Archive of ‘Divorce’ category

What is Non-Directive (Child-Centered) Play Therapy?

Do your kiddos ever sit you down on the couch and explain to you what they are feeling and why? Well, usually not. You see, adult brains are fully developed and are able to talk and share what’s going on in their lives. Children, on the other hand, are still building their brain and don’t have all of the words to be able to express themselves. However, children can connect, process, and express themselves through play. Garry Landreth, the Founder of Child-Centered Play Therapy, shares, “Toys are children’s words and play is their language”.

What is Play Therapy? What does Non-Directive Mean?

Let’s start with the definition of play therapy, which means children, usually ages 3-12, using toys and art to express themselves and process what they need. That’s right, this counseling room is filled with toys and art supplies. These items serve as a child’s way of expressing what an adult would share with their words. Non-directive allows the client to lead the sessions, meaning getting to play freely without the counselor directing activities or questions. Counselors who use this theory believe the client is the expert in their own lives and will bring into session what they need that day. It can be harmful to force clients to process before they are ready, ultimately delaying progress. 

What Happens in Non-Directive Play Therapy?

Play therapy takes the form of what the child needs it to be in that session. Play therapy could involve the child playing with toys to act out a fight they just had or using art supplies and the sandtray to regulate themselves. Play therapy could also be connecting with the counselor in an activity together, that the child came up with on their own, to build trust and self esteem. The counselor is there to support the child and assist with processing, regulation, and limit setting. If the child invites the counselor into their play, then the counselor will continue to follow the child’s lead. Allowing the client to take the lead enables them to build self-esteem and confidence.

Who Could Benefit from Non-Directive Play Therapy?

Really any child could benefit from play therapy! Play therapy has proven success with children from pre-k to middle school. It is a safe space for them to process and express themselves with someone who isn’t a family member or friend. It establishes a personal relationship that is free from any connection to their outside world. Play therapy can be used with anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, anger outbursts, life transitions, divorce, low self esteem, social skill issues, school behavior problems, grief and so much more.

How Does Non-Directive Play Therapy Work?

First of all, play therapy takes lots of time and is thought of as a journey. It is extremely important for the child to come to weekly sessions to create safety, trust, and consistency. Sometimes things can get worse at home before they get better, which is normal since a child is having big feelings that they are not used to expressing. 

The counselor will meet with the child one-on-one, so they are fully able to process what they need without their parent present. The very first step is building trust and rapport with the counselor. Without that, how could anyone process what’s going on in their lives? The counselor will observe and be fully present with the child in a calming space, track the child’s play, and reflect feelings. The counselor will also set limits as needed to provide safety for the child, counselor, and room. The counselor will label positive characteristics and strengths they notice in the child as well.

Is There Parent Involvement?

Yes, and this is so important, you and the counselor are on a team now. The counselor is only with the child once a week for 45-50 minutes, while you, the parent, are with your child the majority of the time. The counselor will first set up an initial intake session with the parent to hear all concerns and goals for the child before even meeting with the child. The counselor will then set up separate sessions, usually every 4-8 sessions, to discuss play themes they are seeing in the session, to hear how the kiddo is doing at home, and to provide parenting support while teaching skills to use at home.

It will be so challenging to not know what is going on in session right away, and it is common for it to take at least 10 sessions before safety and trust is built with your child. It is quite valuable for parents to recognize that when their child begins their journey through therapy, the parent does too. With that comes the task of parents being patient and understanding that their child’s progress is fully maximized when the parent changes alongside with them.

Written by: Sumayah Downey, MA, LPC-Associate, NCC Supervised by Cristy Ragland, LPC-S, LMFT-S, RPT-S


When Is It Time To Get a Divorce?

As a couples therapist, I see couples who are struggling to re-invigorate their sex life, they are struggling with finances, they have trouble raising their children, etc. Having these reasons in mind as to why many of my couples come in on the brink of divorce, researcher Dr. John Gottman says that the main reasons why couples divorce is due to sex, finances, and raising children. I must say that though Dr. Gottman has a point, I disagree—couples divorce due to lack of emotional connection. 

If you are not emotionally connected and engaged in your marriage, you will not be able to manage a sex life together, manage money together, or create a safe parenting space together. Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of the dynamic Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, says that the erosion of an emotional bond between two partners is the beginning of the end to their relationship. As humans, we are wired to connect in a safe and emotionally healthy way. If we do not have this in a marriage, we will slowly disconnect and eventually divorce if no action for couples therapy is taken. 

