-
RSS Become a Fan

Recent Posts

How to Be Your Child’s Emotional Coach During Divorce
How to Negotiate Effectively During Mediation
Children's Typical Developmental Responses to Divorce
Untying the Financial Knot After Divorce: How to Set an Optimal Economic Course
How to Tell Your Children You're Getting Divorced

Categories

Children
Custody
divorce
financial
Mediation
powered by

My Blog

Children

How to Be Your Child’s Emotional Coach During Divorce

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?”
 
Child: “Yes!”
 
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.”
 
Child: “Yes!”
 
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. 

 

Children's Typical Developmental Responses to Divorce

In addition to the specifics of personality, temperament, and family history, your children’s response to divorce will vary according to their age.  Below is a brief and broad outline of typical responses based on different developmental stages.

Preschoolers – Because 2-5 year olds’ worlds revolves around themselves, they are prone to believe that the divorce is related to their behavior.  This could derive from thoughts like “I was bad” to more primitive notions of causality such as “If I hadn’t spilt my spaghetti last night, Mom and Dad would not have fought, and they wouldn’t be divorcing.”  It is important to be attuned to this thought process and relieve your children of the idea that the divorce is their fault and that they have the power to fix it.

Preschoolers tend to focus on what is immediately visible to them, and their fears will correspond accordingly. These can run the gamut of the tragic (“Will I ever see my mommy again?”) to the mundane (“Will I still be having macaroni and cheese on Friday nights?”).  Having an abundance of these fears can lead to regressive behaviors (such as clinginess, problems in toilet training, and seeking out security objects) or even aggressive behavior.  And because they are rooted in the present, expressions of grief rarely last a long time and are likely to be expressed during play or in artwork.
 
Young Elementary School Children – If not addressed directly, 6-8 year oldsmay see themselves as holding the power to reunite their parents.  This can lead to futile attempts to be good so as to “heal” the family or, the opposite, an unconscious effort to reunite mom and dad by forcing them to deal with the child’s negative, acting out behavior.

It is normal for this age group to express more grief than preschoolers and engage in more crying or sobbing, so it is helpful to elicit their emotions and validate their sadness.  See < http://robertdterris.wordpress.com/2010/11/>  That being said, some children at this age (particularly girls) are prone to taking responsibility for their parents’ emotions.  Don’t be complicit in your children’s parentification (in which they repress their emotions in favor of taking care of yours).

Lastly, be prepared for your children to idealize the missing parent and express anger towards the physically present custodial parent.  This, while painful to you, is a commonplace phenomenon and is a symptom of the separation rather than a reflection of their attachment to the custodial parent.  Don’t let this dynamic slip into a loyalty conflict where you try to get your children to understand your perspective and side with you against your ex-spouse.  This is deeply harmful to their wellbeing.  Being cajoled into taking sides can develop into an uncomfortable disconnection (or even alignment) with the “bad” parent.  And, either way, they will feel forced to betray one parent or the other.  Reassure them that it is OK to have angry feelings and to have a close relationship with both parents. 

Older Elementary School Children and Tweens – 9-12 years olds can have a tendency to repress their feelings and deny grief, anger or sadness around missing one or the other parent.  As a result, you may notice that your child is experiencing more negative, physical symptoms  -- a somatic manifestation of their intense emotions. Try to coax out their feelings by asking questions and listening without reassuring them too quickly or persuading them to feel differently.

This age group’s comparative intellectual sophistication can sometimes lead to the child having a more “objective” analysis regarding the causes for the divorce and, therefore, more anger at the parents for breaking up the family and creating all the challenges that divorce entails.  It is helpful to present a Divorce Story [see below] that your child can fall back on that comfortably frames the reasons for divorce, offers hope that the logistics surrounding the child’s life will remain stable, and assures the child that he/she can maintain a relationship with both parents. 

Lastly, these children are increasingly self-conscious of what others think, and may carry shame around the marital breakup.  Spend time hearing and understanding their perspective.  Help them by validating their emotions and normalizing their experience through peer support or group therapy.

