Published in 2017 in The Divorce Puzzle, An Anthology on Collaborative Divorce Coaching, J. Jenkins Editor.
As a psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist (AAMFT), I include working as a Collaborative Divorce Coach and a Collaborative Child Specialist in my Practice. In our Practice group of approximately 75 members, we work mostly with the two-coach structure from the original Collaborative Divorce model. That is, each parent has a primary relationship with his own divorce coach and a generally supportive relationship with the other divorce coach. The two divorce coaches work jointly as a team, together with the rest of the Collaborative team. This parallels the role of the Collaborative Lawyers who each provide a non-adversarial advocacy for his client and work as a team with the other lawyer and the other professionals involved. Often, a Child Specialist and/or a Financial Specialist is also included on the team.
The approach to Collaborative Practice that has evolved in my community is a bit like a toolbox or Lego. A client may begin with any type of professional (lawyer, mental health, or financial) depending on her unique situation and who she contacts first. Then, we add the next piece of the team as the client and initial professional feels is appropriate. Some families use all the tools in the Collaborative Practice toolbox, while others may not. This can also be considered a family-centric approach in that the family’s process and needs are at the center, and the professionals bridge the best of their discipline to the family.
When I work as a Collaborative Divorce coach or Collaborative child specialist, my goal is to offer my clients any type of help, within my scope of Practice, that can assist them to reach the best possible outcome for their evolving family. I think of this as their highest level of wellbeing with the minimal level of conflict.2 Structurally, this can look like one-on- one meetings, four-way meetings (with the other coach and other parent), three-way meetings (with the other coach and the child specialist who has a primary relationship with the children), parent feedback meetings, etc. I also stay connected with all other team members through team meetings. The focus of the teamwork varies to accommodate the capacities and complexities of the family as they navigate the divorce transition.
Parent education has also been a part of my career as a workshop facilitator and as a writer of parent education materials. The task of supporting my clients to learn new parenting skills can fall into the domain of my work as a Collaborative Divorce coach, as a Collaborative child specialist, or within a general consultation regarding marital transitions from separation through divorce and stepfamily development. No matter what my job description, one aspect of parent education that frequently comes up is coaching parents to become “debriefers” of their child’s experience of the separation.
Parents involved in family restructuring often have deep concerns about their children’s wellbeing, and rightly so. Parental separation is a serious risk factor in children’s lives on many levels. Parents often seek out my services for help in how best to understand their children’s needs and to support them through the separation. A central aspect of this work, beyond the dos and don’ts of creating a two-household family, is the direct communication between parents and their children as the separation process unfolds, particularly when emotional hotspots arise. Children deliver emotional packages to their parents through their behavior, their language, or their facial expressions. These hotspots or emotional packages create powerful opportunities for parents to connect with their children and to help their children process the strong emotions that parental separation evokes. Parents can be powerful debriefers of their children’s experiences of the separation.
During the intensity that often comes with separation, parents can feel overwhelmed or powerless to protect their children from the negative impact of the transition. As children show or tell Mom or Dad something that signals to their parents that they are experiencing confusion, sadness, or any other type of distress, parents often feel emotionally charged themselves and struggle to find effective ways to respond. Developing the skills to effectively capture these moments gives parents confidence and gives children the help they need as they process the emotional aspects of the changes in their family. It also helps to protect and strengthen the parent-child bond, increasing tuned-in-ness and connection.
Parents frequently report situations with their children that I define as emotional hotspots, times when something happened that gave them the experience that their children were upset in some way that was associated with the separation. At these times, I focus on what exactly happened in the situation and what exactly was said:
What was said in the conversation that unfolded when the hotspot arose? What exactly did you say? What did your child say? What happened next? What did you notice in your child’s voice tone, skin tone, and/or body language? What did you do?
I find that most parents, while devoted to their children and very well-intentioned, are not that conscious of what exactly they are saying to their children or why. Given that most parents have not been through counseling programs or worked extensively with children other than their own, they are parenting mostly by feel. What feels right? And most of the time, this is good enough.
However, as the separation unfolds, what they generally do may not help them through the hotspots. They don’t have a map of this new territory and can feel unsure about what to do. This can be exacerbated by their own strong emotions when they hit an emotional hotspot with their children or when their children deliver an emotional package to them. They can feel angry, sad, scared, or overwhelmed in that moment. They may not even be able to access their usual parenting strengths because of their own upset. (Research on parenting suggests a dip in the quality of parenting in the first year of separation and a return to normal in the second and subsequent years.)
