Supporting Your Child Through Divorce

Separation and divorce can be the most challenging time for a family. Although the breakup is between parents, it impacts the entire family and emotions can often fly high while trying to navigate through this period. The good news is that the majority of kids whose parents divorce do cope and the impact can be small if it is managed well. The following pointers offer some basic guidance.

How to tell your child

If possible, both parents should be present to break the news. Divorce creates change and uncertainty for children which can be de-stabilising, before speaking with your children have an agreed way forward of how the new situation will work for all family members (e.g. living arrangements, contact with both parents, how parents will continue communication). Speak honestly and admit that is it sad, but spare the child too much detail. Ensure they know the breakup is between the adults and has nothing to do with them, this may need repeating a number of times to offer reassurance.

Expect a mix of reactions

Depending on your child’s age and personality factors (e.g. coping skills, resiliency, communication skills, etc.), your child or children will process and express the news in different ways. It is not unusual for children to express anger, lose sleep, have anxiety, act out, lose appetite, etc. If you feel comfortable enough to share the news with the school, teachers can monitor your child and update you on any change in behaviour. Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling about the divorce and legitimise their feelings by showing you understand their perspective (e.g. ‘I know you feel sad that dad doesn’t live here anymore).

Keep your child out of the disagreements between you and your ex

Even though you may be feeling hurt by your ex, avoid speaking badly of your ex in front of your child. Don’t fight or bring up disagreements in front of your child. Avoid confiding in your child or giving your child information about the details of the separation and don’t make them choose sides.

Maintain rules and boundaries

This period will lead to inevitable changes in the family, which can create feelings of anxiety and uncertainty for your child. As much as possible keep routines and boundaries consistent. Maintain similar rules across both households, even if your child is testing boundaries.

Put your child first

Throughout the process, parents can get caught up in what is fair for them. It is important to focus on what is good for the children, even when this may not always be good for the parent. Look after yourself and seek help and support, if you are not managing your emotions then it is difficult to have the capacity to help your child through this period.

Written by:
Dr. Jennifer Greene
Consultant Educational & Child Psychologist
SACAC Counselling

Some further reading and resources:
‘Putting Children First: proven parenting strategies for helping children thrive through divorce’ by Joanne Pedro-Carroll
‘Joint custody with a Jerk’ by Julie A Ross and Judy Corcoran
‘The Invisible String’ by Patricia Karst (to read with children aged 4-8 years)
‘The Suitcase kid’ by Jacqueline Wilson (for children aged 9-11 years)

Supportive Psychotherapy – The Cinderella of Psychotherapies

Living in the current climate of evidence-based treatment, a multitude of psychotherapies have gained credibility because of positive findings in research studies, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) and Dialectic behavioural therapy (DBT), just to name a few. It is not uncommon for clients to request for a specific modality of therapy that they had read on the internet. But rarely do clients come requesting specifically for Supportive Psychotherapy, one that is most frequently used in the real world of everyday clinical practice.

What is Supportive Psychotherapy?

Supportive Psychotherapy was once described by Jeremy Holmes (1995) as “the poor relation of the psychotherapies, a Cinderella stuck at home doing the routine psychiatric chores while her more glamorous psychotherapeutic sisters are away at the ball”. It is a misconception that supportive psychotherapy requires no special training or abilities beyond common sense, interpersonal skills, and a capacity for empathy. Experienced therapists use a mix of supportiveness and expressiveness matched to the particular needs of the individual client at specific moments in the treatment. The most effective therapists are those who are able to improvise and switch strategies flexibly in the immediate clinical moment, which mostly requires tincture of time, clinical experience, and personal maturation.

The main priority in supportive psychotherapy is to build a “holding environment” and foster an atmosphere of emotional safety and trust. This involves respecting and responding to the client with compassion, empathy and commitment, even if the therapist does not agree or endorse the client’s behaviours or thoughts. One of the goals in supportive therapy is to balance appropriate “containment” of the client’s negative emotions while promoting autonomy and independence. The supportive therapist works with the client to recognise, acknowledge and express one’s inner life through clarification of vague speech; and to tolerate and regulate a broader range of emotions. The therapist may use suggestions, advice or teaching to guide the client to see things from different perspectives but it is never imposed. Decisions are never made on behalf of the client. Instead, the therapist enlists the client’s input to clarify and develop shared goals, including the search for positive meaning, on their journey together. Existing adaptive coping skills are encouraged by the therapist, who also models more effective ways of coping to limit self-destructiveness and impulsivity. Beyond supporting a sense of safety, self-esteem, or hope, the supportive therapist also helps the client to improve on their interactions with others. This involves helping them to strengthen control over socially unacceptable behaviours, and to build healthier connections with others, both in and outside of therapy.

The supportive therapist treats the client the way they would want to be treated. Beyond active listening, the supportive therapist brings attunement, patience, effort, and an open and inquisitive mind into the therapeutic space.

Written by

Velda Chen
MClinPsych, BA (Hons)

Clinical Psychologist


J. Holmes (1995). Supportive Therapy. The Search for Positive Meaning. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 167, 439-435.