Page 4: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce

Section 2 - Taking Care of Yourself: Inside and Out

Everyone who travels by air is familiar with the instructions to “put on your own mask first before assisting your children.” It’s the same in life – parents are the first and most important caretakers, teachers and role models for children. Parents have the greatest influence on a child’s developing self-worth, ability to learn, and to cope with life’s challenges. If parents are well – emotionally and physically – then their children are more likely to be well, too. Unfortunately, the opposite may also be true.

Taking Care of Your Mental and Physical Health

One of the most important challenges for parents going through a separation is to take good care of their mental and physical health. Easier said than done, given that divorce can be one of the most stressful experiences in life, second only to the death of a spouse or child. We all know that eating well, and getting regular exercise and enough sleep are things that will improve our mental and physical health. But other than these obvious self-care mantras, self-care will be different for different people, as we each have our own unique set of needs, experiences and expectations. What’s important is to find the things that help you reduce stress and feel better. Below are a few tips for you to consider.

Acknowledge that things are hard. We often think of vulnerability as a sign of weakness or associate it with emotions we would rather avoid, such as shame, fear and uncertainty. But recent research is showing that, when we understand and acknowledge our fears, what we believe are our shortcomings and what causes us shame, we grow in strength and maturity. In turn, opening up about ourselves with other trusted people in our lives can deepen our connection with others as well as strengthen our own self-awareness.

Painful feelings about a failed relationship or marriage are inevitable. Writing down these feelings or discussing them with a trusted person can help you to move through and beyond them, much like working through feelings of grief after a loved one’s death. If you avoid working through your feelings of hurt, anger and grief, sooner or later you may find these bottled-up feelings producing more inner turmoil or spilling out through self-defeating actions.

Connect with others. The end of your relationship can have a ripple effect on the relationships you shared as a couple. Family members and friends may “take sides” or simply back away, while dealing with their own uncomfortable or conflicting feelings. At the same time, an active social support network can help you make your way through the emotional upheavals brought about by the separation.

Spending time with people helps ward off loneliness and strengthens one’s sense of belonging. A rupture in the family can diminish a sense of belonging, and even one’s own sense of identity. Friendships increase a sense of self-worth; just knowing you’re not alone can go a long way toward coping with stress.

Tapping into your social network can give you access to information, guidance and other types of assistance when you need them. It’s comforting to know that you have people you can turn to for both practical and moral support. Remember that the goal of maintaining your social support network is to reduce your stress level, not to add to it. Watch for situations that seem to drain your energy level. For example, avoid spending time with someone who is constantly negative and critical, especially toward your ex-partner. Although this may feel supportive, over time it could interfere with your ability to form a cooperative co-parenting relationship in the best interest of your children.

Do something pleasurable for yourself every day. Children are naturally drawn to play and fun activities. They aren’t self-conscious about having fun or think fun is frivolous. Now is a good opportunity to learn from your children. Whether it’s playing a quick game of hoops, taking a bath, watching some television, or connecting on social media, try to schedule something fun or relaxing every day.

Breathe. Simple relaxation tools, such as deep breathing and relaxing imagery, have been proven to be very effective in managing stress and reducing anger. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.

Some simple steps you can try:

  • Breathe deeply from your diaphragm, because breathing from your chest doesn’t work. Practise breathing deeply by placing your hand on your lower belly as it rises and falls. Picture your breath coming up from your “gut.”
  • Slowly repeat a calm word or phrase such as “relax” or “take it easy.” Repeat it to yourself while breathing deeply.
  • Visualize a relaxing experience, either from your memory or imagination.
  • Do some gentle muscle-stretching exercises to relax and soothe your muscles.

Do what is true to you. Our identity is partly derived from our family history, our sense of self, our roles and our relationships. When a significant relationship ends, your identity may seem to go with it – “Who am I now?; What do I believe about love and relationships?; Who do I want to be?” .

Talk or write about what matters to you. Make choices that feel the most real to who you are and who you want to become. Think of all the energy that gets wasted when we compare ourselves to others or try to meet their expectations. Focus your energy, instead, on restoring your mental well-being and doing things that are most important to you.