I respond to these types of situations by training parents to become debriefers of their children’s experience within the context of their parenting relationship. It is indeed a tall order for a loving parent, who is in a period of her own massive change and emotional process around a separation, to learn to act as a debriefer for her children. At the same time, the challenge of this task is more than outweighed by the relief a parent feels in finally having a sense of what to do, the immense satisfaction when she gets it right, seeing the positive effect on her children, and experiencing a closer connection with her children through these difficult times.
Some of the responses I hear are:
1. Not saying or doing anything for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing.
2. Feeling so angry or hurt as to freeze up.
3. Asking questions like “What’s wrong?” or “How do you feel about that?”
4. Telling the child, “Everything is okay. Don’t worry”
5. Telling the child “Don’t be silly. It’s nothing.”
6. Responding, “Yes but ….”
If the child’s expression of the emotional hotspot is embedded in problematic behavior, a parent’s attempt to limit the behavior or to provide appropriate consequences can backfire making the situation worse. While much of what a parent is doing may be reasonable or good parenting in normal circumstances, there is more she can do in these emotionally heightened times.
Debriefing Children Through Separation Advanced Parenting Skills
Parenting Practices that are generally sufficient for the children in a one-household family may need to be upgraded to fit the two-household family. Although it may be a relief for the parents to no longer be parenting together, parenting in a two-household family can also have its challenges. Single parents are generally overwhelmed with tasks with little back-up. Parents no longer witness each other’s parenting, so trusting that the children are well-cared for may be harder to maintain. There is, by definition, emotional disruption in the family as well as many tasks that must be accomplished to complete the separation. There is now less time with the children and a smaller margin of error.
When parents hit an emotional hotspot with their children around the separation, the typical response is to go into “fix-it” mode. As parents, we want to do something to fix the problem; make the pain, sadness, anxiety, or distress go away. Unfortunately, in the separation process, parents cannot make it all go away. While parents can do their best to buffer their children from the stress of the separation, it is impossible to protect children from everything. Equally, children have their own feelings about the separation and have the right to feel these feelings as the transition unfolds. Parents can feel helpless, hopeless, angry, and confused when they do not feel sure about what to do. Going into “fix-it” mode can be the natural reflex.
Parents as Debriefers
Learning how to be a debriefer for their children does not negate everything else parents do. It is a skill to use when they hit the emotional hotspot or receive the emotional package from a child that signals to his parent that he is in an emotionally heightened or charged state. The emotional package can come to the parent as a statement about the separation, or a behavior, or the absence of something the parent understands to be normal. The parent experiences a heightening of emotion when she receives the emotional package. This signals to the parent that the child is communicating something beyond the everyday that is likely associated with the family changes. Once the parent has received and dealt with the emotional package, she can go back to her regular parenting Practices.
The process of being a parent debriefer can be described with metaphors that help parents to have an intuitive sense of the whole. Metaphors I commonly use are: treading water; massaging the moment; sitting with; expanding the moment; putting yourself in their shoes; and turning into a mirror.
Making the Shift
In order to help parents understand the shift in perspective of this different role, sometimes I change my place in the consultation room. I leave my chair, which is generally facing them, and sit or kneel right beside them. I explain,
When you shift to the posture of the debriefer, it is as if you are coming right beside your child to do your best to see it how they see it, to feel it as they feel it. There is no judgment or blame, just gentle curiosity. While it is not always necessary to actually change your place in relation to your child when acting as a parent debriefer, making the mental shift is the first step.
The purpose is for the parent to assist the child to go more into his own experience and to teach his parent more about what is happening for him. This may be counter to some parents’ reflexes to avoid the feelings or to encourage their children to suppress them. Just how is the child putting this all together for himself in his own way at his place in his development? Given that a child’s brain does not have the same cognitive ability as his parents’, his way of understanding the situation will be different than what his parents can imagine a lot of the time. Who can remember how the world looked to us when we were five, ten, or 15 years old?3
Example: “Oh, hmmm, so when you think of going to camp, it looks unfair because Fluffy can’t come with you. Fluffy might be sad to be at home without you.”
A Note on Noticing
Noticing is a very powerful tool for parents at any time. When noticing is a part of parenting Practices, it creates a gentle connection that communicates to a child that he matters. Noticing is not difficult. It involves the parent simply letting the child know that she has noticed him or something about him. It can be light, quick, and brief. Noticing communicates, “I see you, I notice you, I care, you matter.” When a child knows that his parent notices him without him having to get her attention, it gives him a sense of security and comfort and lets him know she is tuned-in with him.
