Page 5: Because life goes on … helping children and youth live with separation and divorce
Section 3 - Communicating and Connecting with Your Children
It’s important to keep in mind that no matter how you as an adult understand or experience the situation, your children understand and experience it differently. (See box What I Want from My Parents: An Unspoken Wish List.)
A good first step to help you look at separation through the eyes of a child is to focus on your own memories as a child. For example:
- When you were young, do you remember a time when you didn’t understand what was going on, such as a fight between your parents or moving to a new home or school? Do you remember how you felt or how you tried to make sense of the situation?
- Do you remember where you were and how you felt when your parents told you sad or difficult news, like the death of a close relative or that they were getting a divorce?
- Do you remember what frightened you most as a young child, as a school-aged child, or as a teenager? Did you feel comfortable talking about your fears with your parents or other adults?
Infants and Young Toddlers
Children younger than 2 are not able to understand the idea of parental separation. But they are very sensitive to any changes in their care or to the emotions that surround them. Even babies can sense a parent’s distraction, stress or anger.
Because infants have no words and young toddlers only a few, they express their feelings the only way they know how – through crying and other behaviours. Infants and young toddlers are not able to manage their own emotions, so they depend on the consistent, day-to-day efforts of a loving adult to help them do so.
The best way for separating parents to help their infant or young toddler adapt to the changes is by ensuring the continuity and reliability of care for their physical and emotional needs. In addition to each parent’s love and reliable presence, parents can protect their young ones from open hostility or conflict.
It goes without saying that children are not little adults nor do they think like adults. Our ability to understand concepts such as cause and effect, the changing nature of feelings, or past, present and future – are either non-existent or newly emerging in a young child’s consciousness.
A well-known psychologist and family mediatorFootnote 2 tells a story that illustrates the difference between an adult and a child’s understanding of separation.
Two caring parents sat down with their preschool child to tell him as gently and maturely as possible about their upcoming divorce. They told him that Mommy and Daddy weren’t going to live together anymore and that, although they would now live in separate houses, he would still see them both on a regular basis. They finished with the most important point of all “Mom and Dad will always continue to love you.” When the parents asked if the young boy had any questions, he responded with “Who’s going to look after me?”
This poignant story illustrates that young children have a limited ability to understand what is happening during a divorce, what they are feeling, and why. Children have difficulty thinking about a different reality than the one they know. Younger children simply don’t have the cognitive or life skills and life experience to imagine what life will be like when their parents no longer live under one roof. That doesn't stop them, however, from trying to figure out "the big picture." Young children have not yet developed the capacity to see beyond themselves, which can let them believe that their personal thought has a direct effect on the rest of the world. For example, when young children experience something painful that they don’t understand – like a death in the family or divorce – their minds can create a reason to feel responsible or try to reverse an event by thinking about it and wishing it didn’t happen.
This self-centred tendency is why younger children often blame themselves or invent imaginary reasons for their parents' separation and divorce. "If only I had behaved better or helped Mom and Dad get along better, they would still be together," some children say to themselves. Or, they believe their parents will get back together, or wish that they would. Because of their limited ability to imagine the future, younger children cling to the only reality they know. Even children who have experienced or witnessed abuse may wish their parents would stay together. No matter what the circumstances, children generally develop a profound bond and a deep sense of loyalty to both parents. Why? Parents are the be all and end all in a child’s life.
Because children build their sense of self by watching and interacting with their parents, those children who witness parental arguing often experience it as if they are personally involved. Young children cannot separate themselves from their parents. Worse still, it is very hard for children to understand why the two most important people in their lives, on whom they depend for their very safety and survival, cannot get along.
Children of this age have a growing ability to understand human problems. At the same time, they are becoming their own person. Developmentally, preteens and teenagers are going through a lot of change. They experience conflicting emotions and needs – sometimes torn between wanting independence and protection, freedom and guidance, love and detachment. Whereas younger children typically view divorce as the enemy, preteens and teenagers tend to hold their parents accountable for the divorce. They will most likely react to their parents' news of separation with anger, and older teenagers may wonder about their own capacity to build good relationships.
It's important to be aware that the emotional experience of fear and anger is common to all children, just as it is to adults. But children, preteens and teenagers express it differently. As a basic human feeling, the experience of pain is at the heart of anger.
- I need both of you to be in my life. When you don’t stay involved, I feel like I am not important and I miss you a lot.
- When you fight in front of me, I want to run and hide.
- Please try hard to work together to raise me. I want you both to be my parents.
- It hurts me when you say negative things about my other parent, because I love them.
- Please don’t ask me to take sides. I want to love you both. If you act jealous or upset, I feel like I need to take sides.
