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How to support young people navigating career decisions with separated parents

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, approximately one in four children will experience parental separation or divorce before they turn 18. This statistic is not just a number; it represents a significant portion of the student population that career advisors and teachers interact with daily.

The impact of parental separation or divorce extends beyond the immediate emotional and familial changes. It can also influence a child’s educational outcomes, social interactions, and crucially, their career decision-making process. As most students don’t make their final career decisions until the end of their secondary education, we can estimate that around one quarter of all the students career advisors support will have gone through a separation or divorce at some point during their childhood.

This reality underscores the importance of understanding and addressing the unique needs of these students. They may be navigating the competing ideas and values of both parents, which can create confusion or conflict in their career decision-making. Moreover, including both parents in information sessions and one-on-one counselling may be uncomfortable but necessary, further complicating the advisor’s role.

In light of these challenges, it is crucial for career advisors and teachers to be equipped with the knowledge and strategies to effectively support these students. This article aims to explore this topic in depth, providing insights and practical advice on how to navigate the complexities of career guidance for students experiencing parental separation or divorce.

By acknowledging and understanding these students’ experiences, we can create an inclusive, supportive, and effective career advising process that respects and addresses their unique needs. This is not just about improving our practice as career advisors and teachers; it’s about ensuring that every student, regardless of their personal circumstances, has the opportunity to explore, aspire, and achieve in their career journey.

Things to consider

With that in mind, let’s look at some key considerations of working with students with separated parents:

Understanding the Family Dynamics

Every family is unique, and the dynamics within a family can significantly influence a student’s career decision-making process so it’s important to get the ‘lay of the land’ before you start working with the family. Are the parents on speaking terms? Does the student live with one parent or both? How does the student interact with each parent? Understanding these dynamics can help you navigate discussions, involve both parents in a way that’s beneficial for the student, and tailor your approach to the student’s unique situation.

Maintaining Neutral Ground

Your role is to support the student, not to side with either parent, so strive to maintain a neutral stance. It’s important to focus on the student’s interests, skills, and aspirations, rather than getting caught up in the parents’ differing views, and this neutrality can help create a safe and supportive environment where the student feels free to explore their own career interests and goals.

Individual Counselling Sessions

While it’s important to involve parents in the career decision-making process, it’s equally important to give the student space to express their own thoughts and feelings. Individual sessions with the student can provide a safe space for them to express any concerns or fears they may have, and to explore their career aspirations without the influence of either parent.

Inclusive Communication

When communicating with the parents, ensure that both are receiving the same information. This can help avoid any misunderstandings or feelings of exclusion. It’s also important to communicate in a way that respects each parent’s relationship with the student and acknowledges the complexity of the situation.

Conflict Resolution Skills

Disagreements between parents can sometimes spill over into joint sessions. In these situations, career advisors may need to employ conflict resolution skills. This could involve mediating discussions, facilitating compromise, and ensuring the focus remains on the student’s best interests. Remember, the goal is not to resolve the parents’ disagreements, but to create a productive and supportive environment for the student. If you or your student are concerned that the parents may disagree during any session it might be best to consider ways to hold separate sessions with each parent and the child, rather than bringing everyone together.

Encouraging Autonomy

One of the most important skills a student can develop is the ability to make their own decisions. Help the student develop decision-making skills by providing opportunities for them to make choices, encouraging them to weigh different options, and supporting them in their decisions. This can empower them to make their own career decisions and reduce the influence of parental conflict as they can discover their own path, rather than feeling pressured to choose a career based on the preferences of one parent over the other.

Collaboration with Other Professionals

You may want to collaborate with other professionals such as school psychologists, social workers, and teachers who may have additional insights into the student’s situation, and keep in mind that the student may already have additional mental health support. This collaboration can provide a more holistic view of the student’s needs and help you provide more effective guidance.

Respecting Privacy

Respect the student’s privacy and ensure confidentiality. This can help build trust, create a safe space for open discussion, and protect the student’s personal information. Always ask for the student’s consent before sharing information with parents or other professionals, and respect their wishes if they choose to keep certain information private from either or both parents.

One possible approach

If you know me then you will know that I’m a big fan of a Narrative approach to counselling, and Denis Thomas and Melinda Gibbons have proposed a Career Counselling Approach For Adolescents Of Divorce based on Narrative Theory that I believe holds great potential. They suggest that as a counsellor you can help the student ‘write’ a narrative about their life so far, and what they would like their life to look like, which allows them to express their voice and make sense of the impact of the separation on their life and career decisions.

Separation can have profound impacts, even years after the actual separation, and if you’re working with students who have gone through separation then it’s important that the support their receive is tailored to their unique circumstances. I’ve pulled together some more resources which may be helpful here:

Emerging Minds

Guidelines for practitioners working with children who are in families affected by separation or domestic violence. The guidelines have been developed for GPs, social workers, and others who may be involved in the process, but they are valuable for Career Counsellors as well.

They also have a range of resources and courses for practitioners here.

Relationships Australia

A government funded organisation that provides a range of services to separating families, with local offices in most towns across Australia.

Supporting children’s wellbeing when working with separating parents

Webinar recording with suggestions for professionals around the impacts of separation and suggestions for working with parents in conflict.

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