As parents we all want to do our best. But in the context of a separation, it can be hard to know what is the best way to talk to our children about what’s happening, and what to do to best support them. Thankfully, experts in the space like Rachel Brace, have made that job a little easier. Rachel’s book Max’s Divorce Earthquake is a fantastic addition to your tool box if you are navigating a separation with a young family.
In this incredibly thoughtful and insightful interview, Rachel shared the story behind the story.
Can you share a little about your professional background and what lead you to work in this space?
I have always been drawn to jobs that aim to protect vulnerable children and support families in need of assistance, to solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. This probably explains how, post university, I ended up working in a number of different roles across a variety of fields including disabilities, child protection and out-of-home care.
After nearly a decade working in the Australian Family Law Courts as a Family Consultant where I provided support and guidance to parents, families, lawyers, judges and others in the front lines of family and relationship breakdowns I went into private practice. I now work in Sydney consulting to parents and families on issues relating to separation and divorce, family conflict, post separation parenting and step-family living. In 2014 this last area of interest led me to collaborate with a close friend and colleague, who is a step-mum, to launch Stepping Through - an education and support website resource for step-parents and their partners. Using an evidence-based approach and a good dose of common sense we aim to provide positive, solution focused support and advice to stepparents and their families on all issues relating to step-family formation and function.
What inspired you to write a children’s book?
I love reading and really believe in the healing power of books. But ultimately the inspiration and motivation to write Max’s Divorce Earthquake came when I couldn’t find the right type of children’s book to recommend to the children and parents I work with. Whilst there are some great children’s books out there that touch on the sensitive issue of family break-down, I really struggled to find a book that focused on not only feelings, but the range of emotions children typically experience when their family changes as a result of divorce. I also was unable to find a book that might help children recognize and understand all of those feelings, help them to name them and assure them that they are not the only child to ever experience such feelings.
One Saturday morning, after another week of hearing firsthand the depth of feelings and emotions that children experience, struggle with and worry about when their parents separate, and the frustration of not being able to find a book that might help, I put pen to paper and, voila, Max’s Divorce Earthquake came to light.
What was the vision for the book?
Family break-ups, separation and divorce are stressful and painful experiences for everyone involved, irrespective of how it happens. Parents can understandably struggle to know how to best support their children during such an emotionally difficult time. It can also be challenging to know how to even begin talking with children about such a sensitive issue, not least because the parents themselves may be feeling emotional and are still coming to grips to understand what has happened.
This is where children’s books, picture books and stories can assist. Books about separation and divorce are a great way to help children to work through the issues and feelings they experience when their parent’s relationship breaks down and their family changes.
In this way my vision for this picture book was that it could be used by parents, teachers, counsellors and other adults involved in the care and support of children who are experiencing parental separation, to help children cope and adapt to their changed family circumstances. Importantly, I also really wanted it to be a book that could help develop a child’s ability to understand and express feelings, to tune in to body signals associated with certain feelings and build their emotional vocabulary so that they can express their feelings about what is happening in their family effectively. I also hoped that the story would reassure children that there is no right or wrong way to feel and that whatever it is they may be feeling is little or no different from the feelings of most children in similar situations.
What age group is the book targeted at?
The book is targeted towards children aged between 4-7 years. I have however, read the story with 8- and 9-year old’s whose parents have separated and received favorable feedback. Notwithstanding their slightly older ages and the fact that their reading abilities were perhaps more advanced than the story required, Max’s feelings and some of the challenges he faced living and moving between two homes really resonated with them.
Whether the book is suitable for a younger child or slightly older child in many ways depends on that child’s level of maturity, their reading abilities and their family situation (and if they like dinosaurs). Irrespective of age, the book can hopefully help to open up communication between parent and child and encourage expression in children about what is taking place in their world.
At what stage in a separation would you suggest parents share your book with their children and how would they introduce it to them?
Books like Max’s Divorce Earthquake have a greater chance of helping a child, or appealing to them, if there is something in the story or the picture that they can relate to and/or something that appeals to their tastes and imagination - be it a character or situation or story line. Therefore, a good time to introduce Max’s Divorce Earthquake is after children have been informed of their parents’ decision to separate and changes start happening within the home and in how they might see and spend time with each of their parents.
I typically tell parents to let their child know that they found a book they thought might be helpful or interesting given all the changes happening at home at the moment. They can then set aside some time where they can sit close together with their child and where is it quiet without any distractions. They can encourage the child to hold the book themselves and/or turn the pages as they point to the pictures and ask them to describe what they are seeing in the pictures. It also helps if parents pay attention to both their own, and their child’s reaction to the story. Knowing when to pause or stop can be just as important as finding the time to share the story in the first place!
As the story progresses, parents can gently encourage the child to talk about Max and what is happening for him and whether this is similar or different with regards to what is happening for them and in their family. It is always important in these types of conversations for parents to give the child plenty of time to respond. It is also okay if they don’t answer. After all, sometimes it is the silences that happen alongside the story that ultimately provide the space for 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.