Adolescents – During adolescence, children are very peer oriented.  Their sense of belonging, identity, intimacy, and security are all mediated through the prism of their social group.  And, at the same time, adolescents are trying very hard to individuate and form a sense of self that is separate from their parents.  Consequently, don’t be surprised if your teenager seeks out his/her peers during this sensitive time.  While it is always important to be emotionally available for your children, and to facilitate authentic expression of their feelings, don’t worry if your teenager is choosing to find support within the comfort of his/her social group.  Red flags that you should be alert to are antisocial or lonely behavior, delinquency, academic failure, substance abuse, and the loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities.

Also, teenagers need clear and consistent structure and discipline.  Divorced parents should provide a unified front and the clear message to their teen that they will continue to act as a cohesive parental unit.  If divorced parents become preoccupied with their own conflict, teens will take advantage of the lack of supervision and/or play one parent against the other to exercise their will in an unhealthy way.
                       
                       

How to Tell Your Children You're Getting Divorced

One of the most delicate aspects of getting divorced is breaking the news to your children.  This is a very important event, as it is your first opportunity to set the tone for how your children will experience your separation.  The explicit and implicit messages that you convey at this time are critical to your children’s emotional well-being and their future relationship with both their parents.  Here is what I suggest:

Create a United Front – Agree upon a unified “divorce story” with your spouse and tell your children together about the decision to separate.  Deliberate beforehand and choose your words carefully. Keep the narrative as honest as possible, while at the same time protecting them from too much detail or hurtful information.  For example, “Mommy and Daddy want to stop fighting so much” or “We think we can be happier people and better parents if we live in separate houses” are two explanations.

Let them know attempts have been made to preserve the relationship.  Emphasize that they are not to blame, and that they did not cause the divorce or conflict.  And tell them there is nothing they can do to prevent the divorce or to get you back together.

Reassure them that you two are still working together for their overall well-being.  Convey to them that you are still a cohesive parenting unit. Set the stage so your children don’t start playing one parent off the other. Don’t create a situation that will undermine one parent’s authority and make it more difficult to co-parent in the future.

Manage Your Feelings – It is important not to expose them to, or saddle them with, the feelings of turmoil, anger, pain, betrayal, abandonment, and anxiety that you might be experiencing.  Explain that both parents have made the decision to divorce.  Assigning blame to one parent will actually harm your children.  While it may feel cathartic to demonize your spouse for breaking up the family, forcing your children to judge or choose sides takes a toll on their well-being. Allow your children to continue loving the other parent without having to feel disloyal to either of you. Otherwise, your children will feel they need to choose sides, thereby creating either an uncomfortable disconnection from, or alignment with, the “bad” parent.  The idea that they have “betrayed” one parent can create feelings of anxiety. And identifying with the parent who has been labeled as “bad” can cause self-esteem issues (e.g., “I see myself in Dad.  Dad is bad. Therefore, I must be bad too.”).  Reassure them that it is OK to have a relationship with the other parent and that you both will continue to have a close relationship with them.

Address Logistics – A sense of continuity is important to children. Kids will usually want to know how much of their lives will change.  Take the time to address the logistics of the separation.  What will happen with school?  Will they continue to be able to see their friends?  What will happen with their room, clothes, and toys?  Tell them specifically how they will be maintaining their relationship with both parents (when will they be with you, and when with your spouse).  The younger the children, the more helpful it will be to create prominently displayed charts so that they can set their expectations and feel in control of the schedule.

Be Attuned to Their Feelings – Even grown children will need you to be emotionally present to allay their fears and empathize with their concerns. Have this be a foundational moment where you are able to hold and validate your children’s feelings. I have written in detail about how to elicit and respond to your children’s emotions in my therapy blog [click here].  The crux of this skill is to listen, ask a lot of curious questions, and don’t convince your child out of their emotions (even if they are sad and you want to console them).  While there is a place for reassurances, also make the time to simply allow them to explore, articulate, and process their feelings.   

