In this episode, we’re joined by Rachel Brace, who is not just a registered psychologist but also a passionate children’s book author. She’s penned two thought-provoking books, Max’s Divorce Earthquake and Harriet’s Expanding Heart and has another one on the horizon. She also has a keen interest in stepfamilies and supporting children and families who are adjusting to divorce and shared care.
During our chat we draw on her extensive experience working with children to learn about the inspiration for her books, the way they can be used to help children navigate the complexities of what’s going on around them and also as a tool to help parents and caregivers initiate conversations about often difficult family topics.
Rachel Brace (00:00): Emotions are not to be fear. They’ll come, they’ll go. There is no one way to feel when your family is changing.
Laura Jenkins (00:08): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it. Welcome back to In The Blend. Well, today I have the pleasure of being joined by Rachel Brace. Rachel is not just a registered psychologist, but also a passionate children’s book author. She’s penned two thought-provoking books, Max’s divorce Earthquake, and Harriett’s Expanding Heart and has another one on the horizon. She also has a keen interest in step families and supporting children and families who are adjusting to divorce and shared care arrangements. During our chat, we draw on her extensive experience working with children to learn about the inspiration for her books, the way that they can be used to help children navigate the complexities of what’s going on around them, and also as a tool to help parents and caregivers initiate conversations about often difficult family topics. It was such a delight chatting with Rachel. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
(01:37): Okay, Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s lovely to have you here.
Rachel Brace (01:42): Thanks for the invitation.
Laura Jenkins (01:43): Oh, absolute pleasure. As I was just saying, I love it when I meet a fellow Aussie who’s got a keen interest in the space. So Rachel, to begin, let’s dive into your journey as a children’s book author. What led you to write books that address the complex issues of divorce and family transitions?
Rachel Brace (02:06): I think first of all, I have a love of reading. Always had a love of that reading. Eden was one of my favorite authors growing up and I really do believe it’s one of the most single most important things that we can do with young kids, be it our own kids or other people’s kids. And so I guess knowing how much I got out of books as a kid, knowing how important reading is for kids, I really have always liked the idea of writing something and then the opportunity didn’t really present itself or I didn’t really get motivated to do something about that wish until I started working in the area of family law and divorce and breakdown and parents. And that led me into going, you know what? I think I have a story that might benefit kids who are going through all of those family changes. And I think one morning my husband just walked into the office and I was madly typing away and he’s like, whatcha doing? It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. And I’m like, I’m writing a book and that’s kind. Well, I said, maybe I’m writing a story that
turned into a book. So that’s kind of how I ended up there.
Laura Jenkins (03:22): I love it. That is very cool. So your books, Max’s Divorce, earthquake and Harriet’s Expanding Heart. So two books you’ve written so far, they both explore sensitive topics of sorts. So can you share what inspired you to tackle these themes and what you aim to achieve with both of the books?
Rachel Brace (03:47): Yeah, I guess look, one third of Australian marriages, well I guess one third of all Australian children will witness their parents’ separation. And then of that number close to half, we’ll see the demise of their parents’ second marriage. So there’s a lot of children in Australia and worldwide that are experiencing family breakdown and parental separation and are also experiencing changes to their family when parents fall in love again. And so those themes are connected to my professional work as a therapist and the work that I do as a single expert for the family court. And I guess when I was working with kids, I really wanted something that I could help, that I could read with the kids or that I could recommend to their parents that just spoke to the emotions or the variety of emotions because there’s no one way to feel and no one emotion when people and family go through that.
(04:42): So I wanted a book that I could use that I could recommend confidently to others that didn’t really talk to the process the adults go through when they separate and that just said, look here, this is how you might recognize some of the feelings and this is what some of those feelings might be. And it’s kind of, okay, this is normal. And so that’s kind of what led me to writing the books in this area. It’s because it’s what I know and it’s the families and the children that I work with were going through this.
Laura Jenkins (05:13): And in terms of your background in psychology and your extensive experience that you’ve had working with children’s and families, was that very much the impetus then for putting together these stories and stories? I’m assuming that expertise has really influenced your approach to how you’ve gone about writing these as well?
