SKILLS FOR HEROIC PARENTING FOR DIVORCING PARENTS
Judge Michele Lowrance
INFORMING YOUR CHILD ABOUT YOUR DIVORCE
The first step and maybe the most difficult is telling your children about your divorce.Following are suggestions to use when scripting what you are going to tell your children about your breakup. Ideally, both parents together will have this talk with their children. It will make the child feel safer if it appears the parents are going to work together on the reinvention of their lives. This may be the most important discussion you will ever give your children, so there is no such thing as too much preparation. These suggestions may be appropriate for children of any age:
“MOM AND DAD HAVE PROBLEMS WITH EACH OTHER AND CANNOT LIVE TOGETHER. We have tried very hard to work out the problems and decided that living separately would be better. It has nothing to do with you; it is strictly between Mom and Dad. We are sorry that this is causing you pain, but we are going to work together to help take the pain away.”
“I KNOW IT FEELS VERY UNFAIR that you should be affected by our problems. We very much wish that we could have worked them out. We are going to work together so that the changes made in our family will work out for you. There is nothing we could’ve done to stop this; it is a grownup problem, created by grownups and solved by grownups.”
“WE WILL NOT BE LIVING TOGETHER ANYMORE, AND YOU WILL BE HAVING TWO HOMES INSTEAD OF ONE. No matter where either of us lives, we will not love you any less, and we will always be your family. Mom and Dad are just going to live in separate houses.”
“WE [OR I] WILL ALWAYS BE AVAILABLE FOR YOU to ask questions and say absolutely anything on your mind. Sometimes people feel angry, sometimes they feel hurt, and sometimes they worry. All of this is okay.”
If they are young children they may not know how to ask questions, but they may want to. Try to anticipate what questions might be on their minds and ask them if this is something they were wondering about.
If the children don’t respond, understand that they are going through their own process. You can say to your child, “You may need to think about this a little bit. We can talk a little later if you want to.”
You don’t want to sound mysterious, you want to sound authentic. Preparation will help prevent and refine answers. Be clear and consistent in your delivery. If your breakup is shrouded in mystery, your child will think there is more bad news to come, and that adults may say things are going to be all right but under the surface danger may be lurking.
Be sure to have individual conversations with each child alone. A conversation with a six-year-old obviously is very different from one with a 12-year-old. Having both the mother and father to tell the children together will minimize their fear that they are going to be abandoned by one parent, and they will feel safer with the appearance of a cooperating unit. If there is too much animosity between the parents, one parent should tell the children.
If the children are young, the talks will be shorter. If the children are older, let them talk for as long as they need to do so. If they want to terminate the conversation, assure them you are available at any time to continue.
Your children will immediately turn into little Geiger counters, looking for changes in routine that will affect them. It is important to restore routines and family rituals as soon as possible. The more you can do this, the better.
It is best to help the children with their homework and school projects and activities, even though you have less time and energy reserves than you did before. They will be keeping a hard eye on you to see if you still have time for them. Can you still be interested in these small things that are very important to them? It is essential for them to know that if they need extra guidance, they will get it.
PRETEEN AND TEENS
Developmentally, preteens and teens are striving to figure out who they are. It matters how they look, what they wear, how they are accepted by their peers, what they are good at, etc. There are also physical and developmental changes. Their self-evaluation is endless. They want to be independent, yet they want the safety net of an intact family.
Usually teenagers do not blame themselves for a divorce as much as younger children do. But they grasp the concept of blame, and usually they blame at least one of the parents for the divorce. When they assess the meaning of their parents’ getting a divorce, they start to question their self-worth. It is troubling to them if they believe they come from parents who could not get their act together. If their parents couldn’t get their act together, what does that say about their own chances? Often the anger teenagers experience is not directed against the parents, even when they blame them, but results in acting out, failing grades, depression, and/or lashing out at friends.
If your child is a teenager, choose your battles carefully. Teenagers tend to be angrier than younger children and have an opinion about who is to blame. In essence, they may be looking for a fight.
SUGGESTIONS FOR COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR CHILDREN
- Don’t give your children advice until they have completely said their piece and they seem to feel understood.
- Don’t dismiss your children’s complaints about what is happening with their neighborhood friends, school, or siblings. These complaints may be indications of deeper problems. Even if they are small matters, your children need assurances that their problems are not going to be lost in the confusion.
- Get to know your children’s friends so you can help your children have social encounters when they may not be feeling outgoing or may be depressed.
- Give each child some private attention every day.
- Don’t criticize your child’s emotions; they are very real. Don’t tell them they should “get over” something.
- Share with your children how you handled social difficulties when you were their age. Be honest about what you didn’t handle well, and talk about how you see things differently now.
- Do not criticize, malign, or in any way speak poorly of your ex-spouse or spouse.
