Effective Counseling Strategies to Help Children in the Wake of Divorce
A Master of Social Work online degree can lead to an exciting career in clinical social work. Clinical social workers are found in an array of settings, from hospitals to private practices to prisons and care homes. In this role, you will be qualified to implement a variety of counseling strategies and techniques to help clients — particularly in vulnerable populations, lacking the immediate resources and expertise to help themselves.
These skills are especially important when it comes to working with children. As a clinical social worker, you may encounter children who are struggling to adjust to the emotional demands and pressures stemming from divorce. While the management and dissolution of a marriage may seem like a highly personal decision, the sheer number of families impacted by divorce has made it something of a public health challenge. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, there were over 800,000 divorces and annulments in 2014 — a rate of 3.2 per 1,000 total population. Other evidence suggests that roughly 50 percent of all American children born after 1982 have lived in a single-parent home sometime during their first 18 years — largely due to divorce.
As with any life crisis, no one individual reacts the same way and this remains the case for children experiencing divorce. Given the wide range of possible experiences — in terms of parental acrimony, emotional interaction, and the developmental stage of the child — children can react to divorce in widely varying ways. These reactions may take the form of sadness, anger, fear, guilt, disassociation, loneliness, and other emotionally debilitating sensations. As such, the amount of counseling needed and the most effective techniques used will vary, contingent on the child’s personality, as well as his or her age. With that in mind, here are some effective strategies that can be implemented by clinical social workers to help children:
The primary role of a clinical social worker is to facilitate communication. Because children are in a vulnerable developmental stage, they often lack the communication skills and tools needed to articulate their feelings in emotionally challenging times. The inability to put their feelings into words can lead to an additional sense of isolation, depression, and frustration.
Interacting with children and teaching them how to articulate what they are feeling may help relieve some of the pressures of divorce and give the children critical coping skills. Jessica Trussell, a regional specialist in Human Development and Family Science, advocates talking to kids about feelings related to divorce and asking them important questions, encouraging them to put things into their own words. Questions she recommends include:
- How has your life changed since the divorce?
- Why do you think people get married?
- Why do you think people get divorced?
- What good has come from the divorce?
- What do you worry about?
- What good qualities does each of your parents have?
When asking a child these questions, it is important to stress that there is no “right” answer: Whatever the child happens to be feeling is right and, in its own regard, healthy. These questions provoke a greater sense of context and understanding about the ways that divorce is impacting them, as well as give them a degree of agency and relief by allowing them to “talk it out.” This can have elements of cognitive behavioral therapy — helping children to reframe negative thoughts, such as self-blame, into something more positive. Once these conversations have begun between the child and the social worker, bringing in the parents and establishing safe spaces where feelings about the divorce can be discussed openly — with both parents ideally — can help a child feel more at peace with the situation.
Some children — particularly younger kids, children developmentally behind their peers and those with deep parental attachments — may find putting their feelings into words too challenging. As such, the social worker will need to find alternative methods by which both the child and parents can explore their feelings in a constructive, open manner.
Play therapy is a natural extension of the way that children learn and develop. Through play, children can access their emotions and imagination in ways that are non-threatening and minimally disruptive to their usual activities. It may also help the clinical social worker have a greater understanding of emotional issues related to the divorce that may not be immediately apparent when talking to the child, including issues related to verbal and physical abuse. Critically, the child feels safe and comfortable during play, allowing them to dictate the overall shape of their therapy.
Allowing kids toys — such as puppets, action figures, and dolls — and games empowers them to act out their frustrations in a safe, constructive setting while also giving the social worker cues as to what the underlying problems might be.
A combination of conversation and play therapy, narrative therapy helps children articulate feelings and fears related to divorce, while still protecting them from some of the direct anxiety. This approach allows children to project their feelings into a story.
Children are very tuned in to the power of narratives because it helps them identify patterns and feel a greater sense of order and agency in their lives. Kids facing a divorce may feel overcome by uncertainty about what will occur in the future, so encouraging them to tell stories about themselves — or a little girl or boy much like themselves — can help create that sense of an overarching narrative. These narratives can be abstract — involving some degree of fantasy — or tied to the challenges they are currently facing.
Trussell in particular encourages clinical social workers to work with children and do a “personal history timeline.” Drawing a straight line on a piece of paper, have the child start with his or her birth and list important memories and milestones along the way to the present moment. Put in the divorce as a milestone, showing that it is simply one event among many in the child’s life. Crucially, ask children to tell a story that goes past the present and into the future, detailing the things they may be looking forward to. This shows how divorce — painful as it may be —exists on a greater continuum of experiences, helping additionally contextualize it and giving the child reason to feel hopeful about the feature.