Rachel Brace (05:37): Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s what I know, and I was really lucky, I guess to have work with some in a professional sense, support some children who were able to give me some really good insights into what it was like for them. And there were a lot of themes that kept popping up in their therapy sessions about the world is just shaking and it doesn’t seem to stop moving. And things about it’s going to feel like this forever because when you’re stuck in that moment, it quite often feels like you’re never going to move through it. So that kind of stuff was all just swirling around in my head. And one of the things that I noticed in my professional life was kids just needed language to be able to talk about that stuff. And once they had the language and the vocabulary and the reassurance is that they were not the only kid going through this, there were other kids as well. And it was kind of a normal thing that then really influenced how I approached the story and the feelings and I guess the body expressions of those
feelings that I incorporated in the story. So yeah, I think my background as a psychologist, but my background in working with the kids going through this events really did. Yeah, I couldn’t have written the stories without that.
Laura Jenkins (06:58): And coming back to some of the challenges that the children and your professional experience have been presenting with as they’re experiencing these family changes, could you perhaps provide a couple of examples or shed light on some of the challenges and how your books might specifically address some of those common challenges as well?
Rachel Brace (07:22): Yeah, I guess whether it’s divorce or even stepfamily formation, it can create a level of emotional turmoil for both kids and adults, different types of emotional turmoil and different levels. But there’s a lot of feelings that come to the forefront for both adults and children are absolutely no different. So if you think about feelings of loss or anger or confusion, anxiety and grief and loss are obviously right up there. That’s a really stressful and emotional time for kids going through that. So I guess in terms of the challenges that raises for kids is that they’re going to be quite sensitive and be overwhelmed quite quickly because they’re already coping with a lot. It’s the loss of the only life they’ve ever known. For a lot of kids, it’s the loss of daily or guess predictable access to both parents, which sometimes as grownups we don’t always think about that because we’re more than happy not to see that person ever again.
(08:22): But for kids, whatever the state of the parental relationship, they’re used to waking up in the morning or at some point during the day being able to see both parents or have contact with both parents or that parent having a presence in the home, even if they’re away for work or away and in some other capacity. So I think that’s challenges for kids and just adapting to that, you get the basic financial hardships that are commonplace if you’re running two homes or you following a divorce and separation. And that can have a flow on effect for children as well because perhaps they’re not able to do all of the extracurricular activities that they want because the money’s just not there. Or Christmas, they don’t get all the gifts that they want or because it’s not celebrated in the same way because again, the money’s just not there.
(09:14): And in that they also then have to deal with parents who are understandably a lot more stressed or frazzled than what they might normally be. And so that creates a different set of challenges for kids if all of a sudden they weren’t allowed to do something. But because mom or dad is a little bit preoccupied, they they’re now allowed to do something that can also offer a level of confusion for kids and they’re trying to wrangle out, figure out what this new world order kind of looks like. So there are a lot of
challenges that comes for kids. I could go on and on and on and on, but those would be some of the key ones I think, or the key themes for kids that are facing family breakdown.
Laura Jenkins (09:57): Definitely, especially if it’s at the start of that journey as well, when some of those issues are heightened.
Rachel Brace (10:06): Yeah, we know the research tells us that it takes anywhere between say one to three years for family to adjust post-separation, certainly for kids, and that it’s a long timeframe. And some of that relates to the type of breakdown that parents might have and always careful say it’s a parental separation, I guess because it’s the parents that are separating the flow on effect of that is the family separates, but the parents aren’t necessarily divorcing their kids. So it’s a long period of adjustment and if a family isn’t in court or the parents are fighting, it’s going to take longer for kids and families to adjust post that separation. And then we also know for step families as well, it can take up to seven years, between five to seven years. I think the research tells us for a family to find its kind of even keel. That’s a long time as well. And different variables will play a part into how quickly or how fast families find their equilibrium.
Laura Jenkins (11:11): Definitely. I had a previous guest on the podcast before who said something that stuck with me, which was, you are not divorcing as parents. And I think that’s a really nice way to just echo what you were talking about then. But even though that relationship ends that parental responsibility needs to live on, so it’s about optimizing that.
Rachel Brace (11:38): Yeah, you might stop being husband and wife, but you won’t stop being mom and dad or mom or mom or dad or dad or whatever that combination is. But that has to persist well after a marriage and an intimate relationship might end. And that can be really difficult for parents for any number of reasons.
Laura Jenkins (11:59): And just to piggyback off that idea about the difficulty for parents, I think one of the things that is challenging for parents is to initiate conversations about these topics. So I’d love any advice you might have on effectively using either the story as tools for these discussions or other ways to help parents initiate them with their kids.
