In this episode, T.H. and Jessica talk to licensed psychologist Maci DeCarlo, who is also a child of divorce. Maci’s own experience impacted her life and motivated her to work as a school psychologist to help other kids. Maci offers practical advice and tips on what parents can do to speak to their kids about the divorce process, things to say and what not to say and how to help validate the children’s feelings.
- Communication is key. Family communication. Talking with individual children. Keeping things appropriately open and honest with children is important.
- If at all possible, speak to children as a team. It is a difficult time, but important for children to feel support.
- Let children see you are hurting, that emotions are ok. Let them know they can talk to you, or a counselor, and that you’re doing that as well.
OUR GUEST – MACI DECARLO
Jessica: Welcome back to another episode of the ExExperts where we share all kinds of tips and advice on everything divorce. You know the deal, we’ve lived it, so we get it. I’m Jessica.
TH: Hi everyone, I’m TH and today’s guest is Maci DeCarlo. She is a licensed school psychologist. She is going to speak to us and you about her experience as a child of divorce and how she’s turned that experience into a career for herself to pay it forward, and help other kids as well as helping herself. So welcome, Maci.
Jessica: Thanks for being here.
Maci: Hi. Hey everyone. I’m really excited to be here. Yes, I’m a child of divorce and my experience has definitely shaped my career path in many ways. I’m currently a school psychologist in Maine, I’m originally from New Jersey, and I’m a middle child. So that’s always something people like to know.
Jessica: Start off though just to give a little perspective because where people go and what their experience is really varies on somewhat their age. How old were you when your parents got divorced because I think that’s why it was such a significant impact into your career choice.
Maci: Yeah, so I was definitely a little bit older, I was 17 years old when my parents had decided to separate. I was pretty mature, I was about to go to college, and I was in a serious relationship myself. I was definitely aware of relationships and divorce and things like that. I’ve seen my friend’s parents go through that, but it was also a really big shock for me too. It was a life changing experience, but it ended up for the best.
TH: If there was advice that you could give parents about how it felt to be the kid because Jessica and I obviously are the moms. We try to do the best we can in communicating with our kids in a way that’s delivered in a gentle way, but the process is still probably completely jolting no matter what words are said. But based on your experience and looking back, is there any kind of information you can give us?
Maci: Yeah, definitely. I think every kid is obviously very different. I think even in your own family, if you have multiple children, each child is very different so they’re going to handle every situation very differently. I have two brothers, and I can say that we all equally handled the divorce in completely different ways and in some ways the same. I can get into the nitty gritty of things that happened that really worked well for me and things that didn’t really work well for me. I don’t know. Do you want me to do that?
Jessica: Yeah, definitely. I think that people will be able to take that from themselves. If you could also while you’re talking about it, if you’re talking about things that have to do with your brothers too, how old were they? Because I think that that might be relevant for people who are listening.
Maci: Okay, so I’m the middle child. Like I said, I have an older brother who was probably 19 at the time and he was actually studying abroad. He wasn’t really home when everything had happened. My youngest brother is four years younger than me. If you can do the math on that, he was about like 12 or 13. He probably took the brunt of it because, like I said, I was going away to college so he was home alone. My brother and I were away at school so he was the one who really had to deal with the going between houses and communicating with our parents, and the day to day structure of the divorce, which I think he could probably speak better on, but it was hard for him.
One thing I’ll start off by saying is I think the initial conversation that you have with your children, that first ‘we’re getting divorced’ talk, I strongly advise that parents do that together. I think not all the time is that possible, and I think it can be really hard, especially if it wasn’t planned, but in my situation it didn’t seem very planned and they didn’t tell us together. To me it seemed like they weren’t this united front looking back. I think for most kids who go through divorce, this is like a life changing moment. This is the moment you probably will never forget for the rest of your life, and you’ll always go back and think about that. I remember that experience being a little traumatizing because it was very emotional. It was very shocking, and you’re only hearing one side of the parent’s story. I think for parents moving forward, if there’s a possibility that you and your ex-spouse can speak to the children together, you should definitely try to do that.
