Interview with Verity Best and Josette Gardiner : Counselling for children affected by family breakdown. Working with families and children in mediation, dispute resolution and family conflict.

In this interview with Verity and Josette, co-directors of focus counselling service, we talk about how to work with children who are experiencing family breakdown or conflict. Verity and Josette’s share some of their tops for telling children parents are separating and what to look out for in the behaviour, that may indicate the need some additional support.

Josette Gardiner BAppSocSci(Couns), Member ACA, ACA-Recognised Supervisor

Josette provides counselling to adults, children and adolescents. Josette works with children using a variety of modalities and has a special interest in trauma and its effects on the brain and behaviour. Because of this, she provides effective and nurturing therapy to children where family violence has been part of their story. She has also worked extensively with a range of other issues such as self-harm, grief and loss, parental conflict and trauma recovery. Josette uses a range of tools, games and activities to help children untangle their inner world in a way that helps them make sense of it. She helps them master the skills they need to manage their emotions in an often-complicated world. All this is done with a sense of hope for the future, and a belief that the child is capable of any change they hope to achieve and the ability to heal from past hurts. In all her work, Josette uses a trauma-informed approach. Josette also holds a Certificate in Supervision and is an ACA recognised supervisor.

Verity Best BAppSocSci(Couns), Grad Dip Family Dispute Resolution, Member ACA.

Verity provides counselling and mediation services to adults. She has had a range of experience in the mental health sector, such as family violence counselling, crisis and trauma counselling, and counselling for addictions, in particular gambling, alcohol and drugs. In addition to this, Verity is accredited by the Attorney-General’s Department to provide mediation services to separated parents in relation to children’s matters. As a mediator, Verity provides a safe platform for separated parents to discuss their children’s needs and develop a mutually agreeable parenting plan. In this service, as in her counselling practice, Verity provides a non-judgemental approach and a belief that her clients have the ability to change their lives in a positive way. In both counselling and mediation, Verity aims above all to empower her clients, and support them to find ways to make meaningful change. Verity also holds a Certificate in Supervision and provides bimonthly group supervision to Applicant Practitioners (IVO’s) in the Victorian Magistrates Court.

How do you tell your children that you’re separating?

  1. Non-blaming of the other parent
  2. Keeping it developmentally focused
  3. Don’t need to tell them the reasons why
  4. Tell the children it’s not their fault it

Things not to say

  • Playing blame
  • mum/dads had an affair

When talking to children about family separation or divorce.

Advocating for the child and being child focused is a priority for Verity and Josette

Children may have different ideas to why parents separated and may blame themselves

It’s important to tell the children it’s not their fault – even if they haven’t verbalised it. You may need to say this a few times.

They may not mention it because it’s a shameful feeling – so they will keep it very well hidden

Some may be very well behaved because they don’t want to upset the parents

Parents might think they’re doing really well,  They’re trying to protect each parent and internalise the pain


So what are some of the tips you have for parents or practitioners on how to guide that conversation , not to blame, and not tell them things they don’t need to know, but to find that balance on how to give them enough information so they don’t fill in the blanks with feeling that it’s their fault?

3 points that are essential for telling children about parents separating

  1. Keeping the language unified – mummy and daddy both still love you
  2. Telling them that even though mummy and daddy may not love each other any more , we can never stop loving you
  3. It’s not your fault

Say these as often as you need.

If they come to you with questions, you can say simple things like ‘ mummy and daddy are working on it’  take the pressure and responsibility off them.

If they come to you to say something happened at the other parents house you can empathise with the child without blaming the other parent

That sounds like you’re feeling XYZ

That sounds very confusing ….. do you want to talk about it

Children can find it difficult to name their feelings – so giving them that open-ended question so they are invited to talk about it

As parents it’s ok to say we’re finding it very confusing too but we’re working on it


What are your tips for working with families who live in a high conflict home.


  • they may be very compliant
  • they could go the other way and be compliant at school and behave differently at school or vice versa
  • depends on the family and the extent of the conflict
  • your first thought doesn’t have to be the only one
  • you can have different strategies

Watching for when children are acting out, sometimes the children can act out with one parent, it may be the parent / house that they feel safest and most comfortable at

‘’the dysfunction of the home is often played out in the children’s behaviour’’

Sometimes a family comes to counselling with the family labelling the problem as being one particular ‘child’.

Josette’s tips,

Do a genogram and look at intergenerational patterns of behaviour, gently pointing out relationships that may be strained or that may be indirectly promoting that strain in their child.

Working with a family strengths and promoting what they’re doing well.

Parenting a child who may be struggling

Referring to other services as a clinician?

  • refer the parent on for some counselling – acknowledge the need for self care the parents is probably scared and anxious in a space they may never have imagined themselves in
  • family violence service if needed
  • family therapy
    • if there’s high conflict this may not be appropriate needs a thorough assessments

Clinician self care tips

  • supervision
  • be aware of your own family of origin and any triggers
  • peer supervision
  • debriefing

Take home tips

Look after yourself

it’s hard to look after others if we don’t look after ourselves

Josette’s enjoys reading to escape the clinical work, fantasy books

Recommended resources

The whole brain child

Dan Siegel


Dan Siege

Why do I do that? Psychological defense mechanism and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives

Joseph Burgo Ph D

Dan Siegal’s flipping your lid.

  • The flipping your lid model is about regulating your emotions and understanding how your brain works when it’s triggered by something

Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 –

Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention

Kids Helpline

Phone Counselling Service | 1800 55 1800  Call 1300 78 99 78

MensLine Australia is a telephone and online counselling service for men with family and relationship concerns.  Call 1300 726 306

PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia supports women, men and families across Australia affected by anxiety and depression during pregnancy and in the first year of parenthood.

For referrals, supervision or secondary consulting

Contact Focus Counselling


Facebook:  Focus counselling service

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