Example: “You sure do a good job of taking care of Fluffy. Fluffy is so lucky.” Advanced Listening
I teach parents to think of each interaction with their children as 100%, no matter how long or short it is. I then ask them to frontload their listening, to consider leaving the “parent as fixer” for the last 20%, and consider using the “parent as debriefer” for the first 80%. This means using advanced listening skills first to learn more about what their child is actually saying to them before crafting a next step or solution.
Once they have used the “parent as debriefer” skills, they will know much more about what their child is experiencing. Then, in the remaining 20%, parents can return to “parent as fixer” and work to find solutions that take into consideration much more accurate information about what would be helpful. In addition, the child will have experienced a connection and tuned-in-ness with his parent that, in and of itself, is very soothing and helpful. He will also have learned some new ways to communicate about feelings that will increase his own ability to communicate about his own experience.
Making the Shift
Shifting gears to “parent as debriefer” starts with hitting the pause button. Parents learn to pause their usual reaction and shift into debriefer mode. This means stopping what they are doing and temporarily putting the world of adult affairs on hold. At the beginning, this may require a lot of concentration, so it may not be possible when driving or otherwise occupied in activities that cannot be put on hold. At these times, the parent can let the child know that she heard him and will get back to him about that as soon as she can, hopefully in the next few minutes or at the very latest that same day. Once these skills are more integrated, they will feel more natural and be accessible in the midst of other things.
The parent must give the child her full attention. She should put down what she is doing. Refrain from texting or computer use. Stop cooking for a moment. It may also mean shifting physically into a posture that is closer to the child or going down on one knee to be more at eye level with a young child.
Paraphrasing means saying again what the child has said but in similar or different words. While this may sound either innocuous or patronizing, when done well, it is a very powerful tool for the parent debriefer.
Speak slowly. When paraphrasing, it is important to slow down. As emotions get heightened, conversations often speed up. Just the act of slowing down a conversation helps the emotions to calm and clarify.
Voice tone. When a parent understands the statement or behavior to be an emotional package, it is easy to see that loud voices will not help. The parent should use a neutral, soft tone of voice.
Identify the emotion in the package. The parent should try to identify the emotion in the package that has just been delivered to her. Keep it simple. Sad, mad, scared, confused, frustrated?
Example: (Child looking sad and worried) “Fluffy won’t have anywhere to sleep in the apartment!”
(You, down on one knee, slowly, gently) “You are worried about where Fluffy will sleep in our new home.”
Stop and wait. The parent’s statement has just opened the door for her child to tell her more about his concerns. A moment of quiet lets him know that she is interested in what he has to say and is making the time to listen to him. It also communicates love and respect for him. Paraphrasing offers a child the opportunity to learn the emotion words that go with how he is feeling. It may take him a moment or two to digest these words and figure out what he wants to say back.
Emotion takes time to process. In order to process emotion, children (and parents) need time for things to sink in and to resurface in words. It’s a little like diving down and coming back up to the surface. It could be a shallow dive or a deeper one. I imagine emotional process as going on underwater in contrast to thinking that takes place on land. We can start, stop, and turn quickly on land, but it is much slower underwater. We need to give some extra time to allow the meanings of things to become clear.
Example: (Child, on the verge of tears) “You said we can’t take her bed because it is too big.”
(You, slowly, thoughtfully) “Oh, . . . so you want Fluffy to have as nice a bed in our new place as she has here.
(Child, brightening to a smile) “Yes, she can sleep in my room!” (Clearly the answer he has already thought about.)
Non-verbal behavior. When paraphrasing, parents can learn to notice their child’s non-verbal behavior as well as what he says. I teach them to watch body language, tear lines in the eye, skin tone changes on his cheeks or neck, changes of position, sighing etc. All these signs give information to parents about the effectiveness of their statement to connect with their child’s experience. In the world of family therapy, we call this the “recognition reflex.” In poker, it is called the “tell.”
The trouble with questions. Every parent asks their child questions, and under normal circumstances, questions are a useful part of communication. At the same time, when a child is in an emotionally-charged state during parental separation, questions are often not helpful. It can be tempting for a parent to use questions to try to better understand her child’s experience. In some situations, this will be fine. However, during a separation, a child can become reluctant to say things he feels might upset his parent or may not know how to articulate the complex emotions he is feeling. Sometimes he worries about talking about what happened in the other household.