TH: Well said. I know that we did that with my ex-husband. We went to someone to figure out what exactly to say. It doesn’t work out exactly as planned [I’m sure it doesn’t]. Having it rehearsed I think made us feel a little bit more comfortable in the delivery so that maybe it wasn’t going to be as jarring. I think that that’s definitely really a good point even if it’s contentious, just try to suck it up.
Maci: The unity of you guys being together and saying it like, look, this decision that we both made for our family, I think is really strong and really powerful. Maybe in the moment it won’t feel that way, but I think when I look back, I wish that my experience was different in that regard. I also think that something I think parents should know, just because of my work with kids, I think it’s okay that parents get choked up. They can get upset, and they can feel emotional in these conversations. I think kids always look up to their parents as the superhero figures and that they’re invincible, but I really truly think that dehumanizing them as you’re human and this is a really sad event in your life. It’s okay for a parent to say I’m getting really upset right now, and this is really upsetting for me and your father or vice versa. It’s okay to label those emotions and express those emotions to your children. They need to know that you guys are upset too, right? I think especially for the age of the child, if you’re dealing with little, little kids, they might not understand what the hell you’re talking about. They’re like, what is a divorce? What do you mean? I think that it’s really important to show emotion, obviously, like a controlled emotion. You’re feeling out of control, and you feel like you can’t reel it back in. Take a break. This just needs to be an ongoing conversation.
Jessica: Based on your experience now working with kids and having conversations with kids who are going through this, as you called it, a trauma of their own in their own homes, what can you tell parents? Let me rephrase, are there any absolute do say this, or don’t say this, based on the feedback that you get from kids? Are there certain things that over and over again, kids wish they hadn’t heard? Or the kids are like I wish they had said this?
Maci: Yeah. I think that from a lot of my personal experience and working with kids whose parents are getting divorced, kids feel like it’s part of their fault and that they had done something wrong. Obviously that might not be the case so parents are like, no, no, it’s not you. It’s not you, it’s us. We don’t work out, blah, blah, blah. But I really think it’s so important for parents to validate their children’s feelings and say that, I see that you’re upset, it’s okay that you’re upset, and we’re going to get through this together. I’m upset, dad’s he’s crying, we’re all going through this, and we’re going to do it together. So to validate and normalize all those feelings is really important. Always express that’s not your fault, but this is something that we decided and this is how we’re going to move forward. But I didn’t always feel that my feelings were validated. I’m also a very sensitive person. For me when all of this happened to me, I felt I heard a lot from people, and sometimes from my parents, everyone gets divorced, you’re going to get through it and it’s fine. I hated hearing that. For some reason, I hear people say that still and it’s like, okay, yeah, divorce is common and people split up all the time, but your pain is your pain, and you’re allowed to feel upset. I think even the parents who are going through the divorce need to know that too. Yes it is common and happens to a lot of couples, but it’s specific to you, and you’re allowed to be upset and feel that pain. We should all validate those feelings. I think parents need to do that for their children and not just say this happens and people do this. That’s not productive and needs to be validated.
TH: It sounds like what you’re also saying is, back to what you said originally, that every child is different, even if you’re in the same family. So if you are particularly sensitive, the message might have to be adjusted for each child. You have your initial conversation, but then if your parents sat with you alone, and then with each of your brothers alone. You said in your conversation you’re in different places in your life socially and everything. I remember that my oldest daughter didn’t have any friends whose parents were divorced so she was a little bit lost. I had Jessica, but that’s all I had. That was it. Fortunately, we had each other. I think that having a good support system for the parents and also making sure that you really talk through the initial message differently for each child, like you were saying.
Maci: That’s a good point. I think that’s a great idea.
TH: It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of planning to tell the kids, just so you know the other side of it, but I’m really glad that you’re representing the child’s side of it because we only go in knowing what we think. My daughter felt like I was pushing her into therapy. I was pushing her into this not only because I was scrambling to figure out what the hell I should do. She was thinking she doesn’t really know me that well, and I’m not going to talk to somebody right now. It’s definitely a process.