Ask for help. For parents, separation can be an emotional roller coaster. You may experience feelings of anger, isolation, anxiety, euphoria, grief, relief, depression, guilt, loss of control, fear, worthlessness and insecurity. These emotions and difficulties are a natural part of getting through a separation or divorce. It’s not uncommon during times of stress and change to experience depression or anxiety. (See box Some Tips for Reducing, Preventing and Coping with Stress.) However, when depression or anxiety becomes intense and overwhelming or lasts for more than about a month, it is time to reach out to your family doctor or a counsellor. Your family doctor or a mental health professional can help you clarify and learn more about the problem you are experiencing and help you find the appropriate treatment and support.

Keep in mind that mental health is not the absence of problems. Rather, it is demonstrated by our determination to look at our inner strengths and our ability to be aware of our fears and challenges. Everyone experiences mental health problems at different times in their life. The question is not whether we have the capacity to completely avoid these problems, but what we can do to release the suffering they cause and to feel better.

If you are in crisis, call the nearest distress centre or 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

Some Tips for Reducing, Preventing and Coping with Stress

Separation is by its nature a stressful situation. So is developing a new cooperative parenting relationship with your ex-partner. These transitions may involve strong emotional feelings and are certain to involve changes. There are many healthy ways to manage and cope with stress, but they usually require changing your perspective and automatic reactions.

Here are some suggested techniques and strategies that may help you manage stress during and after the separation. It’s helpful to think of the “4 A’s” of stress management: Avoid, alter, adapt and accept. Focus on what strategies will help you feel calm and in control. In other words, the situation will change when your reaction to it changes.

Avoid unnecessary stress. There’s no way around it, separation is a very stressful life situation. Even so, think about other stressors that you may be able to eliminate. For example:

  • Learn how to say “no.” The process of separation requires making changes and adapting to them. Some previous commitments or activities in your life may need to be dropped for the time being.
  • Downsize your to-do list. Go over your list and try to distinguish between the “shoulds” and the “musts.” Then, prioritize your list and drop tasks that aren’t truly necessary.
  • Ask for help. Stress is inevitable when we tell ourselves “I can handle this myself.” Instead of toughing it out, why not reach out to your network of friends and family for help from time to time? Whether it’s taking the children to activities or helping them with schoolwork, your support network may be more willing to lend a hand than you might think. But you have to ask first.

Alter the situation. You can’t avoid your ex-partner. You are parents for life. But you may be able to find ways to change how you engage with your former partner.

  • Express your feelings and release your emotions, rather than holding them inside. Before engaging with your ex-partner, try venting your feelings with a trusted friend who can help you release the emotions that may be clouding your judgment and limiting your choices. At all costs, avoid venting your feelings about your ex-partner in front of the children. Reach out to other adults.
  • Be willing to compromise. If you ask your ex-partner to change a behaviour, then be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you have a better chance at finding a middle ground.

Adapt to the stressor. If co-parenting with your ex-partner is stressing you out, perhaps it’s best to regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.

  • Reframe problems. Try to view stressful situations with your ex-partner from a different angle. Look at the situation from your children’s point of view. Keeping in mind that children do better when both parents are actively involved in their lives, how can the issue be reframed around “in the best interests of the children?”
  • Look at the big picture. Get perspective on the relative importance of the disagreement with your ex-partner. Ask yourself how important it will be for you and the children in the long run – a week, a month, a year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time and energy on things that matter the most.
  • Focus on the positive. When stress is getting the best of you, take a moment to reflect on all the good things you appreciate in your life, including your children and your own positive qualities and talents. Some people find it useful to make a “gratitude list” every day.

Accept what you can’t change. Some sources of stress can’t be avoided. You can’t change stressors such as a death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or creating a new co-parenting relationship. In these situations, the best way to cope with a life-changing stressor is to accept things as they are. Remember that acceptance is not giving up responsibility or hope. Rather, acceptance helps you wisely focus your energy on things you can influence or change.

  • Avoid trying to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control – particularly the behaviour of other people. Rather than continually stressing out over what your ex-partner says and does, focus on the things that you can control, such as the way you choose to react to problems.
  • Look for the upside. When facing this major stressor of separation and continuing to cooperate with your ex-partner, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on the lessons you have learned and move on.
  • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we all live in an imperfect world. Learn to let go of anger and resentments. Free yourself from negative energy by forgiving and moving on. You will feel better, and most likely, so will your children.

