Divorce can be a difficult time for your children. They may feel anxious, angry or sad. They may feel torn between their parents. They may feel responsible. They may feel that it is in their power to fix things. Or they may feel a total loss of control over maintaining what has been familiar and safe.
The good news is that children are resilient. But a very important ingredient for them to recover is for you to provide them with the time and space to process their emotions around the divorce. The problem is that children are often not “good” at sharing how they feel. And some parents struggle with that same dynamic! Add to that the guilt, sadness, or anger you may be feeling around the divorce, and the conversation may feel challenging indeed.
So the question is: How can help your child become aware of her emotions? And how can you help her be comfortable articulating those feelings to you? How do you develop the capacity to be that one place where your child can let her feelings boil over into the sympathetic embrace of someone who loves her?
During a divorce, one of your most important jobs is to create a safe container into which your child can pour out all of her unexpressed anger, sadness, and frustration. Forging that dynamic with your child is infinitely more helpful than finding her a therapist. Therapy is beneficial when clients experience a safe space to figure out what they are feeling (as opposed to just “thinking”), acknowledge the emotions out loud, and feel them deeply. You, the parent, have the capacity to be the best therapist in the world because you can facilitate such an interaction every day between your child and the person she wants to talk to the most – yourself!
So how exactly do you become your child’s “emotional coach”? This may seem like a daunting project because sometimes it can be difficult to pull thoughts and feelings out of our children:
Parent’s Question: “How was school?” Child’s Answer: “OK.”
Question: “How did you feel about the divorce?” Answer: “I dunno.”
Question: “Would you like to tell me about your boyfriend.” Answer: “Gross! Leave me alone!”
The good news is that emotional coaching is fairly simple and can be boiled down to two simple steps. First, whenever your child talks about something with any energy (e.g., anger, sadness, frustration), be curious. Second, validate their emotions by reflecting back to them what you have heard them say.
The heart of being a good listener is to embrace the notion of being curious. Like a therapist, try not to have a specific agenda. Ask lots of open-ended question – namely, “how, what, and why” questions that elicit answers longer than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Keep your child talking and give her your full attention.
Simple, right? The rub is that is often difficult for parents to remain in an empathic, neutral space when the child is exhibiting negative emotions. You are likely to be triggered. You may want to figure out how to make your child’s distress to go away (e.g., “I hate my life!”). Or you may get defensive because your child is complaining about something you did (e.g., “You made Dad/Mom go away!”). Or you may worry that her attitude is detrimental to her well-being (e.g., “I am so embarrassed that my parents are divorced!”).
It can be difficult to hear your child’s pain, anger, or criticism. Stay relaxed. Keep breathing. Listen for vulnerable emotions behind anger and frustration. Resist the impulse to go into problem-solving mode or to defend your actions or convince your child out of her feelings. Look for grains of truth in what is being said and try to understand the issue from your child’s point of view.
Why is listening so important?
First, your child will feel really seen and understood when you ask them questions about events that are important to them. This is a profound reminder to them that they exist and that you care.
Second, think of the dynamic as exercising your child’s emotional muscles. By asking a lot of curious, open-ended questions, you are exploring with your child her inner world. You are training her to discover and work through her emotions.
Question: “What happened?”
Child’s Internal Process: [“Easy. I remember that!”]
Question: “Why did that bother you?”
Child’s Internal Process: [“Hmm…let me explore that feeling…”]
Question: “What would have made you feel better?”
Child’s Internal Process: [“OK, I’m thinking about what I need…”]
This is why I call it emotional coaching. Your child needs to acquire the skill for her healthy development. And your role is essential because emotional intelligence it is not taught at school. We can end up with high school, college, and even graduate degrees without ever learning emotional skills.
Lastly, when you “get it,” reflect back to your child what they just told you (from their point of view). Show them that you understand them. This will give your child the sense that she is fundamentally seen and understood by the most important person in her life – you!
Child: “I wish you two would get back together!”
Parent: “Is our separation hard on you?”
Parent: “In what way is it hard?”
Child: “I don’t like having two houses. I don’t want to go back and forth! I want to see you both every night!”
Parent: “This divorce has made your life harder and means you don’t get to have everyone around at once.”
And what about reacting to what you have heard? Sometimes your child needs your advice. Sometimes your child has the wrong idea about something important. And sometimes you will need to problem solve.
My best advice is to separate your need to respond to the content of your child’s words from the opportunity to elicit the emotional import. Don’t mix the two. Save your response for a later day. Let your child have the experience of being heard (if only for 15 minutes). A parent’s verbal assurances (“You know you can tell me anything.”) will not be as convincing as a child’s experience of good listening. Let your child know that you are always there to listen and to understand. Let your child experience a safe place for them to pour out their emotions.
Emotional coaching necessitates time and patience. So, when your child talks about anything with any emotional energy behind it, find the time, space and the right attitude. A remember the mantra – be curious, be curious, be curious.