I think it’s important to note that Max’s Divorce Earthquake doesn’t have to be the only book about divorce and separation that parents read with their children. It also doesn’t have to be read religiously every night. It can be a part of the pile of books that parents and children have to choose from whenever reading is the selected activity.
I love the way your book not only touches on the changes a child can expect to their day to day life, but names many of the emotions children may experience as their parents separate. Why did you feel this was important?
When parents separate, children can react with a whole host of different emotions including confusion, guilt, sadness, anger to resentment or even relief that the fighting has stopped (or lessened). There is no right or wrong way to feel. By naming many of the emotion’s children typically experience when their parents separate, I sought to not only normalize their feelings but expose them to a wider range of feeling words, helping them to build their emotional vocabulary, enabling them to talk more easily about their feelings.
Right from birth we give children words to help them express their feelings and physiological experiences to events. We provide children with the words for the strong and common feelings they feel like happy, sad, and angry. But all of us sometimes overlook the fact that there’s a large and varied range of emotions and feelings and a vocabulary to accompany those. And sometimes children, like the rest of us, need a larger pool of words to draw on to be able to express all their feelings effectively and accurately. Sometimes just saying “I feel sad” doesn’t adequately explain to others the depth or strength of that feeling in that moment. Maybe “I’m feeling really miserable” or “gloomy” are more accurate descriptions of where they are at.
A rich emotional vocabulary helps children better understand themselves, the world around them, and what they’re feeling when an emotion arises. It also helps them to learn how to then regulate their emotions more quickly and helps build empathy for the emotional experiences of others. In this way I hope that naming lots of emotions and by offering the readers alternative words to describe feelings like anger, sadness or happiness I am exposing them to the nuances and subtleties of human emotions and supporting their overall development.
The book also describes the physical sensations some children may experience during their parents’ divorce. Why did you choose to emphasise these in your writing?
The physical sensations we all experience to things in our internal or external environments are the signals our body sends that help us recognise what to pay attention to and how we are feeling emotionally. In many ways body signals can be thought of almost as the signpost for feelings. Learning to notice, interpret and manage our body signals is an important part of emotional literacy and best learnt in childhood and then developed throughout our whole lives. The earlier that children can recognize the signs in their bodies as feelings that need to be expressed, and the better they become at accurately identifying them, the better their chances of learning how to express and manage them in healthy and helpful ways.
Body signals are also particularly helpful for supporting any child to navigate change – and when parents separate, setting off a divorce earthquake, there is lots of change for kids and their family to contend with. Drawing a child’s attention to body signals and learning to tune into and describe a few key body signals may help children, in circumstances where they might not have the right feeling word, to let a parent or other caring adult know what is happening for them. For example, being able to tell a parent that they feel like they have tummy full of butterflies or a racing heart gives the parent some ideas that the child may be feeling upset or anxious or worried or excited and may be need of some help, comfort or reassurance.
The book includes tips for how parents can emotionally support their children during a divorce or parental separation. Can you share a few of these ideas for parents?
There is no getting around it, divorce is emotionally and financially hard. And as such it is easy for parents to become distracted by their own feelings about what has happened and (momentarily) lose sight of how difficult it is for, and how it may be affecting, their children. In this regard one of the most important tips I can give parents is to be aware of their own emotions and not to project their own feelings about the divorce or their ex-partner onto their children. Children love both parents and remain emotionally bonded to them, irrespective of the state of the parent’s relationship. Putting children in the middle of the adult relationship issues, by being negative about the ex-partner, exposing them to extreme adult distress about the separation and/or expecting the children to “take sides” can cause long term damage. I can’t even fathom what it might be like to be a child, in circumstances where the two people you love most in the world, the two people who have been your whole entire world, actively dislike one another and/or want you to take sides or hate one or both of them.
To speak negatively or badly of one parent to a child is as good as saying that the child themselves is somehow bad. There is the risk that children internalise the negative words said by one parent about the other and believe that they too are in some way flawed or unworthy. Parents can lessen the chances of this happening by making sure to give their children a balanced and age-appropriate account of the separation that does not apportion blame and reassures the children that both their parents still love them. Ideally, this message should be given by both parents, together or separately, and repeated many, many times. Parents should also endeavour to speak positively about their ex-partner to or in front of the children, or, if they feel that this is not honest, make it clear that their negative feelings are their own and give their children complete permission to feel differently, without any guilt.
It also helps children if their parents take the time to reassure them that every emotion has a purpose and whilst some are unpleasant or uncomfortable to experience, they are neither good or bad, right or wrong. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to still feel happy. These are natural reactions to what has happened, and children should be allowed to express this. They should know it’s okay to feel how they do and talk about it, even if it is difficult or uncomfortable for a parent to hear.
You can purchase Max’s Divorce Earthquake at www.kinshipbooks.com or online at all selected bookstores.