In this episode, host Jaime Davis discusses how to help your children thrive during separation with child psychologist Dr. Lori Thomas. Dr. Thomas provides guidance and insight into issues such as how and when to tell the children about the separation, what not to tell the children, and what to expect once the children know about the separation.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode 3 of Season 4 of “A Year and a Day.” I’m your host, Jamie Davis. Today I will be speaking with Dr. Lori Thomas. Dr. Thomas is the director of forensic services at Wynn’s Family Psychology, a child and adolescent psychology practice located in North Carolina with offices in Cary and North Raleigh. She provides psychotherapy to children and their families, conducts private and court-ordered psychological evaluations and custody evaluations, works with high conflict families, and as a trained parent coordinator.
Hi Lori. Thanks for joining me today.
Lori Thomas: Hi Jamie. Thanks for having me.
Jaime Davis: Tell our listeners a little bit about your practice.
Lori Thomas: I work with a group of clinicians at Wynn’s Family Psychology. The main office is located, we have main offices located in Cary, and the practice has satellite offices in Raleigh and Greensboro. I currently provide services to individuals and families in our Cary and Raleigh office. Um, since, you know, we’ve been going through this pandemic, we’ve been able to provide both Teletherapy and in-person therapy, um, and you know, had to develop a number of protocols for COVID. But generally I have both a clinical and administrative role there clinically. I work with children, teens, young adults, adults, and families. I provide therapy, uh, when children are having problems with coping with stress from school or trying to explore their identities, or if they need some help, um, managing their emotions or mood. I also provide therapy to families who are dealing with divorce or to parents who have, are having significant problems in their relationship with their children, with their child.
I conduct assessments or evaluations for individuals who are involved in the court, and there’s some concern about their mental health or how their mental health may be impacting their daily lives or their ability to parent. Administratively I, because of my background in law, I provide some internal training and support to our clinicians when aspects of their practice intersect with the law. Most often in, in, in our case, it would be, you know, they receive a subpoena or something or a, some request, um, to provide records and something like that. And so I also help, uh, develop, uh, our forensic services for the practice. So that’s sort of a long overview of, or a big overview of what we, we do there, what I do there at Wynn’s Family Psychology.
Jaime Davis: That’s great. You sound exactly like the person that I want to be talking to about this topic today. Um, since the theme of this season of the podcast is not only surviving your separation, but learning how to thrive through the process, I thought it would be helpful to hear from a child psychologist about how we can help our children do more than just survive their parents’ separation. You know, the first step in ensuring that your children are able to thrive during the separation, I would think is telling them about the separation in an appropriate manner. If a couple knows that they will be separating, when should they plan to tell their children?
Lori Thomas: Well, so I would say that in a broad sense, maybe, you know, they should be thinking somewhere between two or three weeks or so before they plan on making a move, if you will. Um, you know, but it’s, it’s also going to depend Jaime on the particular characteristics of the child, um, the age of the child, and you know, so much, so sort of how much planning ahead, I guess the parents have prepared. So, I mean, ideally, you know, if you have, you know, a child who is able to understand, um, or, um, complicated parent relationships, you know, you might, or, you know, your child may have some particular anxieties or something like that, you’re going to want to, you know, give them enough time to be able to process what you’re saying, um, and also be able to be prepared, you know, for a plan for the next step.
So, you know, I would say two weeks, you know, gives parents an opportunity, the child opportunity to hear the information and to be able to take it in and, you know, be able to think about, you know, give them enough time to transition to whatever the new plan is that the parents have for, um, you know, the future.
Jaime Davis: So in what situations, if any, do you think that it might be better to tell the children closer to the actual separation date?
Lori Thomas: So for instance, I suppose if you have a child, um, you know, who’s particularly anxious, right? And you may not necessarily have worked out all of the details that the child may have questions about. So, you know, children are generally going to be concerned about what’s happening next. You know, who’s going to take them to school. Um, who’s going to pick them up if that was a practice that the parents had. They’re going to want to know where they’re going to stay and where they’re going to want to want to live. And a child who’s anxious may have more questions, you know, um, that they need to have answered. And so you have a child with a lot of anxiety. You might want to give them a little less time to be able to think about or think through about all the what ifs that they have. Um, and it would also, you know, give them an opportunity to, um, you know, so they hear the information, they have some initial questions, but there’s not too long of a waiting period of time before then the next steps happen.
Jaime Davis: So once you have through the timing of when to tell them, you know, given the age of your particular child and any, you know, characteristics about your child, that may impact the timing, what should parents tell the children about the separation?
