Friday, September 21, 2018

Speaking With Your Child About Divorce: 3 Things To Remember

I spend a lot of my time working with couples.  Full disclosure, I prefer to help them stay together.  Long-term relationships are not easy and they require continual care and attention.  There are times however when a couple decides to divorce.  When this decision is reached, some of the clinical work must turn toward telling the children.  This conversation often brings up parent’s anticipatory fear and worry.

The major areas that make up this conversation are “the when, the where and the what.”  Parents preparing themselves for this conversation usually believe that they need to have their divorce plan fully organized.  They think their answers need to be well thought out and what they say need to both comfort and sooth their children.  Parents want their children to know, “it wasn’t your fault.”  Phew.  This is a lot of pressure!  The first thing I offer parents is permission to slow down and calm their own nervous systems.  If they are calm, “emotionally anchored,” this will be the bigger gift they bring to this conversation than anything they might actually say. 

Back to the when issue.  It is a good idea to help couples think through some aspects of how they visualize their post-divorce family life.  Will they continue to co-habitate in the family home?  Will one parent move into a new home?  Will they “nest” (the children remain in the family home while each parent take turns leaving during their non-custodial time)?  I help parents discuss in general terms who will take care of their children on given days even if a full “parenting plan” has not yet been crafted.  Some additional thoughts on the when part of this discussion: it is best to speak at the beginning of a weekend so there is time for children to absorb the information.  It is also important to avoid having this conversation on important holidays or birthdays.

And now the “where.”  It is generally a good idea to speak with children in a familiar yet neutral place.  Familiar can be the local park or the beach where the family often spends time.  It can be in the family home though not in anyone’s bedroom.  Bedrooms are not considered neutral spaces; they are safe, nurturing spaces that need to be emotionally protected.  Lastly, the “what.”  Children regardless of age want to know 2 basic things:  am I going to be safe, emotionally and physically, and will this change lead to more family harmony.  Parents will want to have this 1st conversation together and will want to keep it short.  This is not a “1 and done” but rather the beginning of many conversations to come as their children will inevitably have more questions and concerns.  Parents may say something like, “mom and I have been working on our marriage and things just haven’t worked out.  We’ve decided to end our relationship as husband and wife but we will continue forever to be mom and dad.  We are still a family and always will be.  You guys are safe and we hope our decision will bring much more calm and peace to all of us.”  Parents can tear up; modeling emotions is fine as long as it is not excessive.  Questions may be asked and the key is to thank children for asking, and then answer honestly and age appropriately.  Don’t disparage the other parent.  And if whatever they are asking has not yet been figured out let your children know that they will be told as soon as it is figured out. 

Telling children about divorce is not an easy conversation yet it can be managed with guidance and planning.  Feeling anxiety about this discussion, how a child will experience it, and how it will affect their life is normal.  Projecting calm however and emotional stability is paramount.  Like many things, our children take their cues from us.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Couples Take Note

Couples with children take note.  It is easy to lose your marital relationship in pursuit of your child’s needs.  It is common for me to receive an initial phone call from a parent asking for assistance with their child.  The common presenting concerns are mood-related issues such as depression and anxiety, or behavioral concerns such as oppositionality and rule following, or others such as ADHD or some form of a thought disorder.  Parents making this initial call have been battling these issues (and their children) sometimes for years.  They have been their child’s advocate in the schools and in their community.  They have even relocated to other states so their children could attend certain schools in hopes of meeting their child’s challenges.  Usually one of the parents somewhere along the line becomes the default “primary parent ” toward this end.  The other parent, especially if they are the primary wage earner usually takes the peripheral-support position.  The common presenting therapeutic dynamic is to have one parent “married” to their child and their child’s needs, and the other parent “married” to their work, or some other distraction.

Inadvertently, this child has become overly empowered.  They are usually “kid-gloved” by their other family member.  If there are siblings, the siblings as well as the peripheral-support parent are usually consciously or unconsciously resentful; the child of concern has taken “all of the oxygen” in the family system.  The rebalance then becomes supporting the needs of this child while also leaving time and energy for the other family members.  This is especially true for the couple’s relationship.  Time and again I can assess a couple that is functioning as a mother-father (or partner-partner) dyad yet has lost hold of their marital dyad.  Sometimes the child with needs is sleeping in their parent’s bed.  I might hear, “they are calmer when they get a good night’s sleep.”  Sometimes the primary parent and child are co-sleeping while the other parent sleeps in a separate room.  I ask these couple when they were last out together, just the 2 of them.  Crickets.  I will ask them when they last kissed or had sex.  Awkward looks around the room. 

There is great therapeutic power in taking back one’s couple relationship.  It serves to refuel parents who need to continue to advocate for their children.  Feeling attractive and noticed by your spouse generates positive momentum.  Taking back the marital relationship also sends an important message to the child of concern (and any child) that the family does not entirely revolve around them.  In family therapy terms, this describes “emotionally growing a child up.”  The idea is that the child with needs has been “emotionally grown down” by their needs and yet is too grown up by all of the attention and power they have garnered.  Appropriately growing this child up means letting them recognize that family and marital life goes on and they need to do their part to manage their needs.  This often translates into positive behavioral changes on their part and within the family environment.  So parents take note.  Don’t’ give up on your child who has needs.  Just don’t give up on your marriage either.  Prioritize your marital relationship.  Even at times above what your child seems to need.