To understand how questions can be tricky, consider them like arrows – they have a direction and a point. Given that we are adults, we will not be experiencing things as our child does, so our direction may not be the one that fits with him. Also, a question demands an answer. If the question is not helpful, then the child has the problem of how to “not answer” the question and so may just not know what to say. This may have the effect of shutting down the very conversation the parent is trying to encourage.
Paraphrasing statements are non-directional. Paraphrasing statements do not direct conversations. They are conversational treading water that stays in one place. They are “non-demand” statements. “You sound sad.” “Gosh, you are really thinking a lot about that.” “That sounds very important to you.” An answer is not required.
Getting it wrong. When paraphrasing, it is not a problem to be wrong. If a parent is off the mark in her attempt to paraphrase, there is no harm done. As the parent is corrected by her child, she has still succeeded in creating a conversational connection that supports the child’s experience of being heard, respected, and loved. Even better, the child is now engaged in the conversation to make the correction and improve the quality of the parent’s understanding.
Expanding the moment. Paraphrasing expands the moment to allow more information to surface and to be expressed. Everyone wins when the emotional package a child delivers is unpacked. It then becomes a doorway that can open up to create greater connection, respect, and more accurate understanding.
Its about him. Fundamentally, paraphrasing takes the parent’s emotional experience out of the mix for the moment, turning the parent into a mirror for the child’s experience. This allows the conversation to focus entirely on the child. This can give a parent time to catch her breath if the child’s emotional package has caused her upset. “Daddy says you don’t want to be part of the family anymore.” “I hate living in two houses.” In these cases, staying with the child’s experience may offer a parent some time to catch her breath and to avoid engaging the child in the adult issues.
If a paraphrasing statement did not elicit a response, the parent should can let it go or continue. By doing so, If the parent lets it go, the child still receives the benefit of her attention and her positive intention to be available to him. He also hears the language that, rightly or wrongly, she is using to describe what she believes is going on for him. This supports trust and safety and the possibility of communication in the future. He may come back to her later with this idea or respond next time she offers it.
Here are a few ideas that go well with paraphrasing and may allow parents to go a little further:
1. To continue in the conversation, try wondering. “I’m wondering” is a lot like asking a question without the demand for an answer. You can communicate what you are curious about and just let the statement float in the air. For example, “Hmmm, I wonder what would help Fluffy feel more comfortable in the apartment.” This is a non-demand statement because it does not demand an answer. It floats and can be engaged with or not.
2. Another way for a parent to keep going if her child is not responding is to share what it might be like for her. For example, “Hmmm, (slowly), if I was Fluffy, and I was feeling worried about the move, I might feel batter knowing that my bed will be near your bed.”
3. Acknowledging he doesn’t want to talk about it right now notices where a child is emotionally without putting pressure on him to speak. Putting pressure on him can inadvertently make it less likely that he will share his thoughts and feelings with his parent. Framing it as not wanting to talk about it “right now,” also suggests that he may want to talk about it later. For example, “Hmm, looks like maybe you don’t want to talk about this right now. How about some dessert?” And let it go.
4. The language of wishing can help give a parent a way to express to a child what she wishes she could change but cannot.4 One client of mine, an architect, used this effectively to address his children’s sadness about having to be with him in a small apartment. Here are his comments about using the language of wishing:
Our two girls, then aged 9 and 7, often criticized me for the considerable decline in our lifestyle following the separation. Instead of refuting the children’s views, I would share with them my wishes for better things, such as having our own home or travelling to exotic cities together as in the past. As an architect, I have even shared my wishful sketches of the perfect family home for the girls and me. This let the children know that I hear them and share some of their wishes. It also shows them I also have high hopes for the future without involving them in adult issues like finances.
For those of us old enough to have enjoyed Peter Falk in this well-loved television detective show, the character of Lieutenant Columbo can be another very useful way to help our clients get a sense of the voice of the debriefer. For those who did not grow up with this show, it is easily available on YouTube.
Columbo was a detective who mastered the art of interviewing in a unique way. I call this being “dumb like a fox.” Lieutentant Columbo always seemed a little confused, dim- witted or forgetful, and very self-deprecating. But we all knew that he was doing everything exactly as he wanted and was in complete control of the situation. In the family therapy world, we call this the “one down position.” We do not make statements that communicate dominance, but rather approach a situation with bemused curiosity. This voice tone can support paraphrasing and wondering as well as the other aspects of paraphrasing described above.
