A review of a supportive tool to help children express and understand the emotions they are feeling during a significant change in their lives.

Reviewed by Kat Cauchi

We can all struggle with change. The feeling of the unknown or that things aren’t going to be the same can be tough for anyone, but especially for children. Children often have little control over changes in their lives and can struggle with the emotional literacy skills needed to understand and communicate how they are feeling during such times. It is also difficult for children to be able to self-regulate emotions too, so emotions such as anxiety can build up quickly. That’s why it’s important for adults to support children (whether its a parent/guardian/carer/relative/teacher) during times of change and give them the right tools to help them to understand and express their emotions.

One such change in a child’s life where they need support navigating these emotions – and also the lack of control and even understanding of why its happening and what it means for them going forward – is divorce. And this is where Atkins’ ‘Divorce Journal’ comes in.

A new best friend

Atkins starts her journal with a note for adults explaining how to help children use it, but from there on out the journal is directed at the child themselves. It is filled with thoughtful activities to support children in understanding divorce and expressing their emotions about the change but, before we look at those, I wanted to share a bit about the introduction for children.

Atkins acknowledges straight away that hearing the word ‘divorce’ is scary because it means change but also explains changes that children may have experienced before, such as growing in independence from a once-helpless baby. She explains that its natural for the child (referred to as ‘you’) to feel a lot of emotions and that it is healthy to have a place and the space to express them; this is where she introduces what the journal is and why it can be helpful to use it.

I really liked how in the ‘Why keep a journal’ section she says, ‘Trust your feelings – you are entitled to feel angry, sad, frightened, uncertain and upset whole you go through changes in your family life.” This is a very important acknowledgement to the child that it’s okay not to be okay and that it isn’t wrong to feel lots of different emotions in response to the change. She also highlighted the key messages that “divorce is a grown-up problem” and “you are not to blame”. This is really important for children to hear as children can blame themselves for a separation which can cause a huge knock to their self-esteem.

The journal is most certainly described as a positive tool for children to use. In fact, Atkins writes, “You have a new best friend – your journal! It will help you come through this time happier, healthier and stronger.”

Journal activities

The journal has a variety of activities to support children:

  • Understanding what divorce/separation is and how this might affect things such as their living arrangements, daily routines, time spent with particular adults, etc.
  • Supporting their self-esteem and helping them understand that this change does not change how their parents feel about them (the child).
  • Helping them to identify their emotions, and name and express them in healthy ways.
  • Supporting them with self-regulation of emotions, strategies for how to manage their emotions, knowing who they can talk to and how they can communicate their feelings with that person(s).
  • Helping them have some control within the change. For example, if living in two houses, choosing some personal items they want in each house or writing a list of some new traditions they can establish in the separate households.
  • Showing there are still positives. For example, things they enjoy doing with each parent, things that have made them feel good that day etc.

Before any of these activities, Atkins gets the child to really make the journal their own by adding a photo/picture of themselves and a little bit all about them, so they can really take ownership of the book before they start exploring the journalling aspects. I think this is a nice way to help the child get started, something that can make them feel more comfortable sharing more personal things later and something that makes the book feel special – it’s just for them.

All of these activities are so thoughtful and so I wanted to share a bit about a couple of my favourite ones.

Feeling helpless

As I mentioned a little in my introduction, one of the reasons that children can struggle so much with a change is a feeling of ‘helplessness’ – there’s nothing they can do to change the situation and they have little control over so much change in their life.

That’s why the ‘Feeling helpless’ activity is one of my favourites in the journal. Atkins explains why the child reading it may be feeling helpless and how that’s such a difficult feeling to have. She then empowers the child by helping them realise all the ways they are not helpless: things they know they can control, things they can do by themselves. She asks the child to make a list of these to look back on and remind them to help them cope with the feeling of helplessness.

The 'Feeling helpless' activity page in 'The Divorce Journal' as explained in the paragraph on the left.

Since the family separated

This activity asks the child to respond to prompts such as:

  • Since the family separated, I miss…
  • I wonder if we will ever…
  • When I’m alone, I think about…
  • Sometimes I could use some help with…
The 'Since The Family Separated' activity page in 'The Divorce Journal' as explained in the paragraph on the left.

The reasons I really like this activity are two-fold:

  1. The child can really focus in on a strand in their huge web of feelings and thoughts to pull out some simple things they are worried about/missing/needing help with. Sometimes, in all the noise of thoughts, we don’t always know what we want and need, so this is a good time for them to reflect and identify this, rather than feeling they don’t even know where to start.
  2. This is a very powerful section to share with parents. It can be difficult not only for a child to communicate this to a parent but for a parent to know where to start with helping their child in all this. The parents are going through their own turbulence of emotions with the separation and worries about how it will impact on their child(ren) and what they can do about it, so they too can feel a bit lost in all the noise.

Celebrating the journey

At the end of the journal activities, Atkins congratulates the child on completing their journal and asks them to reflect on ten things they have learnt from the process. This is a really lovely way to end the part for the child, letting them know that the work they did was important and worth commending and giving them a sense of achievement.

Following this is a really helpful final section for adults that includes suggestions for parents and teachers, how the journal can be used in partnership with therapy/counselling, and resources for support.

Whether you are parent going through divorce/separation or another relative of a child whose parents are, this book is a must-pick-up. With its incredibly useful advice for adults but more importantly, its thoughtful and impactful activities and explanations for children, this is a go-to tool to help support children who are going through a significant change in their lives. 

I would also recommend that teachers consider having a copy of this in their personal library. They could share this with parents who are going through a divorce/separation and who might need some helpful advice for supporting their child(ren). Teachers could also use it as guidance for having supportive conversations with pupils who are going through this.

Author

  • Kat Cauchi

    Kat Cauchi is a WeAreTechWomen #TechWomen100 2023 award winner and a 2022 Nexus Education 'Classroom and Curriculum' improvement award winner. She is the community engagement manager at NetSupport, editor of R.I.S.E. Magazine, and the host of two podcasts. Kat is a member of the Global Equality Collective, a Global EdTech author, InnovateHer ambassador and Technocamps Girls in Stem role model.
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