Posted on September 5, 2011
Sue Atkins is an International Parenting Expert, Speaker, Broadcaster & bestselling Author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies”. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and BBC Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show.
A bad marriage can make parenting and life in general stressful. The loss of the family structure can be very upsetting and distressing for everyone involved in the major change.
Despite divorce being on the increase around the world, parents often feel at a loss when searching for practical support. They also feel overwhelmed, confused, afraid, resentful, or completely frozen in panic about how to handle the changes in their family’s way of life.
Sometimes this fear manifests itself as animosity, which turns the whole divorce process into a battle, with children trapped in the middle and feeling powerless.
Remember: Divorce needn’t be like this. Parents can make positive, healthy choices during this very emotional time and make the transition less painful for everyone.
Positive Parent – Confident Kids Tip
Divorce isn’t about winners and losers. It’s about working out a way to handle the separation with dignity and compassion and minimising the disruption to your children emotionally. So let’s look at some of the numerous approaches and strategies for making the experience of divorce as positive and healthy as possible.
Presenting a united front: Telling the kids
I’ve worked with many parents going through divorce and one of the main worries is how to tell their children about what is going to happen and what to actually say to them.
Children naturally fear that they’ll lose one of their parents in divorce or that their parents will abandon them. They also fear the changes and disruptions that divorce inevitably brings to their family. Children often blame themselves.
When a marriage becomes troubled, a couple often relies on old habits of interacting, which lead to fights rather than solutions. If those old habits didn’t lead to constructive solutions during the marriage, they’ll surely reap no better results during the divorce.
Bitter fights in the divorce courts often stem from these old ways of handling differences.
You may not have been a united front while married, but you and your partner must take this opportunity for the good of your children to work together.
Here are a couple of the various activities I lead parents through to help them and their children cope with divorce.
The Critical Question
One of the key things I ask parents to do is to sit down and work out together the answer to this critical question:
• What are the key messages you want to convey to your children?
Think about the way you want to handle their insecurity, their need to express their feelings and their questions.
You need to consider their need for security – their need to know and feel reassured that you will both still always be their parents and be there to support, nurture, guide and love them
They need the opportunity to express themselves and their feelings in whatever way they feel able. This could be anything from extreme anger to complete silence, denial, bravado or pleading and you need to be prepared to accept whatever comes up and reassure them.
You will need to weigh up whether you tell each child on their own, or all together or a combination. You need to make a joint decision as to which way both of you feel will be the best for your children and for you as their parents.
If you can manage to speak to them together, this will give an opportunity for them to see that you are not blaming each other and that they don’t have to take sides and that you are both still there for them.
Think about your own emotions.
Will you be able to talk to your children without getting into further conflict between the two of you?
If you feel that you can then try to think through together the sort of questions your children will be likely to ask. Questions like “Will we still see you and spend time with you? Who will take us to football training?” “Who will we live with and where will we live?” “Will we have to change school?” “Will we still see Grandma?”
• How will you answer them?
• How you will explain that at the moment you don’t have all the answers but still reassure them that you will have more clarity and answers soon and they don’t need to worry?
Visualise and daydream how it will go in your imagination in great detail often, like when you are driving or when you are walking the dog or having a coffee break – as you are preparing yourself mentally for success. See where you will be sitting, how your will be talking, what you will be saying and how you want to appear to your children.
From your child’s perspective
Here’s an exercise I do on my Parenting Made Easy Divorce Workshop.
I ask parents to place a piece of paper on the floor and to write their child’s name on it (do this for each of your children), step onto it, and imagine you’re looking at the situation from the eyes of your child. I then ask them to answer the following questions as if they were actually standing in the shoes and socks of their child:
• What do you see and hear around you at the moment?
• How do you feel?
• How could Mum and Dad make you feel better? What could they do or say?
Reassurances and guarantees
I ask the parents to write seven reassurances and guarantees that they can honestly give to their child. The reassurances and guarantees are things that will help their child cope with the enormous changes that are coming.
Be honest – don’t hedge around the difficulties, don’t give false promises that you can’t keep as you destroy their confidence and belief in you at a critical time in your relationship. Give them information but not too much – give them details of the things in the not too distant future that you have decided. Give them specific details but don’t overwhelm them with information and make the information relevant to their age and understanding.
I also help divorcing parents develop some co-parenting strategies. For example, we:
• Plan and agree on what both parents will say before they talk to their children. This helps to avoid mixed messages, which can confuse and really distress children.