- Unfortunately, it is not easy to hide bad moods from your children. Because many children consider a divorce their fault, it follows that many children will naturally consider your bad mood their fault as well. It is important to explain to them that your mood is not based on anything they have done. If they have done something inappropriate and you overreact, explain to them that you may be overreacting because you are thinking about other things that don’t have anything to do with them. For example, you might say: “I am not happy that you did not straighten your room like you promised, but in addition to that I had other things on my mind that had nothing to do with you at all.” The trick is to separate appropriate disappointment from agitated emotions that are a result of your divorce. It might be helpful to explain to them that you have had experiences before when you felt bad and have always gotten over them. This is a teachable moment to show them that bad feelings come and go.
- When your children are struggling with a situation, it is a good idea to compliment them by telling them you know how difficult the situation was, and how well they handled it. Remember that your communications will not only consist of the words you say; in fact, your children will pay as much attention to your non-verbal cues. Questions will arise during and after the divorce about how much of the truth they need to know. As those questions come up, your children will get a read from you even if you are evasive.
For every truth you plan to tell your children, I suggest you first ask yourself how it might damage them. Regardless of how sophisticated your children may sound (thanks to the media and their access to the Internet), your children are not emotionally developed enough to know how to process harmful truths. Your children must be protected not only from what you say, but what you don’t say. Unspoken negativity can be just as potent. The movement of the eyes alone can convey more than one hundred separate and distinct emotions, opinions, and impressions.
- Truth, while essential to the trust you create with your children, does not include topics that would malign their other parent or in any way hurt the child. If you where to list 20 things your spouse has done wrong, you may be right about most of them. The key question is: Is being right, or being honest, when it may do harm, more important than your child’s happiness? Are you willing to set aside some of the more damaging elements of the truth for now in order to protect your children in their vulnerable state? Learning damaging things about a parent would be similar to the adult experience of being betrayed by a loved one or friend. It completely destabilizes your reality.
FREE SPEECH ZONE
Inform your children that you are creating a “free speech zone.” This is a conversation with your children for one hour a week, the same time every week. Everything has changed, so they are not sure what they can speak about, what is off limits or what is okay. In this “zone,” your children have the opportunity and the right to say whatever is on their minds, without criticism or retaliation. At times it will be very hard as a parent not to feel defensive, but the purpose of this hour is to make your children feel safe so they can speak freely about their emotions and fears.
If you feel the need to defend yourself, ask them if they would like an explanation from you. When you do defend yourself, if they ask you to, don’t tell them they are wrong—just tell them you see the situation differently. Let your child know that the full panorama of feelings is acceptable and can be worked through. This process can teach them that feelings are transitory and not a permanent part of them. Give them examples, such as, “Yesterday you were mad at Sophia, and today you are playing soccer together outside,” or, “Last week you were mad at Rodney for not inviting you to the movies, yet this Saturday he is sleeping over.” They are not wrong about how they feel, but they might have misperceptions with which you can gently help them.
If these conversations end up being defensive or combative, you will have a hard time getting them to sit down for the next one without dread. It is important that you communicate that feelings are manageable and not overwhelming. An equally important goal is to let them see that what they were angry about on Monday did not matter on Saturday. This can teach them the non-permanence of emotions.
ALLOWABLE SAFETY PHRASES
Give your child permission to use safety phrases, such as, “Please don’t talk to me about that information,” “Let’s drop that subject,” or, “I don’t want to hear it.” Those phrases, or any phrase your child makes up, give your child some respectful muscle to buffer your intentional or unintentional attack on their other parent. Just because you are the parent doesn’t mean you can trespass on their heart without them having the right to build a gate.
YOUR CHILDREN ARE NOT YOUR THERAPIST
How tired and worn down do you become when you are worried? Do you convey your worries and concerns to your children so you may lessen your burden? When you do this, your child may take on all the feelings you are experiencing. After all, you are the captain of the ship; do you want to share with them your fears that the ship may be going down? Sharing your ongoing worries with your children may teach them chronic anxiety as a way of life. As an adult, you may no longer worry after the problem has been resolved, but as a child, long-term anxiety about a subject you have gotten over can make permanent imprints on your child.
MAINTAINING AND BUILDING YOUR CHILD’S COMMUNITY OF SUPPORT
Often children respond to anxiety and stress by regressing to behaviors they long ago outgrew. Do not criticize your child or let siblings ridicule her. This regression is a mechanism for coping with stress. But if these regressive behaviors continue over an extended period, consider getting your child professional help. The same is true for extended periods of anxiety, sadness, eating or sleeping disorders, reduced interaction with friends, problems in school, and persistent unusual behavior, including use of alcohol or drugs in teenagers.
If the grandparents have not chosen sides in an obvious and apparent way, and if they understand your commitment to non-malignment, they (together with other relatives) are an excellent source of emotional security. They may provide extra emotional reserves at the times you are feeling depleted. They also give a sense of family continuity.
Teachers and caregivers should be informed when parents are separating. Let them know who will be picking up the children from school, and whom to call in case of emergency. If you let them know what’s going on, they can give your child extra attention and can apprise you of any problematic changes in your child’s behavior. Teachers are often the first to notice a child is under stress.