Lori Thomas: Well, I think that in general, parents need to be echoing a general theme and the theme, some key themes. I think the key themes are, listen, you know, your parent, you know, your other parent, and I, um, have thought about this. We have talked about this together and we have decided that this is something, you know, we may have even tried to work on things, but we’ve decided that we really need to do this. So you want to keep this as sort of in the child’s head and understanding as an adult decision that this is something that the adults made the decision about and that it has the reason for those decisions or have something to do with the relationship between the adults.
The next theme is that it’s really not, you know, the, the, this change does not affect each parent’s individual relationship with the child. So you want them to know that nothing that they said or did, or any behavior that they had is responsible for the parents deciding that they need to make this change to the family would get separated or divorced, because I think that children, especially, um, in, during certainly certain developmental ages, you know, take on a lot of responsibility for things that happen and so parents need to, they may have to say it many times that this is not related to the child. There’s no fault of the, child’s, why this is happening.
The other theme that parents need to consider when giving their children information about the separation and divorce is that, you know, neither parent is to blame. Now that can be really challenging if the reason for the separation, you know, was maybe instituted by one parent, you know, and not the other, and maybe one parent wants it and the other parent does. But regardless again, the reasons for the separation is related to aspects of the adult relationship. And so as much as they can, parents need to try to limit that information being presented to the children. So they need to you know, hopefully get together, um, beforehand, if, you know, if they have, if they’re in that phase of the relationship where they can and at least work out what they’re going to say to the children, their children, so that they’re as best as they can as adults try not to communicate blame across each other.
And then they also need to communicate that no, they have a plan That they have talked about it. They are, they’ve considered their children’s needs and that they have a plan in a way that they’re going to move forward. And that they’re going to be able to share some aspects of that and that, you know, some of the things that will happen will still be the same. So for example, they already know that, you know, um, one parent will still pick them up from the child up from school. They need to just say, you know, and so we thought about that. And so these are some of the things, these are the ways in which we’re going to make sure that you still feel like you have what you need from both of us. So those were, I would say the overarching themes that they want to be able to communicate to your child or children.
Jaime Davis: Lori I love that you shared that with our listeners. Um, you mentioned that at certain ages, children can sometimes take on a little bit of the responsibility for the separation. Um, when do you find that that’s most likely to occur?
Lori Thomas: Yeah, well, so, I think that to a certain extent, children of all ages can certainly do that. But younger children, uh, who tend to sort of view the world as being, um, you know, controlled by them. You know, they take responsibility for sadness and for happiness and for the feelings of others. And they sort of see themselves as the center of, of, you know, all the things that are happening.
So younger children, I would say somewhere, maybe seven years of age, a little bit younger, you know, as you start to have children who are approaching the preteen and teen years, they have a better sense of, you know, their separation from events and situations that are going on around them. But certainly younger kids tend to see themselves as the center, and in many ways, parents really work hard to help their children feel like they’re the center. That they’re cared for and that, um, you know, they, you know, that their needs are met. And so some of that really is an extension right, of the ways that we want our children to feel protected.
So, you know, at younger ages, parents, you know, need to be taken care that their children are going to want to think that maybe that tantrum they had or because they were, you know, bad in the morning so to speak before they went to school or something that really is unrelated to this more complex parents situation is, is, is responsible for, you know, this decision that the parents are making. And so parents need to just kind of be aware and listen out for that and be ready to just reassure the child or their children that, you know that this is really between the two of them, that the parents are the ones that really had some things that they needed to work out, but they just couldn’t figure it out together.
Jaime Davis: That’s really interesting, and you know, at least for me would have been counterintuitive. As you were speaking, I was thinking you were going to say it was, you know, the preteen children or the teenage children that might take on the responsibility. I think it’s really interesting that it’s actually the younger kids.
Lori Thomas: Well, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, once children had about age 10 or so, and they start to get into those teen years, they start seeing their parents realistically, right? So they start seeing them less as, you know, these beings that, you know, are just, um, omnipresent, right? There’s these, these beings to people who like have some things that, you know, are not necessarily perfect. And so they started evaluating themselves, they started evaluating in relationships. By the time they get to teen years, they may have had crushes or, or they may have had, you know, some, um, minor, you know, relationships with one another, you know, uh, crushes or you know, short dating relationships.
And so they have a better sense of, of, you know, how people contribute. Now it’s by no means, um, enough is to help them fully understand the complex, um, relationship of a marriage. But they have a better sense. And they’re also by the time they become teen years, if they have been living in the household that their parents and they have observed certain interactions and they’ve been able to put it through their own filter and their own lens, they have a sense of what’s not quite right. And so even if parents aren’t actively, you know, fighting, or even arguing, or if they’re not actively doing things, you know, that the kids still have a sense of, you know, when they’re upset with each other or when there’s tension in the home. And so they have a, they have a better sense and awareness and cognitively, they’re just more, they’re just better able to process what’s really going on, right, the complicated nature of that.
