Separation and divorce can be a messy, stressful, overwhelming time for a family. Changes in communication patterns, behaviors, physical health and emotional reactions that would usually get noticed right away might be overlooked, and as the family structure and organization become altered, it can make everyone feel off-balance. As this is happening, children’s dependency on the primary parent might also be intensified. Becoming a single parent might leave you feeling used up, alone, and stuck with a new, unfamiliar role. In the midst of this storm, it is important to remember to take the extra time to check in with yourself as both an individual and as a parent so that you can then check in with your kids and their emotional and communication needs.
Checking-in might include talking, family game night, family meals, or creative projects and activities, and may help to prevent behavioral, social, or academic problems. Sometimes your child may refuse to share equal time with you and your estranged partner, or try to take sides. If this happens, try not to take it personally (easier said than done!). Be firm about maintaining the visitation schedule and the importance of the positive involvement and parenting skills of both parents.
Conflict between adult partners can have a huge impact on kids, sometimes beyond childhood, even without their direct experience of the conflict. Children can sense the stress their parents are experiencing and might not have the emotional vocabulary to express what they are noticing. As a parent, it is important to check in with your child’s feelings as well as their understanding of what is happening, and to encourage their self-expression. When a parent models effective and honest communication, their child learns that it’s okay to talk about it, and gains the vocabulary to do so. Bedtime offers an opportunity to connect with your child, and might include giving each child 10-20 minutes to do an ‘emotions scan’, to get rid of any worries before going to sleep. Routine is important to kids, and doing this regularly will help them to feel safer as well as strengthen the parent-child connection.
When conflict between parents is unavoidable, it is important that problems remain between adults and not as a part of parent-child interactions. Leave any feelings of blame for the other parent or family members out of your conversations with the kids. Keep the focus on the children and each family member’s love for them. Reassure the kids “it’s not your fault”; talk through this with them, and tell them both parents, no matter what, love them. Kids need to be able to own this statement. They need to believe it and feel comfortable saying it. Don’t just ask them “do you understand” or “are you okay”; they might “yes” you to avoid this emotionally difficult conversation. Be gentle, be honest, and let them know that it is okay to be sad, angry, hurt, or disappointed.
Ask the family to brainstorm with you ways to deal with the hurt feelings and sadness. Creative projects can help family members to communicate feelings without words, and the process of making art might allow for a chance to identify, express, understand, and eventually master those feelings. Possible projects you could do together are: draw pictures of things you like to do together, write and illustrate a story about a happy day, write or draw what makes you angry on a piece of paper and shred it or safely burn it in the fireplace, make a ‘hope’ jar. Talk to the kids together if possible; and try to keep the conversation civil and compassionate without anger, blaming, or accusatory statements.
As much as possible, maintain schedules and routine, as kids thrive on stability and consistency. If you can, give them a head’s up about any changes that might be happening in their world so they have time to absorb the information and ask questions. Kids take in information at different rates and in different ways. Be aware of how your child adapts to change: what is their communication style? Do they avoid, pretend everything is fine, try to please, or confront? Do they need to take space, do they need time and if so, how much to absorb information before they react, process, are able to discuss or ask questions. Talk to them about these needs. Tell them how you communicate best and worst. Create a ‘safe word’ to end arguments and take self-imposed timeouts. If you can and it seems appropriate, make them feel included in any decision-making. This will also help you take the time to slow things down, remember to breathe, and make space for the big emotions that come up for both you and your children.
Be truthful. Avoid euphemisms, as kids are highly adept at sensing insincerity. Discuss what is happening in age-appropriate terms, filter information while maintaining honesty, let them know that you are also experiencing a lot of different emotions and that is normal and okay. As much as you can, model this for your kids.
Be ready to answer difficult questions, let them know if it is a hard topic for you to talk about, but don’t avoid. Always remember that kids are more perceptive than we give them credit for! Be aware of changing roles as the new family structure takes place, and talk about this with your kids. Taking over adult roles such as caretaking and discipline for younger siblings are behaviors to look out for, as they are often not age- or role-appropriate. Allow them to be helpers, but be sure you and your partner maintain your position as parents. Explain what new expectations of jobs, chores, and roles are, for them, yourself and your estranged partner. Tell them what they need to know to feel safe and loved, and don’t overwhelm them with superfluous and overly emotional or personal details. For the younger kids, keep it simple and straightforward.
Validate their feelings, let them get it all out, and then have them problem solve with you. Have them tell you what they need to be safe. Be a good listener, talk about expectations that are or are not realistic and the reasons. Discuss the real scenario, and take time to hear what they wish, and talk about ways to make it less sad, angry, disappointing or hurtful. Try to avoid “because I said so”. Take a time out for yourself if necessary, and explain beforehand that you might need to do this and why.
If you don’t have the answers, be honest. Avoid the temptation to make promises that you can’t keep. Try to be hopeful and find time for play. Explain that it sometimes takes time to feel better, to be less sad, angry, anxious, disappointed, frustrated, and that it can happen differently for different people. Find ways for your children to grieve and how to process the grief and loss as a family.
Know that sometimes kids need people to talk to other than their parents. Some may avoid talking about how they really feel because they feel guilty adding to their parents’ problems. They might more easily express themselves with someone outside the situation, such as a friend, teacher, relative or counselor. Talk to them about this, and together work out whom it is okay to talk to and what the boundaries of that relationship are. Make sure that you have someone to talk to. Don’t use your kids for your primary emotional support. If they try to fill this role for you, thank them and refocus them on their own feelings. Look for support groups, online resources, and see a counselor or therapist. Most importantly, trust your instincts and remember that your psychological and emotional health is important too.
Project Ideas are suggestions for creative activities that families can do together to promote and facilitate positive and productive discussion of feelings and communicate hopes and fears. Creativity can allow for expression of feelings using metaphor and symbolism. Art Therapy is used with families, couples, and individuals of all ages, and can provide distance and structure for coping with overwhelming, scary, or confusing emotions. For more information on the benefits of Art Therapy, please visit www.internationalarttherapy.org, www.arttherapy.org, orwww.pattersoncounseling.com.
Use an old mason jar or other container with a lid. Decorate it together as a family or make a separate one with each child, using pictures and words from magazines, tissue paper, scrapbooking materials, family pictures, ribbon/yarn, or fabric. Mod Podge craft glue works well for this project. Write ‘hopes’ on small pieces of paper and put them in the jar for safekeeping. This can be done all at once, once a day, or at the end of the week. [***This project can also be done as a ‘worry jar’]
Before bedtime, take some time to check in with your child about how they felt that day. Use words or colors to describe feelings. Start with “How did you feel in your head?” and work your way down as many body parts as you want until you get to their toes. Talk about where the feelings came from and brainstorm with your child ways to let go of any bad or icky feelings – pretend to ball it up and throw it in the trash, make up a catch-phrase to send it away, feed it to the icky-feeling recycler.
Divide a piece of paper in half. Using pictures from magazines, on one side pick out and glue down pictures that show how you feel when you say “goodbye”, and on the other side, use pictures that show how you feel when you say “hello”. Images might represent fears, hopes, coping skills, wishes and goals. This can be used as an opportunity to problem-solve and develop realistic expectations and plans for the future.
What’s My Role?
On a piece of paper, draw an outline of a person. Using pictures from magazines, cut out and glue down pictures that show everything that your mom/dad/sister/ brother/grandparent/aunt/uncle/friend means to you and what they do. You can also make one for yourself, showing what you think you mean to others and what you do as a part of the family. Talk about it with your family.