Therapist Crystal Currie on redefining trauma and the necessity of therapy for families experiencing separation and divorce.
Crystal Currie is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, mom of two, and owner of Compass Life Skills & Counseling in North Carolina. With over a decade of experience, she helps adults navigate and heal their trauma during divorce through one-on-one sessions and virtual workshops. In addition, her website offers free resources including How to Talk to Kids About Absent Fathers and the video series, Healing the Inner Child.
Currie recently sat down with Raise to talk about the common traumas she sees in children of divorce, how parents can help their children and themselves during a separation, and the best resource for finding a therapist.
Our interview is edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start by defining trauma. We all know trauma can result from a violent experience like physical abuse, but it can also be a reaction to something much more subtle.
Absolutely. The definition of trauma is any perceived threat to your safety or wellbeing at a time when you do not have the skills or ability to cope. For children, that casts a wide net.
There’s also something called vicarious trauma, which is when a trauma doesn’t happen to you but because you see it or even hear about it, you have the same traumatic symptoms you would have if you experienced it yourself. For example, watching a parent be abused.
What are the most common traumas you see in children of divorce?
Kids often experience trauma as a result of feeling abandoned or rejected and from general instability in the home. Separation and divorce is the final act. It’s the events that lead to it — the fussing and fighting that children overhear and witness — that often leads to the trauma. Frequent arguments can make a child feel unsafe, and that instability is a situation they don’t know how to fix.
What we know about children who live in chaotic homes is this: their nervous systems become hyper aware. It’s how their bodies respond to their environments, and that hyper awareness can lead to anxiety disorders and behaviors like biting their nails or grinding their teeth. Their grades may start to drop or they may start having trouble in school and often, parents blame it on lack of motivation or hanging with the wrong crowd, but it’s because of what’s happening in their homes — what they’ve seen and heard.
What can parents do to prevent as much trauma as possible when they’re at odds with their partner?
After a serious blow up or even just a heated discussion, it’s important to check in with your kids. Ask them their thoughts and feelings about what happened and provide them with an outlet to talk.
If you know your relationship is headed for a separation or divorce, introduce your child to therapy before the separation happens. It can be hard for them to open up to someone new, but if they’ve already developed a relationship with a therapist, once they find out about the divorce they’re more apt to be able use their therapist as a support.
And what about the parents? Is it possible to navigate divorce without therapy?
I don’t think it’s possible, and I would challenge anyone who says it is. That person has obviously emotionally disconnected from their experience and reality. When your marriage is dissolving, you have to let go of your future plans, what you wanted your family and your day to day to be like, and you have to grieve that. Your heart and mind don’t understand the difference between grieving a person who died and grieving a relationship that’s been lost or broken.
What’s your advice for parents who are already in the midst of a divorce or separation and who realize they need help? What are the actionable steps can they take to manage their own trauma, as well as their child’s? And what is the best way to find a therapist?
The first step is to take inventory: Ask yourself, “What’s not working, both in my life and my kid’s life? And what needs to happen as a result of that? What positive changes do I need to make?” You have to be very intentional about making these changes because your mind isn’t wired to do the healthiest thing ––it’s wired to do the familiar thing. It takes a lot of consistency and intentionality to retrain your mind.
The best resource for finding therapist is a website called Psychology Today. It’s an amazing database of mental health clinicians, psychiatrists, and licensed social workers. It allows you to filter your search based on the criteria that you desire in a therapist, couples versus individual sessions, location, insurance coverage, and more. It also includes bios and contact info, allowing you to reach out to therapists directly from the site.
For additional resources on healing trauma, visit Currie’s website at crystalcurrie.com.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.