When I first got separated the hardest challenge for me was how to help my daughter navigate this difficult time. I had to deal with the damage of my ex moving out without first having a conversation about it. The first few weeks were very hard, especially since I didn’t quite know how to break the news to her and how she would react. After covering up for three weeks that her dad was late from work, I decided it was time to tell her the truth. I explained that Daddy and Mommy are going through some hard times and need time for themselves, and that we love her very very much. She right away asked if she did something wrong, which is what most kids think (they think it is their fault), and I kept on reassuring her that she did nothing wrong and that sometimes adults sometimes go through changes and need time for themselves. She wasn’t terribly sad, but she did start feeling anxious and was afraid to leave my side. She moved into my bedroom and slept next to me. She was only five at the time and the sudden separation was hard for her to process. I immediately send her to a therapist who specialized working with small children to help her cope with her feelings of abandonment and started reading and inquiring how to best deal with helping her through this difficult time.
Here are some of the things I learned and adapted during that time which I hope will help you as well.
Create a relaxed setting: Many parents make the mistake to have a real formal conversation when talking to their children about the divorce. It is the number one reason why children shut down. If you want to discuss anything that pertains to the divorce make sure to find a place and time that is relaxed and casual, such as driving in the car, grabbing a bite, or during a walk to the park. Find a time where it your child is relaxed and more open to talk.
Allow your child to feel their feelings: One of the hardest things for a parent is to see their child in pain, so we instinctively go to protecting their feelings and by doing so deny them them permission to have any. When a child is hurting and we tell them “everything is going to be OK”, we mean well because we want to take away the pain and hurt they are feeling, yet we don’t realize that by doing so we shut down their feelings and we don’t give them permission to express themselves. I had client who told me that her daughter came home in a rage one day and said: “I can’t believe you and dad would do this to me, and ruin my whole life”. Her daughter was clearly in pain and needed her feelings to be validated. My client feeling sorry for her daughter responded :”we did it for your best interest, so you can grow up with two loving parents who just live separately”. Although the response had all the good intentions, the message to her daughter was “you shouldn’t be feeling this way”, which leaves the child thinking that their feelings are wrong and no one truly understands them. The last thing we want to do to our children is shutting them down. What she could have said instead was something like: “ I am so sorry you are feeling so hurt, this must be so so hard for you” allowing the child to continue to open up and help them deal with their emotions. See the difference?
Understanding their feelings: We all experience life through different lenses and never exactly know what the other person feels like. Yet when someone gets how you feel, and validates your feelings, you feel totally understood and less alone in your problem or pain. When we as adults are going through the divorce adjustment we are often so overwhelmed with our pain that we struggle to get in touch with what our children really feel. It is important that you put yourself in their shoes, that you go down to their level and try and experience their reality. If you are able to say something like: “It sounds like you are really sad, and maybe kind of mad that dad isn’t around” or “it sounds like you really miss dad, this must be so hard for you”, you give them permission to have their feelings without making them feel judged. In turn they will actually open up more and say:” Yah, I do feel that way…”. The most important thing for your child is to have a safe haven to be able to open up about his or her challenges. You can’t change their new reality, but you can help them adjust to it.
Initiate conversations: I have a parent that came to me a few weeks ago and shared that she is really struggling with her 10 year old. Her son avoids her and doesn’t seem to come forth and talk to her about any of his feelings. When we explored deeper how she approached the “Divorce topic”, she told me that she told him ”come to me if you want to talk”, hoping this would be invitation enough for him to open up to her. She was afraid to express something that may not be true out of fear that if he isn’t sad or mad, she will actually make him feel that way by bringing it up. You don’t have to worry about making your child feel a certain way. If they don’t feel that way you opening up a dialogue wont necessarily make him feel that way. One of the ways I find very effective in helping children open up is by saying something like: “I know you must be feeling very sad, or mad or … I know I would feel that way”. Let them know that it is normal for them to have these feelings, and keep talking trying to truly put yourself in their shoes and think of how they might be feeling. Eventually they will open up and start talking.
Embrace tears and emotions: I think one of the most painful things for me was to see my daughter cry and share her pain with me. A part of me felt guilty and responsible for causing her this pain, so I was almost looking for ways to escape from it. However the most important thing your child needs in order to heal from this life changing event is your understanding and compassion, so don’t let your feelings of guilt get in the way of creating a safe space for your child to cry and express themselves. Time heals, and love and connection will help your child overcome this challenging chapter in their life.
Seek Guidance: Having had my parenting mentor during that time was a lifesaver for me. I believe that I wouldn’t have been able to manage the challenges as effectively without her. When we are in the problem and struggling with our own pain it is really hard to have clarity and the resources within to know how to handle every situation. That is the beauty of having the gift of outside resources, guidance and support. Find a parenting expert who deals with divorces and will be able to give you clear guidance and advice. I also strongly advise for you to get your child/children professional support such as a therapist, since children sometimes feel they can’t share everything with their parents and it gives them a place to offload safely.
Be aware of potential setbacks: It is normal for children who are going through the initial phases of the divorce, to act out, regress or withdraw. Notice the behavioral changes and be very supportive and avoid criticism. They need more time to adjust and deal with the their new reality. I know one of my clients children started bed wetting, she was devastated and her reaction made her daughter feel very ashamed and bad about herself. Prepare to deal with some setbacks, and be sure not to make your child feel bad or ashamed. Time will help them heal, and eventually the symptoms will dissipate as they start adapting to the changes.
For more tips and suggestions on how to help your child navigate this difficult time, feel free to reach out to me by setting up a free Breakthrough to clarity session with me. Select a time from my calendar that works for you, if you can’t find a time that work for you feel free to email me @ Pearl@pearlflax.com and we will try to assist you with a more convenient time slot.