Why do we believe our children are resilient when, in reality, they are the most vulnerable?
Parenting even in the best of times can be a bumpy road, and divorce is the giant sinkhole you never saw coming. No one gets married and has kids anticipating a divorce. Yet no matter the circumstances, when a marriage fails, children are the ones who are the most vulnerable. In all but the absolute best of cases, tempers flare, conflict abounds, and uncertainty is rampant. And all of these inevitable and unfortunate conditions will disrupt your children’s well-being.
There are, however, strategies that can help you minimize their suffering and maximize the chances they will quickly find their way back to happier, more carefree times.
Validating your kid’s feelings.
Validate your kids’ feelings, whether you like those feelings or not. You may or may not have chosen the divorce. Your children definitely didn’t. And they have the right to feel however they feel about it. None of this means you should necessarily agree with whatever conclusions the kids draw based on their feelings, but telling kids that their feelings are wrong, inappropriate, or unjustified turns out very badly for everyone.
If the kids are having trouble articulating what they are feeling, help them out by guessing at what they are trying to say. If you get it right, they will feel so much better for being understood. If you get it wrong, they will appreciate your trying, and you can keep steering towards naming the true feelings together.
Once the feelings are identified, try to navigate toward what they are needing emotionally. Is it reassurance, a feeling of safety, understanding? All of the above? You can’t promise them that their parents will get back together, but you can promise there will be no less love available to them, tell them you understand they are furious and reassure them that you will be there for them no matter what happens.
Make whatever true statements you can that respond as directly as possible to the specific needs they express. And don’t do this exercise once and then think you are done. Helping your kids identify and articulate their feelings, accepting those feelings as valid, assisting them in determining what their emotional needs are, and doing what you can to be responsive to those needs is one of the primary keys to empathetically parenting any child, whether his parents are divorcing or not.
Be the most consistently present parent you can possibly be. This should definitely go without saying, but it often doesn’t, so I’m saying it. Of course, you absolutely need to do whatever is necessary to make sure the bills are paid. And beyond that, be as present as possible for your kids, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. Make sure the kids know they are your top priority. Don’t just say it; show it.
Try as best you can not to numb out with alcohol or TV or your phone when the kids are around. They need to know they can count on you for everything you have always done, and more. They need to know you are paying attention. Divorce is a time of tremendous uncertainty for children. Be there, to every extent possible. And be very clear with them that won’t change.
Be a role model for your children.
Be a role model for being comfortable with emotion. I’m not saying you should sob uncontrollably in front of your kids, but when you are sad and disappointed, it is ok for your kids to see that. They will live even if they see you shed a few tears. In fact, they will appreciate your humanity. They absolutely do need calm and as much stability as it is possible to provide during a time of upheaval, but they will not benefit from your being an automaton. If no one models how to manage strong emotion for them, how will they ever learn to do it themselves?
Be 100% accountable.
Absolutely, positively do your best to own your behavior. Be 100% accountable when you make mistakes. When you are irritable and short with the kids, which you will be, tell them you are sorry. If you forget to do things you had promised to do because your brain is fried extra crispy, don’t get defensive; apologize. If you make bigger mistakes, own those too. Kids are human lie detectors, and they detest hypocrisy. If only more adults could act more like children.
Be more compassionate and forgiving.
Another way we should emulate our children? Be more forgiving of our children when they are angry, uncooperative, and scattered and of ourselves when we make what will literally be hundreds of inevitable mistakes, and of our ex-spouses for continuing to be who they are. Have you ever noticed how quickly kids move past epic battles? We would do well to learn from their example.
I recognize that compassion and forgiveness can be incredibly difficult to find when we feel we’ve been wronged. I’ve yet to meet a person who has come through a divorce feeling she was always treated fairly and with the respect she deserved. And for the vast majority of us, reaching for a state of ultimate compassion and forgiveness becomes a lifelong pursuit. Nonetheless, the more of each we can extend to everyone involved in our struggle, the quicker equilibrium can be found.
Stay out of your kid’s relationship with their other patent.
When it comes to your ex, if the divorce is less than amicable and there is conflict, do your absolute best to be Switzerland. I am not saying it is possible to work well with any co-parent. Sometimes, it simply isn’t. And your kids will form their own opinions about pretty much everything. Try as much as possible to get out of the way and let them do that free of any pressure, overt or otherwise.
If you are genuinely concerned for your kids’ physical, emotional, and/or mental safety, intervention is warranted (in association with guidance from your attorney and/or a mental health professional), but in the absence of danger, it is really best to try to stay out of it. Your ex’s relationships with your kids are your ex’s responsibility. Hopefully, your ex will realize that and rise to the occasion. If he or she doesn’t, be there to support the kids, but don’t make the mistake of taking on responsibility for mending what isn’t yours to fix. It won’t work, and any meddling may very well jeopardize the health of your own relationships with the children.
Don’t use your kids as a support system.
No matter how old they are, do not mistake your kids for your friends or as a replacement for your ex. If you need to unload, find someone other than your children to whom you can talk, vent, and complain. If you need childcare for your younger children, do everything you can to find someone other than your older kids to provide it. Kids do really poorly when their parents lean on them for support during or after a divorce. You need to remain the parent, albeit a friendly, loving, and supportive one, and they need to remain the kids.
Do what you need to do to keep yourself sane and moving forward. Only you can know what those things are, and you must identify them, and do them, over and over and over again. Get the sleep you need whenever possible. Exercise if that helps (and I’ve never known someone for whom it didn’t). Get thyself outside. Eat food that fuels you (and a little bit of crap that just tastes good once in a while). Start a gratitude journal and a meditation practice (two of the best things I have ever done). See a therapist or get a coach. Organize your posse. Have an occasional glass of wine.
Figure out quickly whose company soothes you, and whose agitates. With whom do you simply vent, and who inspires you to move onward and upward? Identify the people and activities that will keep you going and help you get back up and get strong again. Your kids absolutely need you to be a whole person. The plane will surely crash if the pilot can’t fly.
Hold on to hope.
Above all, please believe in a brighter future. I am certain you can have one. Yes, divorce sucks. I know. Mine sure as hell did. And when you have kids, it really, really sucks. Especially if you didn’t ask for it. And you get extra loads of bonus points for how much it sucks if you were blindsided by it. But your kids still need you to get it and hold it together, and they really need you to believe things will get better.
Even if you don’t yet see it, paint a brighter future for them than the crap you are living through today. Tell them about the happier days you (hope to) see ahead. Take the opportunity to grow yourself as a person and to envision and seek a bigger, better, bolder life than the one you had before. I am certain you can build that life. It won’t happen overnight, but with purpose and the right attitude and strong support, it can happen a lot faster than you think. Start out by faking those days (until you make them), for yourself as much as for the kids. One day, hopefully before too long, you will be living them together.