Separation. Divorce. You didn’t set out for this to happen, but here you are. And in addition to coming to terms with your own emotions related to this significant change in your family structure, you are also left worrying about how your kids will handle it. Will it ruin them? It can feel overwhelming. Divorce as a parent is not easy.
I know because I lived this. I am living this. Many would assume that as a psychologist specialized in supporting children and their parents, I confidently ventured into my separation and divorce knowing exactly what to do and how to handle it with dignity. But the truth is, there was a whole lot of uncertainty, regret, hurt, confusion, and anger. While I knew intellectually what was needed to support the kids, translating it into real life was very, very hard.
I was acutely aware that my children’s well-being hung in the balance, both in the now and in the narrative they would create from this experience that would play a role in their life course. No pressure! It left me with a sense of urgency to find the strength to step up as a capable guide to navigate this new situation.
Amazingly, as I learned the ropes of my own world of healing and growth, I found the energy and confidence within myself to be the mom they needed, even if I didn’t always have the answers. I pieced together a series of key understandings that helped me stay the course through the darkest of times, and that continue to guide me today in the ups and downs of co-parenting and post-divorce familial restructuring.
This article is a personal one for me. The restructuring of my family as a result of divorce is not something I anticipated when I began my parenting journey. And as a professional in the field of child development, I realized how high the stakes were as my children’s father and I decided to end our romantic relationship. But this experience, as uncomfortable and unsure as I was, allowed me to grow. And I am ready to share what I’ve learned as I came through to the other side.
In my recent piece for EcoParent, I share how to navigate the tumultuous waters of separation and divorce, as well as how to keep relationship and connection at the forefront. Click here or on the image below to read the article, or scroll down to read more.
Read more of my past EcoParent articles here.
Divorce as a Parent: Batten Down the Hatches
Separation and divorce are riddled with pitfalls made even more perilous by the fact that small eyes are always
watching, sussing out to make sure everything in their world is safe. When children are highly stressed, as in the case of marital breakdown or parental conflict, the child has to be reassured by at least one present, attuned, and providing parent who can gift the child the experience of the parents being on the same page–whether or not they actually are. If not, you risk having your child only able to view one page at a time, relying on one parent at the cost of the absolute loss of the other parent. To help prevent this, use these strategies to avoid common emotionally-driven pitfalls and help your child feel more secure in this familial restructuring.
It can be hard to bite your tongue and resist saying something overtly or covertly negative about your child’s other parent, especially when you already feel triggered or defensive. “Well if dad would pay for something once in a while then maybe you could have those new shoes,” or “I wouldn’t be so tired if I wasn’t doing this all on my own,” or “Grandma never liked me anyway.” All of these statements communicate to your child that you don’t actually have the wheel, they aren’t really safe to love
everyone, and that you aren’t the capable guide they need.
Further, when you speak out against your children’s other parent or the people connected to that parent (new partners, extended family, etc.), you unintentionally create an “unconscious loyalty” in your child, driving them to overtly seek connection to and acceptance by you. Ultimately, it holds your child’s emotions hostage, and will keep them from emotional closeness with their other parent–who they also very much need to be connected to and accepted by.
To resolve this, if you find yourself in a conversation about the other parent with (or anywhere near) your child but have nothing positive to add to the dialogue, then say nothing at all, change the subject, or find a way to reflect back to your child with neutrality whatever observation they have just made. If you do catch yourself saying something unkind, or if you react in anger about their late return after a weekend away, take a moment to recognize that the response is from your child self. Rather than beating yourself up or feeling guilt, make up leeway and reinstate yourself as the captain.
As you practice this gentle, self-aware response, and even begin to apply it to your child’s other parent, you will gradually become more emotionally present, more attuned to the needs of your children, and will encourage them to have the freedom to love, and be loved, by both parents.
Being triggered, or emotionally activated, specifically when dealing with divorce and separation tends to put adults into an age-regressed headspace. Instead of responding to the often emotionally wrought and hurtful challenges as an adult with a more able, adult capacity, responses come from the child self, with—you guessed it—a child’s capacity. Even the simple acknowledgement of this is freedom. When we recognize that just as a child isn’t ready to handle the complexities of a grown-up situation, so too, our child self is ill-equipped for such mature issues, we can feel better emotionally prepared to address the situation with our adult head on.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
As parents, our job is to lead and guide. Divorce doesn’t mean the end of this or handing over the responsibility to our children. Yet, when we treat our kids as the go-between between us and the other parent, we do them a significant disservice. Arranging for pick-ups, drop-offs, and deciding who’s responsible to pay for what, are for the parents to discuss with each other. Reassigning these responsibilities to your child not only clues them in to the fact that everything isn’t okay, it also puts you in the precarious position of demoting yourself whilst promoting your child, confusing the naturally hierarchy of a healthy parent-child relationship, where you are in the lead.
If you’re dealing with a divorce as a parent, know that you are not alone – and you’ve got this.