Many schools have psychologists and social workers to help the children of divorce. Find out what resources are available. The social workers can help you get in touch with resources in your community. Most hospitals have sliding fee scales for children’s therapy. Sometimes children feel quite lonely and could benefit from support groups, even if they are afraid to show their emotions. Even if it appears your child is okay, do not minimize his ability to shut down his own emotions in order to take care of yours.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR BRINGING IN A NEW RELATIONSHIP
- After all the difficulties of breakup, you may welcome the positive addition of a new person in your life. These are some suggestions to insure that what may be positive for you aren’t negative for your child.
- Discuss with your child where you met the new person you are bringing into your house. This gives your child context as he tries to visualize where this person came from.
- Tell your child how you feel about the new person. If the new person is only a friend, tell the child that, too, so your child doesn’t worry about what they new person will mean in their lives, if they don’t have to.
- If possible, discuss this new relationship with your ex mate or spouse prior to making the introduction with your children. Don’t forget—children worry that their other parent will be mad at them, or hurt, if they show affection or give attention to a new player. As discussed earlier in the chapter, children worry that one of their parents might lose interest in them, and they are afraid of doing anything that would risk a loss of love.
- Children need extra attention as a new relationship becomes more serious. Children of divorce often worry that they are going to lose the affection of their parent to the new person.
- Avoid entering into a new relationship until your relationship with your ex spouse or mate has reached “heartmoney.” Ideally that is when the issues of money and emotions have come into relative balance. Until then, the household is trying to find its equilibrium, and surprising a child with a new relationship can put tremors into the foundation that hasn’t even been built yet. The exception to this suggestion are those cases where money and emotions never come into balance, and it is not my intention to infer that you can never have a new relationship.
TRADITIONS, RITUALS, AND ACTIVITIES
Rituals restore or promote a sense of order and predictability. Restore old traditions as close as possible to their former structure, as they appear to be signposts of stability for the family. Create new rituals to reflect symbols of optimism for the newly configured family. Mealtime prayers are very comforting for young children and teenagers, while youngsters like bedtime prayers. The prayers do not have to be based on any organized religion, but might include expressions of gratitude.
Encourage your children to become involved in a charity, or get a family pet. Getting involved in altruistic activities distracts them from their sadness and teaches them at the same time to become compassionate toward others. If your family participates in organized religion, get your youngsters involved with the children’s groups there. Spiritual centers are helpful in communicating a message about guidance during adversity. Often spiritual centers support values other than material acquisitions. Materialism has enhanced importance for a child during a divorce, because for the first time children might be noticing what they no longer have.
Encourage your children to have positive distractions away from the family divorce difficulties. Hobbies, sports, vacations, etc., will get them out of the combat zone and enable their minds to focus on something else. If the money is available, and the child wants to go, summer camp can be beneficial.
HELPING YOUR CHILD PREPARE FOR VISITATION
The whole process of visitation is new for everybody. But it is the children who are they ones who are moving back and forth and in that sense they are the ones who are doing the ‘heavy lifting.’ Here are some suggestions to make the transitions easier:
Help them plan the night before the visit, or let them do it by themselves. Have them plan what they’re going to wear and what they want to take with them. In the beginning, stay liberal about whatever they choose to take. This process may be unknown to them, and they might think they need more of their things to help them feel more grounded.
Both parents should stick as close to the plan as possible. This is true both for visitation times and what the visiting parents promised the children will happen during the times. Things might shift a little as time goes on, but in the beginning children are assessing what their lives are going to be like. Those lives were made unpredictable enough by the divorce; visitation should be as predictable as possible.
WHAT PLAYS AT HOME, STAYS AT HOME
I recommend that you avoid questioning your children about what occurred during, or how they felt about, a visitation with the other parent. Often children are frightened that if they tell one parent they enjoyed their time with the other, the parent they are telling might love them less. Sometimes children feel they are betraying one parent if they feel they have to say something negative to appease the questioning parent. This question of loyalty should not require children to have to improvise how to handle parents on every, or any, visitation. A child should not be required to keep two sets of books.
You and your child should have guidelines about what can be discussed and what is private. For example:
- It is up to the child to discuss what goes on when he is with each parent. If your relationship with your ex is particularly harmonious, your innocent questions are not as detrimental, but for a while, the child will still have inner turmoil around the question of loyalty. If a child has an issue with one parent and tells the other parent, it’s the child’s decision as to whether the parents should discuss the matter. (Naturally there are exceptions if the child is in danger or it is a serious matter.)
- Don’t require your child to keep secrets from the other parent. Consider how difficult it is for you as an adult to keep a secret. Think about a child who fears that if he cannot keep a secret, he may lose the parent’s love. Secrets can easily become terrifying requests.
How do you feel after reading about the damage to your children that is caused by even the most loving parents? I would like you to write your feelings down, because although you are likely to feel strongly motivated to protect your children after reading this chapter, in the heat of the divorce process those protective feelings sometimes get softened. Commemorate your feelings in writing, because the same mechanism that tells you your children are resilient will rise up to numb out those feelings you are having after reading this chapter. My hope is that when you have to take the path of either numbing out or taking supportive action, taking supportive action is your choice.
Judge Michele Lowrance