Parental separation and family break-down impacts on thousands of families and children throughout Australia each year. According to the Australian Bureau Of Statistics (ABS), there were 112,954 marriages in Australia in 2017 and 49,032 divorces granted. In 2016 there were 118,401 marriages and 46,604 divorces. These numbers do not include separations of de facto couples and those permanent separations which occur without going through the legal process of divorce. They do, however, highlight that each year many, many Australian children experience family breakdown.
It can be hard to know how to help.
After parental separation a lot of children exhibit stress responses and effects from the experience. This is especially apparent if there is a high level of parental conflict to which they have been exposed or involved. In the midst of so much upheaval and change, parents can understandably struggle to know how to support their children in an appropriate manner.
Generally speaking, when we come across situations that negatively impacts our children it’s how we, as the parent/grown-up, react and respond that will help our children make meaning of their experiences and develop the resilience that ultimately makes negotiating their life easier – both as a child and later as an adult. Of course, one way in which parents can help build their children’s resilience is by talking about feelings in everyday conversations.
However, it can be difficult for parents to know how to even begin discussing a sensitive issue such as divorce with children, not least because they themselves may be feeling emotional and are grappling to understand what has happened. In this way, it is not necessarily the topic that makes tough conversations with children difficult, but who we are as individuals and our experiences of what is happening (or has happened) that determines our comfort level in raising and addressing sensitive subjects with our children. After all, it can be innately difficult to start a conversation with children about something which we may be struggling with, and that causes us and them to acutely feel the pain of grief and lost.
This is where children’s books, picture books and stories can assist.
Books have always been (and will continue to be) a powerful way to reach the hearts and minds of children. Indeed, the idea that reading can be used to promote well-being and have a beneficial effect on mental health is nothing new. The term coined to describe the use of literature to address personal problems or current issues in the lives of people is ‘bibliotherapy’. It originates from the Greek words for book ‘biblion’ and healing ‘therapeia’. It is a concept which dates back to 300 BC when ancient civilizations placed inscriptions over library entrances stating that within the building was ‘healing for the soul’. The first published study on using bibliotherapy with children was in 1946 by Sister Mary Agnes. Sister Agnes studied the use of bibliotherapy for ‘socially maladjusted children’, stressing its use to help children overcome their problems.
Over the years, bibliotherapy is a technique that has proven effective in a wide variety of therapeutic, educational and community settings. And, just as such an approach can be useful for teachers and counsellors, parents too can utilise books and reading to assist them and their children to understand and process change as well as the strong emotions that tend to accompany new (and possibly) scary things. Moreover, books and stories are easily accessible tools and bibliotherapy is an activity that does not assume that the parent/adult must be a skilled and qualified therapist.
For those parents who are looking for ways to use literature to help their children understand and cope, there has thankfully been a rise in children’s books that address sensitive topics such as parental divorce, separation, and post separation parenting. My book, Max’s Divorce Earthquake is one such book.
How books and reading can help.
The right story can help spark conversations between children and parents about tough, personal topics, like divorce, in a non-threatening kind of way. Reading with children is typically a side by side, shoulder to shoulder activity which involves physical contact but precludes a lot of eye contact. The focus of both parent and child is typically on the book. When dealing with a tough or sensitive topic this helps to decrease the intensity of any dialog between parent and child and increase the comfort level for all involved. Because of this, reading with a child can open the door for questions that a child might not otherwise be comfortable bringing up.
The conversations children and parents have when reading together also helps build a child’s vocabulary in a way that can help children transform shapeless, overwhelming, uncomfortable feelings that tend to accompany family break-down, into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of everyday life. These exchanges send the child the message that it is okay and perfectly acceptable to talk about their feelings. They offer reassurance that there is no one way (or even right way) to feel. Even better, talking about feelings such as anger, sadness, grief, confusion and guilt, makes them something that everybody experiences at some point in time. It makes them feelings that can be survived and handled. In this way identifying with a character, situation or emotion, can also normalise a child’s personal experience making them feel less different and alone.
For very young children, picture books give them opportunity to meet characters they have yet to meet in real life, but with whom they might have much in common. For example, in Max’s Divorce Earthquake, the reader is introduced to Max, a young boy whose world begins to shake and shimmy when his parents tell him they are divorcing. The shake and shimmy feels just like how Max imagines an earthquake must feel. In this way, picture books can also be an outlet where children can relate to the feelings of a character.
Books are mirrors in which children can see themselves. When they are represented in the literature we read, they can see themselves as valuable and worthy of notice
A World of Difference Institute
Very young children, due to their age and stage of development, lack the vocabulary to always express themselves verbally. In this way picture books can offer them an opportunity to communicate and connect. Re-reading the same story over and over again also gives young children the opportunity and space to process their emotions – sometimes by talking, by reading, by listening, by looking (at words and at pictures) and sometimes simply by just feeling.
A conversation starter not an ender or replacement.
It is important to keep in mind that bibliotherapy should be used to open up communication and encourage expression in children about what is taking place in their world. It really is a conversation starter not an ender or something that replaces discussions between parent and child about what is happening for them and in their family. After all, it is both the discussions and silences that happen alongside the story that ultimately provide the space for young children to reflect, and to compare themselves and their feelings to the characters in a story, enabling them to move through their feelings and cope.
Taking the time to read a story with your child about divorce and family breakdown can help pave the way to improved emotional expression, adjustment and resilience. However, it’s important to take care when choosing a book. Children, especially very young children, may find it difficult apply a book’s information to themselves if there are details that (from their perspective at least) really don’t seem to fit.
For example, if your child calls you Mum and Dad, you all live in the same city and have memories of everyone living together as a family unit, a book about a Mommy and Papa who live in different parts of the country and who separated prior to their child’s birth isn’t going to feel like a book that applies to them and their family circumstances. In a similar way, a story where the main characters are bears or dogs might not be interesting to a child who is not particularly fond of furry animals. Choosing a story that your child cannot relate to may negate all your good intentions that reading such a story will help them cope!
So, if you want a book that will help your child better understand their changed family circumstances and navigate the emotional journey of divorce, take the time to browse before you buy. The storyline and characters do not have to match your child’s situation exactly. But be sure there is some commonality, that it includes a character or story line or situation that your child can relate to and/or something that will appeal to their tastes and imagination.
Remain mindful that books (and reading) should also be FUN.
Whilst books can be really useful in supporting a child who is experiencing emotional turmoil or confronting the issue of parental divorce, this does not mean that every book your child reads or listens to has to have a connection to family breakdown and/or feelings. After all, reading should be also be a fun and pleasurable activity. It should be something that activates your child’s imagination, encourages expression and communication and provides them an avenue for escape from the dramas and chaos of everyday life.