When the phone rang last night, 6 year-old Sam could tell it was Dad calling by the tone of Mom’s voice. From his room Sam listened to Mom start to use curse words and cry, and when she called Dad a really bad name, the knot in Sam’s stomach tightened. Within a few minutes, Mom walked into his room, smiling insincerely through her damp eyes as she held out the phone. In the week since his father moved out, Sam was so excited to hear his voice again, but Dad didn’t sound like himself at all. When Sam asked when his Dad would be visiting, the response, “I don’t know, kiddo” felt like a bowling ball to his chest. Sam doesn’t understand what is happening to his family and feels scared and lonely. He wonders what he did to break up his parents, and what he should be doing to fix it. These worries start to keep him up late at night. Sam sees how much it upsets his mother when he asks questions, so he keeps his worries to himself.
The ways in which parents manage a separation can make a dramatic difference to a child’s adjustment and well-being. Naturally, no parent wants to see his/her child suffer the consequences of family discord, but many may not consider the unique meaning divorce carries for the young person. Some parents falsely assume that “adult business” is over the child’s head and does not leave an impression. Even if the child is a toddler, it’s very likely his radar is up and running.
When two people are invested in their child’s quality of life, they can still parent effectively even after their personal bond diminishes. This task, not unlike parenting in general, requires a great deal of patience and maturity on the part of the adults involved.
Below are some suggestions to consider during the separation:
1. Take care of yourself.
On commercial airlines, in the event of an emergency where oxygen masks are required, adults flying with children are directed to apply their own mask before applying the child’s mask. This is an important analogy for child-rearing: effective parenting requires an adequate supply of inner-resources. During this difficult time, be sure to reach out to other caring adults in your life. Do something each day to nurture yourself. If you’re lacking adult support in your life, then connect to a divorce support group/network, your church, a social or community group, or E4 Health.
2. Never expect nor encourage a child to take sides, referee, or be a messenger.
We all need to know we have friends and loved ones on our side during a breakup; however, a child should never play this role. Validate the child’s right to his own feelings while resisting the urge to seek his validation of your feelings.
3. Is your ex bad-mouthing you to your child? Bite your tongue.
Your son comes home after a visit with his mom relaying some ugly things your ex had said about you. Enraged, you think, “I don’t want my kid to see me that way! Wait until I tell him all the terrible things his mother’s done!” While it may be immediately gratifying to expose the other’s shortcomings, the real issue is not who’s seen as the “good guy,” but the discussion of inappropriate subjects with a child. Rather than engaging in an endless and hurtful cycle, point out to your child that this disagreement is between his mom and you, and you don’t want to see him caught in the middle. In the end your child will respect you for setting these boundaries.
4. Unless safety is a concern, the two parents must learn to communicate in the interest of the child.
Some may respond, “if we were able to communicate we wouldn’t have separated in the first place.” Perhaps the bulk of the problems lie in your personal relationship and once those are teased out, you may find many shared goals for your child. If you feel you cannot accomplish this effectively together, you might want to consider a mediation counselor, who is trained to help separated couples work together towards common parenting goals. Family courts often will provide mediation services; you can also find support with a couples’ therapist trained in this approach.
5. Encourage your child to talk about his experience.
As you and your child struggle to adjust to your new circumstances emotionally, financially, geographically, etc., he has the added adjustment of losing the presence of a caregiver in his life. Whether you perceive the other parent as a positive or negative influence, the loss can still be painful. Encourage your child to share his feelings and experiences, while resisting the urge to insert your own judgment/experience.
6. Talk to your child’s teacher/guidance counselor.
School faculty can provide a great resource to children adjusting to family changes. Some schools and communities are now offering support groups for children of divorced families. Being surrounded by peers in similar situations could be very comforting to your child, in addition to relieving you of some of the pressure to “have all of the answers.”
7. Be authentic, while not over-sharing with your child.
Kids are very intuitive; they know when you’re faking it. They’ll usually sense when you’re not really “fine,” and might even become anxious or resentful if you’re always trying to mask your emotions to them. Kids need to know that their sense of reality is accurate, so if they’re picking up on something, there’s nothing wrong with admitting to feeling down, irritable, sad, etc. Where adults can go too far is “over-disclosing”; in other words, sharing so much that the child begins to absorb your feelings. Be transparent while reassuring the child that you can handle it, and that you’re there for them. If you don’t believe you can handle it, reach out to a supportive adult, but not your child.
Parenting through a divorce or separation rarely comes without bumps. Consider these suggestions as a general roadmap that you can reference in times of uncertainty or high emotion. Remember that your child does not need you to be perfect or have all the answers; but a parent who will simply listen, and validate their individual experience of these family events, can make all the difference to a young person.