Maci: Yeah, to say more about that, I think parents always kind of like force their kids, let’s go to therapy, this is a huge deal, and you need to talk to someone. I think your daughter also experienced this as well. The child kind of feels like something’s wrong with them, that I did something wrong, and that I have to go to therapy. I think in time, you’re hopeful if you’re promoting positive self-care and going to therapy yourself, that your children will learn from your behaviors, like this is normal, it’s okay to go to therapy, to seek help, and to have counseling. Eventually, your child may want to go and you should totally promote that. I think that’s really what happened to me too. My mom was like, you should go, you should go. I went and I was like, I don’t know what to say yet. I need to really process and reflect on what just happened. I didn’t go to therapy until later in life, and here we are so it all worked out.
Jessica: Maci, that’s actually I think a really good and potentially challenging issue for parents. Because I think there are a lot of parents who just assume, when something like this is happening, that the kids do need an outlet and that they do need someone to talk to. I think there are probably a lot of people out there that sort of push their kids into going to therapy. I totally understand the value of giving kids that choice depending on how old they are. I don’t know that when you have a kid that’s five or six years old, that they know enough to be able to process it on their own. Maybe you get therapy, or maybe you don’t. My joke and the thing that I always say to people is I’ll never know how fucked up my kids are until they’re way older. Because they seem well adjusted now, and they seem to have gotten through it all okay. [Right] I know every kid is different, but would you say and recommend to parents that they put their kids in therapy when they’re getting divorced? Or is there like an age cutoff at which if they’re younger than this they should have therapy because they don’t know any better? What’s your opinion on that?
TH: Let me just add to that question quickly. Because I know my daughter wasn’t going to go, and I wasn’t going with my ex-husband with my kids. But maybe if I said, me and my kids, let’s all go and have someone help us work through this. Knowing what you know now in your professional career, to help mediate and help manage that conversation so that the kids are almost given a little carrot to be able to get to their feelings a little better, or do you think you just shouldn’t push it?
Maci: I’m thinking of two things right now. I’m thinking that kids, like we said, are all different, right? You know your child better than anyone. I think it kind of boils down a little bit to resilience. I think some kids are a little bit more resilient than other kids. I think some kids just totally shut down. If you have one of those children then I think pushing therapy a little bit more or you yourself trying to push that conversation and really talk about their feelings, like what are you feeling today, all the time and constantly checking in, if that’s your child I think that’s really important. If you have a child that’s maybe a little bit more resilient, can bounce back quickly and isn’t easily bothered. I feel like resilient isn’t really the word, but sometimes I’m one of those kids that it takes me a really long time to get over something. Some kids quickly can heal and move on and are like, alright whatever, that happened, and put it in the past. I’m the type of kid who took a long time to get over something and I keep grudges. If that’s your kid, then maybe you want to bring them to therapy.
I also want to say that if your child is in any type of special education in school or in a public school at all, there are services in the school that are free that your child is entitled to. I’ve talked to a lot of kids, and there was maybe a student who had a specific learning disability, who knows, and the parent called me and was like, we’re getting divorced, do you mind doing counseling and add it to the IEP? And unrelated to her specific learning disability, I was able to provide her free counseling and talk about the divorce. It was for 15 minutes once a week, but someone in the school is looking out for your child. Even if your child doesn’t have special education or an IEP, there are school counselors, there are guidance counselors, and there are people that can keep an eye out for your child discreetly and check in with them once in a while. I think that’s really important, and I think parents are sometimes a little nervous about that. If you do it and then just say, look, we’re going through this in our family, can you keep an eye out for my child? To whoever that person is. If it’s the guidance counselor, it’s part of their job, if it’s a social worker, if it’s a school psychologist, there are a lot of people in the building who are able to provide the services so definitely look into that too as parents.
TH: I think that most parents probably don’t even realize that, especially if their kid does not have an IEP. Because IEP, I know that I made it my business to know everything that my kid could get, but I definitely didn’t know that could cross over. So that’s really great information.
Maci: Yeah. It’s definitely a service that needs to be utilized. And…I forgot my train of thought, but go ahead. Keep going.