• Look at the benefits of telling the children together or individually.
• Work on overcoming the ‘blame’ mentality and the feeling that the divorce must be someone’s fault.
• Look for ways to avoid making children feel that they must take sides.
• Try to take the emotional charge out of telling the children.
• Help each parent gain more control over his or her distressing feelings and emotions during this difficult moment.
Remember Divorce changes but it does not end a family. Your children are now members of two families.
Managing your emotions
Like most things in life, divorce is a process not an event. How you view the process is very important. If you see divorce as a negative, painful, angry, aggressive, guilt-laden time, then it will be exactly that. If you see it as a major life crisis that can be handled in a positive way with dignity and a step towards a new life with new opportunities, then it will be so.
If you appear calm and in control most of the time, your children feel more secure. Be realistic and honest with your children, but also find a safe outlet for you to let off steam, cry, rant, and vent your frustrations just don’t do it in front of your children.
You are a role model and how you handle this major event is a blueprint for how they handle stressful situations in their lives.
Remember You are teaching your children respect, dignity, and compassion in stressful situations. They haven’t fallen out of love with the other parent, you have.
Ending your marriage isn’t just a legal matter; you must also work through numerous personal stages and may go through many emotional hurdles as you progress through a divorce.
Honesty is the key
Getting your child to talk openly about a divorce or separation is rarely easy. As a parent, you must create opportunities to find time to hear about how your child feels. Children have their own views about what is happening to them, and bottling up their feelings may cause problems in the future. Their moodiness and angry outbursts may be cries to be heard.
Find some quiet, uninterrupted time to talk through your child’s feelings and explain, in terms appropriate to his age and maturity, what is actually happening. Keeping children in the picture helps them feel secure and safe.
Don’t hide the truth from your child because you feel you should protect him. When children feel they don’t matter, they start to imagine the worst. They often then start to blame themselves for what’s happening.
I remember one year when I was teaching a group of 8 to 9 years olds, five families in my class were going through divorce. I set up with my colleague Val Weir, a trained counsellor, a ‘Drop in and Chat’ facility where kids could call into my classroom at break time or lunch time to just talk about their feelings, air their concerns, and feel heard. I remember one little girl saying she felt no one was listening to her at home and she felt invisible.
The drop in and chat took many different forms: Sometimes children drew pictures of how they felt; other times they played with clay and talked if they felt like it about the changes going on in their lives; some just talked or cried but felt released from tension.
Grief and sorrow
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a pioneer in the hospice movement, first described the five stages of grieving more than three decades ago. Although her work is often applied to the handling of death and dying, her stages can serve as a good map for recovering from a major trauma such as divorce. Kübler-Ross’s stages can be described as follows:
• Denial: ‘This divorce isn’t happening to me. It’s all a misunderstanding. It’s just a midlife crisis. We can work it out.’
• Anger and resentment: ‘How can he/she do this to me? What did I ever do to deserve this? This is not fair!’
• Bargaining: ‘If you’ll stay, I’ll change’ or ‘If I agree to do it [money, childrearing, sex, whatever] your way, can we get back together?’
• Depression: ‘This is really happening. I can’t do anything about it. I don’t think I can bear it.’
• Acceptance: ‘Okay, this is how it is. I’d rather accept it and move on than wallow in the past.’
When you’re in the early stages of the grief and recovery process, thinking clearly and making decisions can be especially difficult.
So take a few minutes and ask yourself:
• ‘Where am I now emotionally?’
Understanding and identifying these stages can be very helpful when you’re talking about divorce and deciding how to nurture your children through this difficult time. Identifying your present stage of grief and being aware of it is an important step toward ensuring that you make the best choices you can.
Handling change is often the way we perceive it. Changes that matter most are often just a small or slight change in your perception of things. So while going through a divorce is a major change it needn’t be. If you believe and expect change to take a long time, be painful and be extremely difficult. It will be.
I’m not underestimating the often very difficult emotions involved in any form of change, but I passionately believe that change can be handled easily if you develop some strategies and some ways to perceive it.
If you start to take care of your emotions and start to change your attitude, things get much easier and things start to improve as if by magic.
In life you get what you focus on, so if you learn was to relax, stay centred and positive and filter the experience in a generally positive manner, the whole experience will be better and your children will pick up on your attitude and approach to the changes happening in a far more positive and healthy way.