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Navigating Life with Compassion: Creating a Secure Connection Through Separation

By Rebecca Behnke | January 17, 2024

Separated but Secure: How to Increase Child Resilience During Divorce Through Connection and Support

Parental separation and divorce are painful and difficult to navigate for the entire family. Stress for both the parents and child(ren) is an inevitable part of the process, but by modeling helpful coping skills and increasing the quality of your connection with your child, that stress does not have to be damaging for your family’s mental and emotional wellbeing. 

One way you can support your child through separation and divorce is by becoming your child’s “secure base” and “safe haven”; both important aspects of a healthy, supportive parent child relationship. A parent who is a “secure base” supports their child’s exploration and encourages growth, while  being a “safe haven” means welcoming your child back into your comfort and protection. Children need both of these types of support, especially during times of separation from one parent or the other.

The Circle of Security is a visual map displaying healthy attachment in parenting or caregiving. 

Parents often find themselves in a common dynamic in which one parent fills the role of “secure base” and one parent fills the role of “safe haven.” In fact, research suggests that fathers tend to more often fit the role of a secure base for children and mothers are more likely to be a safe haven. In a parenting relationship in which both parents live with the child 100% of the time, the child gains both of these kinds of support, even if each parent is only able to fulfill one role. However, the child truly thrives when parents can incorporate aspects of becoming both a safe haven and a secure base in their respective parent child relationships. This becomes even more important as parents work through separation and want to maintain a consistent, safe and supportive emotional space for the child. 

You can become a Secure Base for your child by:

  • Encouraging your child’s growth
  • Becoming aware of and investing your time and attention in their interests
  • Learning more about their goals and dreams
  • Noticing their courage and curiosity for trying new things 
  • Learning something new or developing a skill together
  • Providing suggestions or advice when your child is faced with a problem or challenge

You can become a Safe Haven for your child by:

  • Actively listening to their worries and concerns (avoid asking questions as these can create additional demand for a child who may already be overwhelmed)
  • Giving emotional support and comfort
  • Praising them for positive behaviors and accomplishments
  • Showing love, kindness and compassion through your words and actions

Connection through secure parental attachments is one way to protect a child against negative mental health outcomes following divorce. There are several other “protective factors” we can build up to prevent mental health concerns. 

Depending on your child’s needs, one of these protective factors for them may include therapy. An effective therapeutic relationship between a parent and their child’s therapist depends on establishing trust. Trusting that the therapist will create an emotionally safe space for your child to share and process difficult thoughts and feelings will come with time, but that collaborative effort is vital to ensure your child can come to therapy feeling fully supported, secure and safe.  

When it comes to therapy with children who have experienced parental separation, parents often have a lot of questions about what to expect and how to help. Here are some commonly asked questions (and answers) related to children and divorce. 

Will my child need therapy after parents separation or divorce?

Maybe. This is an important decision between the child and their parents. Some signs your child may benefit from therapy include displaying new or increasing challenging or disruptive behaviors, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or a shift in mood. These are typical signs of stress, but may be a cue that your child could use some additional support through work with a therapist.

Is divorce traumatic?

Divorce is not traumatic by definition. Trauma is better described by the experience than the event. Even in situations where a separation may be traumatic for parents, it does not necessarily mean the experience is traumatic for the child. You can reduce the likelihood of your child experiencing the separation as traumatic by ensuring that you are both a secure base and safe haven and providing an open and non judgmental space for your child to share how the separation is impacting them.

My child is already in therapy but we are separating. What should I do?

Your child already has the benefit of another supportive adult who can help them better understand their emotions and manage stress. You should let your child’s therapist know what family changes are occurring and how this stress seems to be impacting your child individually and the family as a whole. Depending on your child’s needs, the therapist may choose to use the therapy space to work through feelings surrounding the separation, or to continue to focus on preexisting therapy goals. 

My therapist wants to end counseling but my child is still upset about the separation or divorce. 

Talk to your child’s therapist about their reasons for suggesting ending therapy services. Has your child met the goals set for therapy work? Completing therapeutic goals does not necessarily mean eliminating negative emotions. Your child may have complicated thoughts and difficult feelings surrounding the separation for some time. Talk to your child about their feelings surrounding ending therapy and how you might be able to support them in maintaining positive mental health.

Additional Resources

About The Author

Rebecca Behnke

Therapy with me: I work with children and families on their path toward healing and with adults whose inner child is continuing or just beginning this journey. I consider the client to be an expert in their own experiences and feel that therapy works best when the client feels a sense of empowerment and agency within the therapeutic process. I often incorporate play, art, music and movement in my work with clients and enjoy finding creative, individualized and collaborative approaches to sustain clients’ growth and wellness.