And so by the time they get to their later teens, right, you know, they’re usually, you know, even if parents have done a fairly good job of protecting their children from, you know, disagreements and things like that, you know, usually teenagers are, you know, sort of like, oh yeah, you know, I don’t like that this is happening, but I can kinda understand that this, you know, how my parents have gotten to this point.
Jaime Davis: We’ve talked about best practices and ways to tell the children about the separation. I’d like to switch gears a little bit and maybe talk about some things that you shouldn’t do. So is there anything that parents should definitely not tell the children?
Lori Thomas: Parents generally, especially if there’s a situation where one parent, uh, wanted the separation of the divorce and the other parent did not, sometimes parents may want to communicate that in some way to their children. And so, I think it’s really not the greatest idea to, uh, let your children know who’s to blame for the separation. You know, there might be some uncovered voidable circumstances where, you know, the kids may become aware that one parent wanted it versus another. They may have overheard an argument or in really extreme cases they may have been led that one parent was not faithful in the relationship. So, but you definitely want to keep adult matters separate from the children. So you don’t want to throw one parent under the bus and say, well, they really wanted this and I didn’t.
Um, you, you don’t want to go through the details or give them too many details about this complex adult relationship and why it went wrong. Kids may want to, especially older children and sometimes younger children who are pretty inquisitive and may have, um, may be really cognitively more advanced, they may ask a lot of questions that are really complex and that wants to get, and they may want to really understand what happened because it’s normal for us to want to know what happened when a situation changes or when something seems broken. But parents need to be guarded and to be careful about giving out too much information, because although kids might act like they want the information, once they receive it, they can’t un-know it. And then it becomes more of a burden. And sometimes then it really makes them feel as though they need to take alliance or align with one parent over another. And that can be really stressful for children in the long-term.
Jaime Davis: So what about parents who take the position that they don’t want to lie to their children? Do you have any tips for them?
Lori Thomas: Well, I just kind of say, you know, while I admire this, uh, desire for parents, and I just want to kind of point out that that’s probably not quite accurate. You know, as parents, you do tell your children things that aren’t true and I, you know, I sort of start off with extreme examples where parents may really have their children believing in the Easter Bunny or, um, some other kind of societal thing that we have kids believe in that may not necessarily be exactly accurate. And we do that because we think that it prolongs their childhood and it makes them feel good about things.
Um, so I would say that there are ways in which parents always shield our children, and this should be an area in which parents should be shielding their children from because, at the end of the day, your child, and so I, you know, I suppose this primarily applies biological relationships, but in the kind of in a case of a biological relationship, the child is, is, you know, part you in part the other parent, right? Even in a non-biological relationship, maybe a child has been adopted or something, they’ve come to know and expect, you know, and incorporate the actions or the knowledge or the connection with the other parent. And so you know, telling them the truth about complicated relationships, you know, can, it gets to that place where the child can end up with a loyalty conflict, right? Who should I, whose side should I be on right? And then over time, that becomes much more challenging because now the child who used to have perhaps a relationship in some way with both parents now feels as though they’re not, you know, in order to be loyal or to, to be with or you know, to be connected to another parent, they need to, they, they need to, you know, have, uh, an estranged or a difficult relationship with the other parent.And that’s really, again, in terms of child development and stress, as it can be really stressful for a child.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, I can see where that issue probably comes up a lot if there has been infidelity in the marriage. Um, if there has been infidelity on the part of, one of the parents, should the kids know?
Lori Thomas: Well, that’s a tricky one, Jamie. So often when parents have come to me beforehand, you know, so they may be considering separating and they really just want to have some tips about what to say to the children. And they might reveal that there has been, um, that one partner has been unfaithful. I typically try first to figure out, you know, and so I guess it’s the same thing I will communicate to your listeners.
You know, first I would try to figure out, you know, what information might the children have already been exposed to? Do they, have they intercepted, have they overheard, uh, you know, interactions? Have the other parents, you know, met up with their friend, um, and introduce the child, you know, to this friend of theirs prior to the separation? Because all of those things will help tailor what, and how much you tell the children, because if they’re aware and they have been, you know, routinely they’ve been previously exposed or they’ve interacted with, um, or intercepted phone calls or text messages between one of their parents and someone else, and, you know, especially if they’re an older child, you’re gonna want to be able to sort of understand what their child knows, and what they’ve, you know. And so, you know, as you sit down to, you know, talk to your child, you want to think of in the back of your mind, hey, I need to be prepared in case, you know, they start to ask me questions about things.