- I am afraid to tell you how I feel because it might hurt you, and I don’t want to hurt you.
- Please communicate directly with my other parent so that I don’t have to send messages back and forth. I don’t want the job of being a messenger – I just want to be a kid.
- Please ask me my opinion when you need to make a decision about me. When you do, I feel loved, respected and more in control.
- Please take care of yourself and ask other adults to help you cope. When I see that you are taking care of yourself, I worry less and feel more secure that you will be there to take care of my needs.
Although talking to children about separation or divorce may be the hardest and most emotional step in the process, how parents handle this crucial step can set the pattern for future discussions and influence the level of trust children feel in the future. Take the time to handle this process thoughtfully and carefully. In particular, create a safe environment for these discussions with your children.
Just as separation is a process, talking with the children about the separation is not a one-time event. It is the beginning of an ongoing conversation with your children about their relationship with you and the other parent, the specific plans and details around how their lives will change, and the feelings that these changes bring up.
Telling your children that you are separating or getting a divorce will trigger a variety of responses, such as confusion, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shock and relief. (See box Expect Tears, Protestations and Lots of Questions.) Your children will want to know that you will not abandon them, physically and emotionally.
- Why are you getting divorced?
- Why can’t you just stay together?
- Don’t you love each other anymore?
- It’s not fair!
- Did I do something wrong?
- Is this my fault? Can I make it better?
- Where am I going to live?
- Do we have to move?
- What am I going to tell my friends?
- Is there a chance that you will get back together?
- Are we going to be poor?
You know your children best. Here are some suggestions that come from parents and experts in the field. Think about whether these suggestions make sense in your situation:
- Think in advance about a good time and place to talk to your children. Choose a place where your children will feel comfortable. It's a good idea to have subsequent conversations with each child alone, especially if there is a significant age difference between them. Their abilities to understand the situation and their reactions to the news will be quite different.
- Keep in mind that most children would benefit from several shorter talks, rather than receiving all of the information at once.
- If appropriate to the situation (for example, if the level of conflict is not out of hand), it's best for both of you to be together to tell your children. This will reassure them that they are not being abandoned and that you will cooperate in their future. But if there’s too much conflict between parents, it’s best for only one parent to explain what’s going on.
- Avoid waiting until the last moment. Contrary to popular belief, delay will not protect children from anxiety. In fact, when the children are aware of the difficulties between their parents, delay will only increase their anxiety. However, when parents need to remain under one roof while separating, it makes sense to delay sharing the news until the physical separation is approaching.
- Tell children, in general terms, why the separation is taking place. Remember to think about their age and stage of development. Children need to know that separation and divorce is not their fault, but your decision.
- Plan what to say ahead of time. (See box Communicating Effectively with Children, Preteens and Teenagers.) Above all else, be genuine. Depending on the circumstances, here are some messages that may be useful:
- "We could not find a way to work out our problems or to make things any better. We've made mistakes and we're sorry that we're causing you pain."
- "Separation is a grown-up issue and you are not to blame. It is our problem and we will work it out."
- "We know it seems unfair that these problems cause you pain and unhappiness. We wish things were different, too, but we all have to work at accepting the changes in our family."
- "We won't be living together any more, but we both love you no matter where either of us lives."
- "You will always be part of a family."
- “We want you to say what you feel and think. It’s normal to have lots of feelings. We understand because adults have these same feelings too.”
Give your children lots of opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts and feelings, and let them provide input on the decision-making process, when possible. (See box Looking Through the Eyes of a Young Person.) Let them know that, while you are the adults making the final decision, their needs and thoughts matter. Because younger children may be afraid to ask questions or don't yet have enough experience to express their ideas, you may want to raise some questions that may be on their minds. If they are quiet during the discussion, remember that children need time to process information. Let them know that you are willing to talk about things as often as they need or want to.
In studies that interviewed college students whose parents had separated when they were young, the vast majority of them wished their parents had spent more time talking with them about the separation and encouraged them to ask questions and provide input.
Some children will have suspected or seen that things are not going well in their parents’ relationship. For others, it will come as a complete shock. Children need time to adjust. Although some children may feel relieved that things are finally out in the open, they will still feel vulnerable and insecure. At first, children of all ages may not be able to imagine life without both parents under the same roof, no matter how difficult family life may have been. Parents need to be patient and gentle with an unhappy child.
With preschoolers and younger children, be as clear and specific as possible about timelines and living arrangements. When are the changes going to take place? Where are they going to live? How and when will they be with both parents? Who will take care of the family pets? Think about what you were doing and thinking about when you were a young child, and what would be on your mind after hearing the news?