Rachel Brace (12:26): Oh, absolutely. It’s really hard to start a difficult conversation, especially if it’s not just a difficult conversation for the child, but for a parent or an adult who’s grappling with their own feelings around it, it’s really hard to know where to start. So I think it’s really great that there are books, there’s a lot more books now than what there used to be about sensitive topics, be it death of a parent divorce or separation family. But I think for parents, you find a book that is going to appeal to your kids, so it has to have a picture that they can relate to or a storyline or a theme or something that’s going to appeal to your child. If you can find that book, then you introduce it into reading time. Most kids or most families at some point have reading time with their kids, be it right before they go to bed, or on a Sunday morning when the kids have jumped into bed with you or at some other point during the day, maybe it’s after school as part of their homework ritual.
(13:27): So if you can find some time where you can just sit down close together where it’s relatively quiet without any distractions, you can just introduce that book as part of that. And I think you can, for younger children, get them involved in that process, encourage them to hold the book themselves, turn the pages point to things in the illustrations and ask them to describe what they’re seeing. And then as the story progresses, you can just gently talk about what’s happening within the story. So earthquake, you can talk about Max and what’s happening for him, and then you can just gently ask whether or not they have ever felt like that. And the answer from a child’s perspective isn’t the important part. What a parent’s doing is just gently starting to introduce a conversation about some of those difficult topics. And I think one of the things I always say to parents is don’t be afraid of silence.
(14:21): If you ask a question and there’s not an answer, that’s okay. You don’t need to prompt the child to answer or force them to have an answer because you’re planting a seed. And ultimately it’s providing a space for maybe your child to reflect on the story, to think about things differently, to compare themselves what’s happening, character. And in doing that, doing all that do. So you don’t have to read the story from cover to cover sometimes to get the benefits of that, because a good picture book, the illustration should add to the story, not just be a verbatim of what the words are saying. So sometimes even just exploring the illustrations can start a difficult conversation and that’s going to be a benefit to a child.
Laura Jenkins (15:16): Definitely. And your books are targeted at the four to eight year old age group, thereabouts. Is that correct, Rachel?
Rachel Brace (15:24): Yeah, four to seven or eight. I think it depends on the child’s situation, their maturity and their reading level as well. I have read the books through with some eight and nine year olds who I’ve seen professionally and receive favorable feedback from them. And then there’s been others nine year olds who will tell you that it’s too young for them. But it’s quite interesting they’re still listening or if you’re reading it to their little brother or sister every, so they pop up with something and you’re like, you were
listening, you did get something out of it. Yeah. But certainly for that preschool, early primary school age.
Laura Jenkins (16:06): Yes. So let’s talk a little bit about Stepfamilies and assuming that a child who’s gone through a divorce is now in a situation where one parent might’ve repartnered, maybe remarried and they might have some stepbrothers and sisters, what you unique dynamics in your experience have you found that step families bring?
Rachel Brace (16:28): There’s a lot of difference between first time families and stepfamilies. And I think one of the big differences that first time families share a single history of becoming a family, the couple’s relationship commences before kids are there, the kids are involved or even on the picture or thought about. So they move through that journey into becoming parents together and kids in a first time family when they’re born, they’re primed for attachment to both parents and vice versa. That doesn’t happen in step families and step families are ultimately born from loss and disruption, which sounds an awful way to start something, but we can’t get around the fact that grief is quite often the theme of the step family’s origin story. And so that has some implications for how we approach it and how the adults need to approach it.
(17:20): And that is something that first time families don’t have to deal with. I think one of the biggest thing for step families is there’s this insider outsider dynamic. There’s this, and it happens for adults and for children where there’s always somebody that might be feeling left out or excluded, be it a child who is only a member of that household 50% of the time, or is a weekend visitor into household, and they come into that household to spend time with their parent. And there’s other kids who are not biologically related to their parent who get to spend more time with their parent than what they do, and they have to into those rituals that they might not be familiar with, or their step siblings used to sitting in the front seat of the car and they want to sit in the front seat of the car.
(18:14): So there’s those types of challenges for kids. And then you get the poor old stepparent who has walking a tight rope about how they might manage a difficult or challenging situation because they don’t get the family joke, they don’t get the inside joke that is happening between their partner and their partner’s child. So there’s that dynamic that is very prevalent and it pops up however established a set family is. And then loyalty binds I think is another situation which is really difficult for children in step families, even when their parents’ relationship is amicable, but especially if their parents’ relationship post-
separation is highly conflicted and full of animosity.
Laura Jenkins (19:02): I think you’ve very nicely summarized the challenges there. Being in a stepfamily myself, I totally identify with those, and I think there can really easily be that feeling of us and them, if you like, and that can take place across all sorts of different relationships and dynamics. But yeah, I think you captured that nicely. So coming back to the books, and I’m still in awe that you have time to write these books on the side as well, Rachel, knowing this is, you’ve got a day job that you’re doing in the background there as well, but have you got any other exciting projects or new books in the works that you’re thinking about?