So, you know, you, you, you just kind of want to be keen to have some, some, some ideas in your mind about what you want to tell them. And so if there has been some infidelity and you think, or, you know, your partner reveals to you that perhaps there have been some interactions between that other party and the child, you’re just gonna want to keep again, basic information. You know, we’ve talked about this and, and we decided that we need to move, you know, we need to separate from each other. This isn’t about you, you know, that we both love you and we both want, are still going to be participating in taking care of for you. And so then, you know, you just wait, right?
And then there might be questions. If you listen out for the questions and you listen to the way that the question’s being asked. Well, you know, is it someone, you know, children might want to say, is there some, is it someone at fault? Is it so-and-so’s fault? Is it mom’s fault? Is it that’s fault or in the cases of same parent relationship, you know, same sex relationships. Is it mom or mom’s fault? And you want to be able to just kind of patiently wait to listen to the questions that you’re being asked to know how much information you want to acknowledge or, um, you know, sort of confirm. Because you don’t want in the case where a child may have interacted with another parent and when they’ve been in faithful, they aren’t faithful, they may have met the other person as a friend, you, you certainly don’t want to create a crazy-making situation where the child has observed things and you say, well, no, that didn’t happen. You know? So you just sort of have to tread lightly. And that’s a real, it’s a really tricky thing.
Now for younger kids, if they’ve interacted you know, they’ve interacted with a friend, they may not have, you know, the, you know, the friend of the, of the parent, they may not have the cognitive awareness or that understanding of complexities. And they might say, they might say things like, oh, you know, I met daddy’s or I met mommy’s or I met mom’s friend and you can just sort of listen to that and know that you’re probably not going to share too much more about that.
For older children who may have more complicated questions, you might just have to say, listen, I know you’ve heard some things, you may have seen some things. But really this again is, is our as our adult relationship. And you know, maybe when you’re older and you have questions, we might be able to share things with you. But right now, I’m sorry.
You know, we just, we just, um, you know, can’t tell you anymore.
Jaime Davis: If the kids start to ask a lot of questions, how should the parent handle a situation where they may not be prepared to answer the questions that are being asked by their child?
Lori Thomas: I’m sure that’s likely to happen. You know, first of all, you know, sometimes parents are not prepared because sometimes the question asking happens at times where you’re not expecting a question. You know, for younger kids that might be bath time or for a little bit older kids, it might be on the ride to school. And so you might be, your brain might be focused elsewhere and you might get a question about the separation and the divorce. And so you may not be prepared.
I always tell parents, listen, don’t be afraid to say that’s a really good question and I really need to think about it some more, right? Or I, you know, I, I’m not sure how to answer that question just right now. I need to think about it. And then in the interim you can talk to the other parent. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but you know, our child is really asking these questions and I am not really sure how to respond and I don’t want to throw you under the bus. So how can we both be prepared to answer this question?
So you want to be able to just. I would say, just pause, you know, and acknowledge that you’ve heard the question. Acknowledge that you understand that the child really wants to know. If it’s one of those things, questions where it’s definitely not something you’re ever going to answer, you can just say, honey, you know, I really, I know you really want to know the answer to that question and I wish we could talk about that, but again, remember I said that these things were adult issues, and I really think it’s a better idea for your other parent and I to really handle this and for you to just remain focused on going to school and with your friends and those kinds of things. And then, you know, so that, you know, you’re, you’re the parent and I can really handle these things as adults, right?
So there are a couple of delay things that you want to, the thing you really do want to consider the question, but don’t feel the need to answer the question if you’re not prepared for it in that moment, because likely you’re going to say some things that only going to lead to more questions. And the reality is is that, you know, sometimes the questions can be answered narrowly, but you just need more time to think about it.
Jaime Davis: You have provided us with so much great information today. Do you have any other tips for how parents can help their children do more than just survive their parents’ separation?
Lori Thomas: Yeah, I mean, I think just, you know, just remember that your kids are just looking to you to try to maintain, you know, a level of normalcy just so that they can focus on being a kid. Right? So I think the way to help them thrive is I know that usually when this happens, you know, your parent is getting separated and divorced and is probably one of the worst moments in your life.
And so, you know, just trying to be able to find your own supports and resources so that you can put, you know, you can express your emotions and have your feelings in those areas. And then when it comes to your children, you can just work on just reassuring them that although this major change has happened, that you’re here for them, that you’re still going to be able to meet their needs in whatever ways they need to and that, for the most part, they’re going to be able to still do a lot of the things that they’re going to do.