Disconnection can look like many different things. Maybe you and your spouse keep arguing about household chores or who will walk the dog next. Perhaps a spouse can feel unsupported in their idea to switch careers. Maybe there is just an overall feeling of loneliness on both parts in the marriage. The main point to understand on a general disconnect in the marriage is that it can be understood and helped. Much of what we do in couples therapy at Austin Family Counseling is strengthen the emotional bond between partners as well as create a safe space for re-engagement and for couples to work on issues that have been reasons for feelings of disconnection in their marriage. Basically, a general feeling of disconnection is not a valid reason to divorce when there are many resources and tools to help build and strengthen your marriage. Rarely do couples come to me with the presenting problem of lack of engagement and leave the therapeutic process unhealed, reassured, and optimistic about their exciting new opportunities to re-spark their romantic life. 

Extreme cases, however, can absolutely be reasons to separate. In my years of practice, I have seen such reasons for a therapist to recommend separation as physical abuse, emotional/verbal abuse, and active addiction.

Physical Abuse

This is perhaps the main reason that couples should divorce. Physical abuse of any kind is not acceptable in a marriage or any other kind of relationship. Physical abuse is seen in marriages where one partner has significant anger issues and has not managed their emotion to the point of it being unsafe to be close and vulnerable to this person. Women who stay married to physically aggressive men are very likely to have come from abusive households where they see abuse as a “natural” thing. 

According to the American Journal of Emergency Medicine, since the stay-at-home order has been put into effect in 2020, an alarming increase of domestic violence cases has occurred in the US. More partners are shut into their homes with their spouse, putting them more at risk of physical danger when the aggressive partner becomes triggered. Other effects that are brought on by the stay-at-home order are alcohol abuse, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress, all VERY easy triggers of physical abuse. 

If you are involved in a physically abusive marriage, I urge you to reach out for help and escape from a dangerous situation as soon as possible within your boundaries of safety. If you are in Austin, the Salvation Army’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children, the SAFE Children’s Center, and Casa Marianella are all places where women and families can go for refuge from a physically abuse situation. As a couples therapist who becomes aware of physical abuse, I am ethically bound to stop couples therapy immediately and let the abusive partner know they need to do their own counseling and anger management if couples therapy ever resumes. 

Emotional/Verbal Abuse

Aside from physical abuse, verbal and emotional abuse is another form of abuse that is sadly much harder to spot. Physical wounds leave visible marks, but emotional wounds can go unseen for sometimes decades. Emotional abuse is defined as any form of emotionally manipulative behavior perpetrated by one person to another that can cause PTSD, stress, or anxiety. Some forms of it are below:

  • Gaslighting: making the partner being gaslit think something is different than they actually experienced it.
    Example: “Something must be wrong with your memory because I never said that!”
  • Minimizing: making someone feel inadequate or unworthy based merely on how they are feeling
    Example: “I don’t know why you’re feeling that way, you didn’t have it that bad!”
  • Intimidation: using threatening language to reinforce a sense of control by the partner through invoking fear.
    Example: “I will hit you if you say that to me one more time!”

Though no form of abuse is ever acceptable, there tends to be more hope for emotional abuse than physical abuse in the couples I see. Sometimes, separation is key for partners where verbal abuse is going on before they are able to come back together and make the decision to either stay together or divorce. However, in my sessions with couples, a hard boundary I hold is to have no gaslighting, minimizing, intimidation, or name-calling in session. If you believe your partner has narcissistic qualities in them, definitely seek help for mental health as these can have longlasting negative effects on someone’s sense of self.

Active Addiction

Though many treatment modalities indicate couples can survive an active or recovering addiction, in extreme cases a marriage cannot always survive. If a partner is currently abusing alcohol and becomes physically or emotionally abusive, it is in the other partner’s best interest to leave when the marriage becomes an unsafe place. Unless the addicted partner commits to going to AA or therapy to work on their addiction, the marriage will become an unsafe place for both people, triggering an abusive cycle that both partners will be feeding into. 

When a partner is addicted to an illegal substance (i.e. cocaine, methamphetamine, heroine, etc.), the marriage is further complicated due to the unlawful possession of illegal substances in a household. Not only is the marriage riddled with addiction and addictive patterns, but this presents the marriage with far more dangers and reasons to divorce. Though only one partner is using, both spouses when living together are subject to legal ramifications that puts the non-addicted partner in a very precarious position. 

