Monday, August 17, 2015

Interview With Azmaira H. Maker, Ph.D.

Author of Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children

1. Over 1.5 million children each year are impacted by the divorce of their parents.  What advice do you have for parents seeking to explain divorce to their younger children? It is very important for parents to be on the same page when explaining the divorce to their children for the sake of consistency – otherwise children can become confused very quickly.  Although there are many painful circumstances that lead up to divorce, I recommend that parents agree to share simple information to younger children, utilizing the same language and words.  I also suggest parents avoid the blame game and any put-downs of the other parent during these conversations. Blaming and criticizing only places the child in the middle of the tug-of-war and places the child in the uncomfortable position of choosing one parent over the other. Blame and criticism of a parent also elicit anger and confusion in the child for that parent, which can be destructive for the child-parent relationship.  All children need to idealize their parents, especially when they are very young. The more parents can protect this idealization and foster a strong attachment and positive relationship between each child and each parent, the better the child will fare in the short and long run.  As children get older and more cognitively and emotionally mature, it may be more appropriate to share necessary details about the divorce – young children don’t need to hear the details of this process.

2.  As a licensed clinical psychologist of twenty years, does it just break your heart to see broken families seek a way to make sense out of lost love?  It is hardest for me when parents walk away without trying to make the relationship work.  In non-traumatic, non-abusive relationships, if couples give therapy an honest try for a significant amount of time, and then come to the conclusion that they are unable to work through the conflicts, it feel less painful.  It is the hardest when couples walk away abruptly or surprisingly, without any exploration, understanding, or work process.  For many children, it is a loss of what they are most familiar with and the beginnings of multiple life transition changes, so confusion and grief is not unusual.  However, if parents are able to maintain a cooperative co-parenting relationship, can reduce conflict to a minimum, and can stabilize the children’s living situation quickly, most children can fare well as children are resilient.

3.  What kind of questions are usually posed by children to their divorcing parents? Children often wonder if it was their fault and if they are to blame for the divorce.  It is important to clarify this assumption and make it very clear to the child that it is never the child’s fault.  This should be done over and over, even if the child does not overtly ask this question. Children also frequently hope that if they behave well or follow the rules they will be able to make their parents get back together. Again, it is important to share with the child that it is not the child’s responsibility to make the marriage work, as marriage is a grown-up issue that has nothing to do with the child.  As the separation occurs, it is natural for children to miss the parent they are not staying with, even if it is shared custody.  Children need to be told that it is okay to miss the other parent, and that children can voice this feeling.  A plan should be in place for reaching out and connecting with the missed parent, and explained to the child.  On a more practical level, children wonder about their schedules, their toys, their clothes, their rooms, and it is very helpful if parents can concretely explain how this new family system will work, and how the child will have their belongings in both homes.  My book, Family Changes: Explaining Divorce to Children is intended to address these questions with young children via a gentle story and beautiful illustrations that children will be able to understand and emotionally connect with.  A list of typical questions is also presented at the end of the book for adults to process with children experiencing a parental divorce. 

4.  What can be done to make this process easier? In the midst of a significant life transition, parents can make it easier for children by spending as much quality time with their children as possible.  If a child’s foundation, the family, is suddenly shifting, the child needs to be reassured via parents paying close attention to the him/her, doing fun things with them, and being with them in gentle, kind, consistent, and stable ways to demonstrate to the child that their relationship and attachment is ever present.  It is through this emotional process that the child will realize that they will always be well taken care of by each parent, and this is key to enhancing a child’s coping and resilience.   

5.  What inspired you to write your book? I was inspired to write this book by the children and families I have worked with over the years.  As a clinical psychologist, I’ve witnessed children being utilized as a ping-pong ball in angry power struggles between parents. I've experienced children shifting from being happy, well-balanced, and empowered kids, to becoming anxious, aggressive, depressed, and helpless children when parents struggled to work together as a cooperative co-parenting team during and after the divorce.  Simultaneously, I’ve also worked with divorcing parents who are able to successfully navigate the explanations, questions, emotional holding, sharing, and co-parenting in collaborative ways, so that I have never even had to work with the child as he/she continued to thrive!  So how you divorce and how you work with your child through the divorce can make an enormous difference in the outcome.  Hence, I wrote this book with the intent to provide an engaging tool for children to better understand divorce, and a comprehensive model for parents to facilitate safe, connected, and meaningful conversations with their children to support and help them cope in the best possible ways.

6.  Should parents stay together for the sake of the kids?   This is a complicated question as it places the adult’s needs in direct competition with the child’s needs.  I don’t think there is any one correct answer to this question as there are so many important variables involved.  I think it is essential to explore the reasons for the break-up, the possibility of resolving conflicts, the home environment for the children if the parents do or don’t divorce, the specific developmental needs of each child in the home, and the potential for significant financial, schooling, and home changes that could be disruptive to the child.  Most children are resilient and the research shows that children cope well with divorce in the short and long run if the divorce is handled well and the parents co-parent cooperatively.  It is when the life changes are significantly debilitating and there continues to be chronic conflict between the parents around children, finances, schooling, etc. that children are more likely to demonstrate negative short and long-term consequences related to divorce. 

7.  Do kids seem surprised when their parents break up or did they sense there was trouble at home? In my experience, most children sense that trouble is brewing between their parents before the separation is announced. Children are intuitive and sensitive, and usually tuned in to parents’ arguments, tensions, and conflicts.  Children often also hear and see the disagreements.  If I am working with the child, the child will often share with me their worry that his/her parents are going to get divorced.  In such moments, it is important for parents to process the child’s concerns and address his/her questions in reasonably honest and developmentally appropriate ways, so that the child is not left wondering, confused, and anxious. 

8.  How should parents tell a child they are divorcing? It is best if parents discuss the plan and the choice of words they are going to use to share the news with the child prior to the discussion.  With young children, it is important to use simple language and provide simple facts.  It is essential to reassure the child that the parent-child relationship will remain the same and that the child will be well loved and taken care of by each parent.  I usually recommend that parents share the news together with the child and answer relevant questions in unison, which means preparing for typical, expected questions children ask when they learn about the separation/divorce.   My book, Family Changes, provides a guide for parents to explain divorce to young children and offers choice words and language that are developmentally appropriate, which could be useful to divorcing parents. 

9.  What was challenging to you when putting your book together? The most challenging piece for me was the technical aspects of the book.  It is an industry unto itself and was a steep learning curve for me in terms of deciding page numbers, layout, trim, size, publishing formats, isbns, etc.   Since I already knew in my mind what I wanted to create, I realized that writing the book and working with the illustrator was only the first step.  When it comes to children’s picture storybooks, there is so much more work and thought behind the scenes in creating a professional, polished book.  Hence, I sought out professional guidance from experts in the field to assist me in the process, to whom I am very grateful.  Fortunately, now that I have more understanding and experience under my belt, I feel I can continue to move forward in producing the other children’s books I have written.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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