Now, you know, sometimes you may have to, you know, measure that a little bit because especially in the cases of separation or divorce, maybe one parent’s financial situation might change significantly. And so maybe some of the items or the things that were freely given in the past may not be able to be accessible to children. And so in that case, you just want to let them know, hey, you know, we’re still going to be able to do, and you talk about all of those things that are more bonding things and less of the things that are focused on materials.
So you’ll say we’re still going to be able to tuck you in. And, uh, you know, I’m still going to be able to, we’re still going to be able to go get ice cream together. We’re still gonna be able to hang out at the park together. And so you want to focus on those things that are gonna remain stable. The things that are real, that are, that involve the relationship between you and your child.
Jaime Davis: Lori, thank you for sharing your expertise with us today. It’s time for the final four. This season, um, I will be asking each guest the same final four questions so that our listeners can get to know them, um, a little more personally.
So the first question is what are your self-care go-tos?
Lori Thomas: That’s a really good one, especially in these pandemic times. Well, so walking is something that I do quite frequently as my go-to. I have a dog who loves to be out in the outdoors and walking. So because of her, I get to do walks, you know, a couple of times a day. And I really like walking in the morning and at dusk, ’cause to me, that’s where nature appears to be its most beautiful. And so, uh, those are the things that I like to do. I also do some other more mindfulness kinds of things. Like I have focused music on when I’m working on my reports or I use the Headspace app a lot, uh, to use my focus music. And then of course I have some guilty pleasures, like some very bad TV and dramatic TV, which is maybe surprising given the work that I do, but I really just enjoy, enjoy watching things that are probably, you know, um, you know, just for Hollywood effect, but you know, it gives me, it gives me a little laugh, sometimes a little cry or what have you. I enjoy it.
Jaime Davis: Well, that’s great. What have you discovered about yourself during the pandemic?
Lori Thomas: Well, I think one of them may things, I don’t know if this is about myself, but I, I discovered that, you know, I’m really lucky to work in this area where, you know, I’ve been able to really still connect with people from my home over the computer. And, uh, and so it’s really given me a better understanding of, um, you know, just the technology and how it really can be helpful. Um, I learned that I still have a ways to go in terms of technology though. I got really proud of myself for being able to get a second computer screen and to set up like a zoom call, a background with my green screen, got really excited, probably too excited about being able to do that. So I’ve learned that, you know, I’ve been able to be more flexible and to be able to shift and pivot when needed to it was something that I think I kind of kew about myself, but it’s become even more, um, you know, um, apparent during this time.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, that’s good. I feel like pivot might’ve been the, a key theme and word for 2020.
Lori Thomas: Yes. Yes.
Jaime Davis: Have you acquired any strange pandemic habits?
Lori Thomas: I don’t know if I have any strange maybe might have, I don’t know. I don’t think I have any strange pandemic habits. I do know that I was talking to a colleague about this the other day that says, you know, about 50% of what I do now is happening virtually that I find that when I actually have to go physically into the office, I’m always just kind of like, oh my goodness, does that mean I have to be professional from the waist down now? Cause’ normally on the Zoom calls, you know, I’m prepared from the top up and I’m really, you know, really wearing really casual and comfy, um, pants or something. So that’s been something that I noticed, that sort of weird thing that comes into my brain now.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. I think the pandemic has definitely changed, um, fashion habits for a lot of folks. So when this is all over, where would you like to travel?
Lori Thomas: I mean, is it a cop out to just say anywhere?
Jaime Davis: I think that is a perfectly fine answer.
Lori Thomas: ‘Cause I just, you know, I haven’t had, you know, I typically travel a couple of times a year just for work-related things and, I, you know, we haven’t really been able to, to do that. And so I’m just excited to go to go anywhere really. So looking forward to when I can book my next travel.
Jaime Davis: That’s great. I hope you have a new trip around the corner.
Well, Lori, thank you again for joining me today. If any of our listeners would like to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Lori Thomas: Well I suppose if they’re seeking services, they should call the main office that’s at Wynn’s Family Psychology. Um, and that number would be (919) 467-7777. And that’s (919) 467-7777. And there, they can talk to one of our administrators who can certainly reach out and get in touch with me and, um, you know, uh, hopefully make the connection.
Jaime Davis: I hope you all found this episode of “A Year and a Day” to be helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org as a reminder. While in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice, the purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general, informational purposes only, should not be used as legal advice, and is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with a lawyer who’s licensed in your state.