Jessica: I’m just curious as an overall thing, we’ve covered a lot of ground, but are there maybe two or three specific tips or almost best practices, so to speak, which you would say to parents? Like these are the best ways that you can support your kid during this time?
Maci: I think the first one is like such a no brainer. It’s the communication piece. It’s we have this initial conversation where we talk about the divorce. I feel like some families just stop the conversation there and it just needs to be ongoing. It needs to happen all the time. It’s frustrating, it’s a pain in the butt, and your kid might think you’re annoying, and you might even feel annoying, but it needs to happen. It’s just the check in: What’s going on? Have you thought about this today? Especially if you have a younger child, they might not have the words to express how they’re feeling yet. They might be like four or five years old, they don’t really know what’s happening, and they need to talk about these things. That’s going to take years to happen, and this is not a one and done conversation. These are your children, you love them, and you want to make sure that they’re okay in 25 years that they’re not messed up from this. I truly don’t believe, if you’re communicating with your child, that they’re going to be messed up. They’re going to be okay as long as they know that you’re there to talk to them. That’s the key. I think parents are scared to talk about it sometimes, and I don’t I don’t blame them. It’s a really shitty thing that’s happened in their lives and they don’t want to talk about it all the time. I know I can tell my parents don’t want to talk about it all the time, but we all have questions and they need to be answered, so just be that open person. If you’re like, look, right now’s not the time, and I can’t talk to you about this right now, then set a time to speak with your child about whatever questions they may have. Also, if there’s someone in your family, maybe you have a brother or cousin who went through divorce and is close to your children, I think that person talking from outside of the immediate family or outside of your close knit group, having that person talk to your child about it is a great idea. Because there’s that unbiased source who can be like, look, your parents love you, and they can answer questions based on their experience. I think that was really helpful to me leaning on those outside support groups, just family and family friends.
TH: So it’s really not that all that different Jess when you think about it. You know, us being divorced and what we needed. We needed a support group,
TH: We needed a village.
Jessica: Right. But we didn’t have one so that’s why we’re doing this.
TH: Right. We aren’t the only ones who need a village here, the kids need a village. I think what Maci’s saying is so right. It’s almost like when my kid gets upset, it gets me upset. Or if I get angry, and my kid’s upset, my kid is probably 10 times more upset than I am because I communicate it. So if you think about it, that way what Maci’s saying makes a lot of sense. We’re looking out for community, for support, communication, resources, and education. You have to give all that to your child too.
TH: And it’s okay to tell your kid0, I don’t really have the answer, but I can hug you, and I can listen. You don’t have to have all the answers to be able to do those things.
Maci: Well, I can’t stress the importance of self-care for parents. Your kids are watching you constantly, especially through the divorce, and they are looking at every little thing. They’re trying to understand what the heck’s going on, and they are observing everything you do. And practicing self-care, it’s okay to have a breakdown, but get a therapist and talk to someone about your feelings because your children are going to learn from those behaviors. It’s so important.
Jessica: So I have like a whole other place to go. We’re going to have to have you back because I want to talk about when you were talking about how kids are watching everything you’re doing. I feel your perspective on parents going out and starting to date again, and all of the kids, if you’re watching, there’s so much more conversation to be had.
Jessica: All this information was so great. And so I know you’re a school psychologist, but if there are people out there who want to benefit more from the advice and the information that you have, where can they go and follow you and find it?
Maci: They can follow me on Instagram @daybydaypsychology. It’s an account about mental health awareness, self-care, and self-love, so you can give me a follow.
TH: And I follow, so it’s really not just for kids anyway, even though she has lots of tips. It’s good for us too.
Maci: Yeah, it’s like my personal diary. I like to share my feelings there. It’s great.
Jessica: And I’ll also. Yeah, totally great. Okay, so for everyone else out there be sure to follow us @exEXPERTS. You can follow us on Instagram and on Facebook and click the button to subscribe to our podcast and share this with everyone that you know that can be helped by it. We really want to spread the word and we want to be able to help as many people as we can. So we’ll see you next time.
Maci: Thanks for having me.
Jessica and TH: Thank you. Bye!
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