Understanding How Our History Has Shaped Our Parenting

Just as you are your child’s first teacher, your parents were yours. The way your parents raised you has a major influence on your approach to parenting. The things your parents said and did, their way of relating to you and others, laid the foundation for many of your beliefs, values, attitudes, and parenting practices.

It is likely that you experienced some things that you want to recreate with your child – for instance, showing love through words and hugs, or teaching the value of effort and perseverance when confronted with challenges.

Then there are times when the child-rearing approach you learned from your own parents does not work well for you or your child. Maybe you were disciplined by being spanked or shamed. Or, you were never encouraged to express your feelings or talk about your problems. Or, you were made to believe that you were never good enough.

Research in the field of child development is showing how important it is for parents to figure out how their own childhood experience is playing out in their daily livesFootnote 1. This understanding can help us be better parents, especially in helping children adapt to change and cope with challenges such as when their parents separate.

This understanding can help us be better parents, especially in helping children adapt to change and cope with challenges such as when their parents separate.

So, step back and look at the big picture. How does the way I was raised influence who I am today? Thinking about our childhood in this way leads to awareness about how it influences our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours. Awareness leads to choice, breaking the pattern of unconsciously repeating the past. Once we acknowledge and understand the role our past plays in our present, we can make peace with it.

The following questions may help you think about your past and how it might be influencing your life now:

  • Imagine yourself as a child again. What would you tell your parents about how you were feeling or how you would have liked to be treated?
  • How was your relationship with each parent similar? How was it different? Are there ways, now, that you try to be like or try not to be like either of your parents?
  • Did you ever feel rejected or threatened by your parents? Were there other experiences that occurred which were traumatizing? Do these experiences still feel alive today? How to they continue to influence your life?
  • How did your parents discipline you as a child? What impact did that have on your childhood, and how do you feel it affects your role as a parent now?
  • Did anyone significant die in your childhood or later in life? Did your parents divorce? Do you think you were able to grieve that loss – as a child, or later as an adult? How do you think that loss has affected you now?
  • If you had a difficult time during your childhood, where there other positive adults or other families around that you could depend on for nurturing and support?
  • How do you think your childhood experiences might be influencing your relationships with others as an adult? Do you have patterns of behaviour that you want to or have tried to alter, but have difficulty changing?
  • Are there parts of your childhood that are difficult to think about? Do you get the sense that there is a deep issue at play in your life, such as a feeling that you are un-deserving or “not good enough,” or a sense of shame that you carry with you? Do you think these unresolved issues are having an impact on your parenting?
  • Are there particular topics or conversations with your children that trigger a strong emotional response from you? Can you trace – from the experiences of your childhood (or later) – when and where this reaction might come from?

Freedom to choose. A life change such as a separation may actually be a good time to look back at the past and learn from it. By understanding the ways in which our past may be influencing our present, we then become free to choose new approaches to parenting our children. (See box Understanding Conflict in Section 4.)

For example, if you:

  • find yourself harshly disciplining your children because you lacked structure and rules in your own childhood, you can now choose to discipline them with firmness, but be guided by kindness and fairness
  • tend to shy away from disciplining your children because you were harshly disciplined as a child, you now can choose to provide firm but loving limits that come with reasonable consequences when the rules are ignored
  • felt like you needed to be perfect as a child, now is a good time to lighten up on yourself and your children
  • were discouraged from sharing your feelings or bottled up your feelings for fear of judgment, you can consider ways to help both you and your children express emotions in a healthy way
  • felt like you didn’t get as much attention as your siblings, now is a good time to pay a little more attention to each child’s interests and unique perspective on life
  • find yourself being harsher on one child than the others, can you figure out from your own childhood experience why this pattern might have developed? With awareness comes change.

Learning to Let Go of Anger

Anger is a normal emotion that tells us when we feel threatened or treated unfairly. It’s what we do with the anger that can cause problems. Being in tune with our anger can help us respond to situations rather than react to them. It can help us stand up for ourselves in a firm but respectful way. (See “Understanding Anger” in Section 4.) But persistent or unresolved anger can be damaging to our mental well-being.

Research shows that anger can increase the chances of developing coronary heart disease, particularly in men, and can lead to stress-related problems such as insomnia, digestive problems, headaches and depression. Whatever form it takes, anger hurts everyone involved. Anger reinforces fears, feelings of vulnerability, guilt and misery. We all know, from personal experience and current events, that anger or blame does not solve problems or bring peace.