Rachel Brace (19:49): Yes. I’ve got a book that is currently with the illustrator or a third children’s book that’s currently with the illustrator at the moment and hopefully will be available for purchase sometime in the first half of next year. And it’s called Millie’s Parent Airport. And it’s about transitions and changeovers that children living in shared care arrangements experience. And it kind of came from the idea that when you’ve got children be they’re living in a solo parent household or a stepfamily situation, but they’re living and moving across two homes. And every reunion with one much loved parent is also a separation from an equally loved parent. So that theme of each hello is also a goodbye and the emotions that that can generate for even the most resilient kid changeovers and moving all the time can be a really challenging, I guess is the word looking for, but in various levels it can be challenging for kids.
Laura Jenkins (20:51): Definitely. Definitely. So the book provides a story that children in that situation can relate to through identifying the backwards and forwards
Rachel Brace (21:04): It uses the analogy, which I was really lucky, I had a beautifully articulate nine-year-old that I used to work with a very, very, very long time ago. And he was trying to explain to me what it was like for him moving and living between two homes. And he used an analogy of it being like at the arrival in the departure gates of an international airport simultaneously. So if you think about the melting pot of emotions and feelings that see, I mean, that final scene in love actually kind of sums it up. The movie love actually, right? It’s a melting pot of emotions. And it’s that idea for the main character, Millie, that every time she’s moving between her homes, it’s like being at her own international parent airport as she moves or flies between her two parents’ homes.
Laura Jenkins (22:00): I think that’s fantastic. And I love that analogy. I’m really impressed that a nine year old’s come up with that. It’s great.
Rachel Brace (22:07): I know. It’s a great analogy.
Laura Jenkins (22:10): Yeah. Are you able to share with us any of the specific strategies that you would recommend for children who are perhaps struggling somewhat with that conflict of the backwards and forwards?
Rachel Brace (22:25): Yeah, I think if it’s the actual transition, because transitions are moving from one thing to another are difficult for kids for any number of reasons. So it normally is a way of helping them develop some strategies to kinder, calm their nerves, to calm the anxiety, or to quell their thoughts. So in the story, Millie has a little rhyme that as she says, 1, 2, 3, 4, monkeys, rainbows, unicorns, breathe in, breathe out. So she’s got something that she uses to help her monitor her breathing, so that breathe in to the counter four, breathe out to the counter four. And we know that that automatically helps to calm nerves, to help regulate our heart rate. And for her in the story, you see her reciting that to herself. And there’s a beautiful illustration that Angela has done that goes with a little girl breathing in, sniffing a flower, and then blowing out some candles on a cake.
Laura Jenkins (23:34): Beautiful. Rachel, we’re almost at time here. So to wrap it up, what are some of the key messages or takeaways that you hope both children and adults as well would gain from reading your books?
Rachel Brace (23:49): I guess one of the big things is that emotions are not to be fear. Even the most uncomfortable emotions. They’re not to be fear, they’ll come, they’ll go, and that there’s no one way to feel when your family is changing. There’s no right way to feel. There’s no wrong way to feel. And you’ll probably feel a lot of different feelings over the space of time. And I guess to flip away from the, I’m big on emotional coaching, you might’ve figured that out, but books and reading should also be fun. So while books are very useful in supporting children going through sensitive topics, they shouldn’t be the only books that parents read to them. They should just be part of a repertoire and part of a selection of books that parents and carers can read alongside their kids.
Laura Jenkins (24:42): Well, I’m so glad that you have penned a few books to add to that repertoire, Rachel, and address these very sensitive but important topics for young kids. Just lastly, how can our listeners connect with you and get a hold of your books and your other resources?
Rachel Brace (25:02): Yeah, so you can purchase the books directly from me via my website, which is www kinship books com. They’re also available online at other major bookstores or selected bookstores, and a lot of other bookstores also hold them in the brick and mortar stores as well. And you can connect with me via Facebook or Instagram. I think my handle is at kinship books. And yeah, that’s probably the easiest way to get hold of me and to find out a little bit more about the books and about all the issues that I’ve kind of touched on today.
Laura Jenkins (25:35): Fantastic. Thank you so much Rachel, and we will absolutely link to all of that in the show notes. Thanks again for your time.
Rachel Brace (25:42): Brilliant. Thanks Laura.
Laura Jenkins (25:44): Thanks for listening to In The Blend Podcast. The show notes for this episode are available @intheblend.com.au. And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.