Columbo did a lot of paraphrasing and wondering. But perhaps his most interesting technique was “the crazy idea.” This gave him, and can give separating parents, permission to mind read (or at least try) without worrying about not getting it quite right. A parent may not know everything her child is experiencing, but often she has a pretty good idea of what her child is thinking. When a parent is acting as a debriefer, she can use “the crazy idea” to express her best guess about what her child is thinking without creating a demand for a response. Once we state that we have a crazy idea, we can say almost anything. Right or wrong, the parent will also get some good non-verbal information from her child through the recognition reflex as the statement is launched and her child receives it. One of my parents called “the crazy idea” a game changer in his relationship with his seven-year- old:
You know, I have this crazy idea, probably completely wrong, that maybe you were thinking that we might not be taking good enough care of Fluffy as our family moves into two homes. And, I don’t know, but maybe you have been thinking about it and have some ideas of your own about how we can take better care of Fluffy.
Here is a description by one dad of his experience with the Columbo idea:
Columbo’s inquisitive, half-wit approach allows me to disarm the children and yet suggest thoughts and reasons for their behavior, which otherwise may become exacerbated. Now 13 and 11 years old, the girls, as well as the separation conflict, have settled considerably, but I still use the technique. The girls often mimic me for the “Columbo” technique, which remains one of the best tools in my parenting toolbox.
“Why Are You Talking Funny?”
Some children will notice the difference in how their parents are speaking to them. “Why are you talking so funny? Stop talking like that.” A parent can respond, “Because I love you so much, I am learning new ways to communicate to help everyone through the separation process.” Children generally accept this way of speaking ultimately because it feels so good. Exaggerating to the point of ridiculousness can also help children understand that using these communication Practices is not menacing or threatening.
Example: “I wish we could live at Disneyland all the time and have dinner every night with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Cinderella and Peter Pan and even the Wicked Witch!”
Coaching Parents To Be Debriefers Role Play as a Teaching Tool
For some people, role play is about as interesting as a root canal. However, it is a great teaching tool with parents. As a parent describes the impossible situation with her child, it is generally clear that her responses, as well-intentioned as they are, are not helping. I invite her to play the role of her child in the situation she is describing, and I take on the role as the parent debriefer. This seems to be an acceptable way to enter into a role play even for the most resistant because she gets the easier role.
Building on her description of what’s not working, a parent can usually play the role of her child quite easily. It often seems like a relief to not have to figure out what to do. Generally, we just have a few exchanges before my client has no idea what her child would say. So I ask her to guess. She knows more than she thinks she knows, so I ask her to just make it up. Even if she is not exactly accurate, this gives us material and opportunity to use different skills, Practice voice tone, and develop some crazy ideas. I love watching a parent’s face light up when she realizes that she has all kinds of ideas about what is going on for her child, and now she has a way to communicate that effectively without being invasive or confrontational.
I also encourage humor by exaggerating an aspect that might make her child laugh. For example, “I just have this crazy idea that maybe Fluffy really wants your bed and pink PJs just like yours!”
During “parents as debriefer” conversations, a child sometimes shares painful experiences, and a parent can feel guilt or remorse for the separation, whether or not she is the initiator. In these moments, an apology (without blame) can be a very loving response to a child. For example, “I am so sorry that our family is going through this. This is not what we thought would ever happen in our family. I love you so much, and I’m sorry that this is happening.”
Sharing the sadness of the separation can help a child know that it is normal to feel sad, that other people in the family feel sad, and that feeling his sadness can help it diminish.
Although unintended, the separation process provides an opportunity to learn new parenting Practices that will serve parents and children well past the establishing of a two- home family. These skills can become a part of the restructured family’s parenting culture and can help deal with anything that comes the parents’ way in the future.
For parents with children who are delivering emotional packages that are overwhelming, or who are continually running into hotspots, a Collaborative Divorce coach or child specialist can coach parents in these and other skills that can greatly assist them to move through the separation transition more smoothly. It may also be helpful for children to spend time with a child specialist or child counselor to give them a supportive and neutral place to express their experiences of the separation.
For more information, please see the following:
Gamache, S. (2015). Family Peacemaking with an Interdisciplinary Team: A Therapist’s
Perspective. Family Court Review, Vol. 53 (3) 378 – 387.
Gamache, S. (2013). Locating and Defining Divorce Coaching For the Family Therapist. The Collaborative Review; Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals 13(1).
Gamache, S. (2004). The Role of the Divorce Coach. In N. J. Cameron Collaborative Practice: Deepening the Dialogue. Continuing Legal Education, British Columbia.
Gamache, S. (2004). The Role of the Child Specialist. In N. J. Cameron Collaborative Practice: Deepening the Dialogue. Continuing Legal Education, British Columbia.