When the tension created by our negative thoughts and emotions seems unbearable, our tendency is to lash out at others or the world. Although it appears that other people or events are provoking us, it is often our own interpretation of the situation that is pushing our buttons and causing us to react.

The good news is that from the moment we recognize our role in the creation and reinforcement of our anger, we can decide to release ourselves from it and regain our peace of mind. This process requires time, determination, patience and gentleness – toward ourselves and others. The prize is your own health and well-being and that of your children’s. And as a positive role model, you will be giving your children examples they will carry into adulthood.

Three Key Steps

There are three steps in letting go of anger.

The first step is to become aware of the source of our anger. A clue: We are rarely angry for the reasons we think. For example:

  • We get angry when a current event brings up an old unresolved issue from the past. Could old resentments and disappointments from your past relationship and break-up be fueling your current anger?
  • We are often angry because of our interpretation of what happened, often removing or denying our own role in the problem. If this is the case, take the time to include your role in how the story unfolded. You are in there somewhere.
  • We may be angry because we didn’t get what we needed as a child or, worse, we may have been hurt as a child. If we grow up believing that we are not worthy or that the world is not a safe place, our adult beliefs can be based on fear, anger and judgment. Are there experiences from your childhood that could possibly be fueling your anger toward your ex-partner?
  • We often get angry when we see a behaviour in others that we don’t like in ourselves. Could this dynamic be fueling your anger toward your ex-partner? Is there something your former partner does that ignites your anger because it reminds you of how you sometimes think or act?

The second step is to decide to let go of the anger. Letting go of anger is very different from trying to control it. It is a truth of human psychology that what we focus our attention on will grow. When we try to control powerful emotions, we are in fact doing the opposite. Control requires attention and focus, which only reinforces anger’s hold on us.

The more we think about our negative thoughts and beliefs, the more the anger will grow and spill over onto every aspect of our lives. But if we decide to focus less on the anger and more on the positive things we want in our life, the anger will weaken. Then, the anger is reduced to thoughts that are no longer threaten our identity. Now we can decide to let it go and focus our attention on things that will bring us happiness and peace of mind.

The third step is to decide to put this new awareness into practice, one day at a time. Each time the negative thoughts creep into your consciousness and anger erupts, practise the first two steps. With practice you will develop new emotional muscles that will serve you well in all of your relationships, particularly with your children.

It’s important to keep in mind that the objective of these steps is not to get rid of anger, but to reduce it by clearing your mind and deciding anew – every day – how you want to live your life. The benefits are many: a calmer demeanor, better decision-making, happier children and better relationships.

Letting go of your anger can help ease the process of separation with your ex-partner and protect your children from the damaging effects of conflict. The goal is to help you feel better over time, not to beat yourself up. Do not hesitate to get support from family, friends or professionals as you move forward to free yourself from anger and live a more fulfilled life.

Learning Important Lessons from the Past

In times of emotional crisis, there is an opportunity to learn and grow. To be able to move on, it’s important to understand how the choices we made affected the crisis. Learning from mistakes is the key to not repeating them.

If they apply to your situation, here are some questions to ask yourself when you have some emotional distance from the break-up:

  • Step back and look at the big picture. Were there any ways in which your choices or behaviour contributed to the problems in the relationship?
  • Do you tend to make the same mistakes over and over again. If so, now is a good opportunity to look back, reflect on your thought or behaviour patterns that might be involved, and think of new or different ways you can engage in a relationship.
  • Think about how you react to stress or deal with conflict and insecurities. Can you think of ways to help you respond to stress or conflict in a more constructive way?
  • Do you accept other people the way they are, not the way they could or “should” be?
  • Examine your negative feelings as a starting point for change. Are you aware of your feelings or are they in control of you?

The purpose of self-reflection is to help you grow from the challenges and further the healing process along. Try not to dwell on who is to blame or beat yourself up for past mistakes. As you look back on the relationship you have an opportunity to learn more about yourself, how you relate to others, and the issues you need to work on. Recovering from the end of a relationship is difficult. But it is important to know (and to keep reminding yourself) that you can and will move on. Healing takes time, so be patient and gentle with yourself.

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