Teenagers have the advantage of a growing maturity and understanding of human relationships. However, this greater understanding makes them aware of how life will change, from housing to disruptions in their school and social life. Therefore, preteens and teenagers will worry about how the divorce will affect them – both now and in the future. You can help by encouraging them to talk about their feelings, express disappointment and fears, and give them some say in how to deal with changes likely to occur. Help them to find solutions with you. (See box Communicating Effectively with Children, Preteens and Teenagers.)
You may be surprised by how much grief your children experience after hearing news of the separation, especially if you believe the decision was a good one for you. In some cases, a child's grief is quite profound. This can be very difficult and upsetting to deal with. Being a loving parent means that there are times when you may feel guilt. However, it's important not to let yourself think "I should have done more." As a parent, it's natural to always want to do the best for your children, but feelings of guilt are not in your best interests or those of your children. Guilt may add to an already deep sense of personal loss and sadness, and may provoke self-destructive thoughts. Feelings of guilt or anger can also cause us to become defensive, withdraw or blame others.
Communicating with your children is how you build their trust and sense of security, and assure them that their needs will be taken care of. These suggestions may help you communicate more effectively with your children.
Look for cues and clues. "Communication" is not the same thing for children as it is for adults. Children don't have the emotional and intellectual maturity to express themselves through words alone. Often, younger children communicate their innermost thoughts through playing, drawing and writing. For some children, their cues and clues will be more obvious or hard to ignore – such as outbursts, tantrums or withdrawal. By being attentive, you will learn to recognize and understand the meaning of your children's activities, facial expressions and body language.
Become a good listener. "Active listening" is a skill that you can learn to help communicate effectively – with adults, with teens, and with younger children. For example, by paraphrasing (gently repeating your child's statement in slightly different words), you can reassure children that they are being heard and understood. Active listening can also help children put a name to their feelings. As you are paraphrasing your child's statements, you can "label" the feelings the child is expressing, for example, "It sounds like you feel frustrated/you are angry/you are scared."
Build their understanding over time. Children can grasp more and more about a situation as they get older and develop more intellectual skills. Provide opportunities to go back to topics and talk about them again.
Give children and teenagers a say in their lives. You need to be in charge, not your children – but good parenting involves listening to your children and allowing them to add their input into the decision-making process, as appropriate. As much as possible, encourage your children to express their needs and opinions, and to be part of family decisions such as recreational activities, vacations, special occasions and clothes. Clearly, there is a big distinction between giving children choice in day-to-day activities, and putting them in a position where they are responsible for making adult decisions. But children need to know that their voice will be heard when adult decisions are made about issues that affect their lives.
Practise indirect communication with younger children. Indirect communication is a creative tool to help parents communicate with children. Many parents instinctively use indirect communication when explaining complex or confusing ideas to their children. You can use books, storytelling, hand puppets, dolls, action figures and drawings to help children talk about or act out their feelings. The type of indirect communication you choose will vary according to your own comfort level and your child's age and interests.
You can use indirect communication by telling your child a story about imaginary children in the same circumstances. The more these stories include the child's specific worries and fears, the more effective they will be. For example, you may tell the story of a child who feels sad because he can no longer kiss both Mommy and Daddy good night. By asking "How do you think the little boy in the story feels?", the child has the opportunity to talk about his or her own feelings. This technique is particularly effective for parents and children who have trouble expressing their feelings.
Indirect communication can help you to:
- give your children an opportunity to explore their feelings, without them worrying that you might be angry or disappointed
- help children realize that others face the same situations
- gain insight into your children's thoughts
- strengthen feelings of closeness and understanding between you and your children
- give your children some examples of healthy coping strategies
Practise direct communication with preteens and teenagers. Preteens and teenagers want to be respected for their growing maturity and viewpoints. When older children are spoken to as though they are young children, they are likely to feel insulted. It is usually best to be direct with preteens and teenagers, and avoid giving lectures or disguising the point. But remember, you know your own children better than anyone. Trust yourself.
Preteens and teenagers want to have a say about the things they see as important. Although communication is not always easy with teenagers, you can let them know that you value their input and want to listen to what they have to say.
Teenagers’ developmental urge for independence and the need to be their own person create many opportunities for arguments. Some parents find it helpful to choose issues of disagreement very carefully. For example, what a teen chooses to wear to school is not an issue, but safe driving practices are not negotiable. Remember, teenagers continue to need firm limits and consequences for their actions.
A direct style of communication, however, should not be confused with involving children in adult problems. Although your preteens or teenagers may even try to be your friend or counsellor, avoid placing them in those roles. Share your needs and fears about the separation with other adults.
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