When couples come to me with an addiction present, I hold a firm boundary that the person who is addicted seek help through groups (i.e. AA, NA, SLAA, etc.), separate individual counseling, or in further cases checking into a detox and addictions treatment center for couples therapy to continue. It is unethical to do couples counseling while a noticeable addiction is going on due to the fact that the vulnerability needed in couples therapy can at times exacerbate the addicted spouse’s addiction. 

Written by: Ian Hammonds, LPC, LMFT


Supporting Kids Through Divorce: Informing the Kids (Part 2)

People get a divorce for a multitude of reasons–it’s a difficult decision that many people make, and unfortunately–there is a lot of judgment from others that comes with it–especially if children are involved.  

By: Julie Burke, LPC-Intern
Supervised by Susan Gonzales, LPC-S

There isn’t a script about how to tell your kids or what exactly needs to be said, however, there are things that need to be taken into consideration when telling them.  Be mindful of what is age-appropriate, too.  10 Books for Kids Experiencing Divorce is a great resource for different age-appropriate books to help have the conversation and normalize what is going on.  

Tell Your Kids Together

  • No matter your differences, this is of utmost importance.  Despite the fact that things did not work out in the marriage, the fact of the matter is–you are both parents and will need to learn how to co-parent effectively for the sake of your children.  Being together and sharing the news with your children together will show them your ability to be teammates through this process.  It’s important to maintain a unified parental front.   

  • Additionally, kids may feel guilty and as if the divorce is their fault.  They will likely believe this to be true unless you tell them otherwise.  It’s important to show (and remind) them verbally and through your interactions that you love them very much and that this is not their fault.  

Take the Shame, Blame, and Criticism Out of the Decision to Split

  • There is NO need (ever) to place blame on one of the parents.  Refrain from name-calling and personal attacks both when telling your child about the divorce and in situations where the child may hear you.  This ultimately ends up confusing the child in an already confusing time and creates alliances where alliances should not exist.  

Let Your Kids Know What the Decision to Split Up Will Look Like for Everyone

  • Keep in mind what this divorce will mean for your family.  While a divorce generally means the splitting up of spouses, the details behind the split vary from household to household.  These things can include: who will be leaving the home, where the kids will stay (and when), what will change and how that will look like, what the parent’s relationships will look like, etc.  

Rehearse What You’ll Say Before You Say It

  • This conversation will likely be awkward and uncomfortable and highly emotional…and that’s okay.  You don’t have to be stone cold and emotionless when informing your children.  In fact, being emotional and showing your children that it’s okay to show emotion (and showing them how to appropriately and effectively cope is the exact kind of modeling they need).  Rehearsing what you will say will also make the likelihood of shaming & blaming decrease because you will have practiced the verbiage of what you will say.  

Remind Them at the End Where You Started

  • The biggest take-away from this is ensuring your children know that the decision to get divorced has absolutely nothing to do with anything they’ve done (or failed to do).  They need to know they are not at fault in any way.  They also need to know that they are loved and will continued to be loved…forever.    

Give Your Children Time to Adjust

  • Be attuned to your child’s emotions.  You should listen carefully to them, acknowledge and accept their feelings, and respond appropriately to them.  Give children the opportunity to process these big emotions and changes by bringing them to therapy.  They often need to communicate to you that they’re scared or unsure of what will happen, but do not have the language or awareness to do so.  They may communicate by acting out and/or showing regression in behavior.

  • When children ask questions (and it is likely they will)–be mindful of your answers.  For example, if a child asks “Why are you getting divorced?” you need to know how to answer that question without putting blame on the other parent.  Give your children the opportunity to ask questions, however, know that they don’t need to know every single detail about the decision itself.  

No matter what, it’s important to do what is in the best interest of your child.  The above tips all do that.  If you and your spouse feel like you are unable to communicate the decision to get divorced to your children effectively and appropriately, seek the help of a trained professional.  There are therapists who do discernment counseling specifically for couples who are ambivalent about getting divorced.  It may be uncomfortable and there will likely be big emotions related to these decisions, but at the end of the day, you have to do what, in your heart of hearts, is best for you…even if that means getting divorced.  


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