whole family.
  • You'll probably have sessions without the kids, with your co-parent. There might be anger, and possibly yelling. And occasionally cursing. (Don't worry: We've heard those words before.) In a perfect world, co-parents would calmly discuss their kids, but since we don't live in a perfect world, therapy is a place to build those skills in your new relationship with each other.
  • Everyone sees the world through a different lens, which means well-meaning people often see things differently. This is especially true in divorce, so it helps to accept that your co-parent has the kids' best interests at heart, too. It's easier to compromise when you don't think your co-parent is a demon.
  • The therapist shouldn't tell you what to do. The two of you are the experts about your kids. The therapist's job is to help you change patterns of communication so it's easier to co-parent.
  • Don't ask your therapist to pick sides, especially in court. It's hard for kids to feel safe about therapy if the therapist is forced to share what they say (again, assuming no abuse or neglect). It's also impossible for a therapist to work with someone who thinks they're siding against them.
  • Finally, let the kids have privacy. You have the right to know what your child says, but that doesn't mean you should know. Kids benefit by having a place to say whatever they need to say without hurting anyone's feelings. If something comes up that you should know, the therapist should help the kids work through how to talk to you about it.

Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.