Follow Their Lead – While I advise that you follow the outline above, ultimately let your children set the pace for what they want to hear and talk about.  Some will be relieved, and others will be devastated. Some will be concerned with the logistics, and others caught up in the emotions. Some will want to process this information at length, and others will want to come back and address it in manageable bite-sizes.  There is no wrong or right way for the children to react.  Your job is to remain responsive to where your child is emotionally and to what your child needs.

Keep the Conflict Away from Your Children - Studies show that divorce, per se, is not harmful to children’s emotional development.  The mere fact that parents live in two separate domiciles and don’t see their children daily does not cause irrevocable harm.  Rather, it is the prevalent discord between separating parents which exacts a toll on children and creates mental health and behavioral problems. When there is an absence of conflict, children tend to be incredibly resilient to the pain and challenges of divorce. So keep in mind when breaking the news of your divorce that, while your marriage is ending, your responsibility to collaborate with your ex-partner for your children’s well-being persists.

Recommended Reading: 

-        "Conscious Divorce: Ending Marriage with Integrity," by Susan Allison
-        "Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict," by Susan Boyan
-        "Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce,” by Joan Kelley
-        “Top Ten Ways To Protect Your Kids from the Fallout of a High Conflict Break-Up” by Joan Kelley [click here]

Don't Put Your Children in the Middle During Divorce!


Divorce is a significant event in the life of your child.  Whether he or she becomes permanently scarred or thrives can depend on how you and your partner manage conflict and create a cooperative parenting environment.  One book that I highly recommend to parents committed to protecting their children's emotional well-being during this difficult transition is titled "Cooperative Parenting and Divorce: Shielding Your Child from Conflict -- A Parent Guide to Effective Co-Parenting" by Susan Boyan and Ann Termini. I am excerpting from their book (below) some helpful guidelines (written in the child's voice) on how to avoid putting your son or daughter in an uncomfortable situation while you negotiate joint custody and living arrangements.

Do not talk badly about my other parent. (This make me feel torn apart! It also makes me feel
bad about myself!)
 
Do not talk about my other parent’s friends or relatives. (Let me care for someone even if
you don’t.)
 
Do not talk about the divorce or other grown-up stuff. (This makes me feel sick. Please
leave me out of it!)
 
Do not talk about money or child support. (This makes me feel guilty or like I’m a possession
instead of your kid.)
 
Do not make me feel bad when I enjoy my time with my other parent. (This makes me afraid
to tell you things.)
 
Do not block my visits or prevent me from speaking to my other parent on the
phone. (This makes me very upset.)
 
Do not interrupt my time with my other parent by calling too much or by planning
my activities during our time together.
 
Do not argue in front of me or on the phone when I can hear you! (This just turns my
stomach inside out.)
 
Do not ask me to spy for you when I am at my other parent’s home. (This makes me feel
disloyal and dishonest.)
 
Do not ask me to keep secrets from my other parent. (Secrets make me feel anxious.)
 
Do not ask me questions about my other parent’s life or about our time together. (This
makes me feel uncomfortable. So just let me tell you.)
 
Do not give me verbal messages to deliver to my other parent. (I end up feeling anxious
about their reaction. So please just call them, leave them a message at work or put a note in the
mail.)
 
Do not send written messages with me or place them in my bag. (This also makes me
uncomfortable.)
 
Do not blame my other parent for the divorce or for things that go wrong in your
life. (This really feels terrible! I end up wanting to defend them from your attack.
Sometimes it makes me feel sorry for you and that makes me want to protect you. I just
want to be a kid, so please, please…stop putting me into the middle!)
 
Do not treat me like an adult; it causes way too much stress for me. (Please find a
friend or a therapist to talk to.)
 
Do not ignore my other parent or sit on opposite sides of the room during my
school or sports activities. (This makes me very sad and embarrassed. Please act like
parents and be friendly, even if it is just for me.)
 
Do let me take items to my other home as long as I can carry them back and forth.
(Otherwise it feels like you are treating me as a possession.)
 
Do not use guilt to pressure me to love you more and do not ask me where I want to live.
 
Do realize that I have two homes, not just one. (It doesn’t matter how much time I spend there.)
 
Do let me love both of you and see each of you as much as possible! Be flexible even when
it is not part of our regular schedule.
 
THANKS, your loving child