Divorce—and all of the transitions and changes a family endures as a result—are some of the heftiest challenges a family system can experience. Counseling, though an often daunting concept, can be just the vehicle to unex- pectedly reinvent your family’s soundness. Therapists frequently counsel many parents and children as they come to a place of acceptance after divorce and adjust to a new life—usually with new family arrangements and relationships to navigate.
In therapy, parents often inquire about strategies they can employ to help their children adjust and come to a place of acceptance about divorce, as well as how to best integrate new romantic relationships into their lives with their children. Here are some of the more common tools recommended to help your children better cope with this typically edgy and turbulent time:
- Be Empathic
- Empathy is the ability to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and to understand their perspective and how they may feel. Reflect empathetically to a child whose feel- ings (fear, loss, anger, sadness) are a normal response to this transition. Empathy is an extremely important tool in helping your children to feel connected and sup- ported. Sometimes kids “up the ante” through acting out and other behaviors if they feel unheard by their parents. Parents need to understand their kids’ feelings. They are going through an understandable period of grief, loss and substantial adjustment.
Parents need to keep in mind that a child’s emotional experience may be far different from their own. A parent might feel relief or anger as a result of divorce while a child may be overwhelmed with feelings of sadness and fear. Sometimes kids express more anger at the parent with whom they have a more secure attachment or rela- tionship. Other children will accept one parent having a new partner but not the other. Allowing your kids to have whatever feelings they have, while reflecting your understanding of those feelings, can help to diffuse the emotional intensity of divorce. Understand that feel- ings are waves of energy and you may have to surf some giant swells to get to the other side of divorce. Waves of feelings are also likely to resurface from time to time. Teaching children and adolescents positive and age-ap- propriate ways to channel their emotions is key (sports, art, journaling, or therapy).
- Manage Expectations
Parents may want their children to be able to move
on and be happy about the new lives of the parents as separate individuals. But parents may be further along in the grief and transition process, and they often make the mistake of expecting their kids to be in the same place emotionally. Understand that it may take much longer for children to adjust. They have fewer emotional and intellectual resources to help them cope and adjust, and far less control over this change than the parents may have had. This process is going to take time and there will be bumps.
- Practice Detachment
Parents need to dig deep and harness the ability to tol- erate their kids’ difficult emotions and not get “hooked” and become reactive. You can be lovingly and empa- thetically present for your kids while also being separate from them and their emotional process. Detachment requires good boundaries and good self-care. It also requires the ability to “let go”—to breathe out your kids’ stuff and release the tendency to want to control their emotional process.
- Maintain Good Boundaries
Parents need to be cognizant of the critical boundaries they must establish with their children (emotional, rela- tional, financial) especially as they relate to their ex and any new romantic interest or partner. Parents should be mindful not to triangulate the children in issues with their ex (financial, emotional). Kids need to be able
to have a healthy relationship with both parents and it shouldn’t be confused or influenced by the parents’ feel- ings about each other.
The introduction of dating and new romantic interests needs to be handled delicately, with respect and care. While it is imperative for an adult to have a healthy romantic life, it is important to be conscious of the feelings of children and the effect any relationship will have on the family system. Each member of the family is like a part of a machine and when you change or add a part, the whole dynamic changes. Introduc- ing too many people too soon can create feelings of chaos and instability. Introducing a partner too late
can create feelings of distrust and betrayal. Parents should be mindful about when and how to introduce new love interests and should give their kids a chance to express their feelings. Parents should also set some firm boundaries and expectations with their kids, explaining that they are going to date and need to date as part of being a whole, healthy adult. Is this a delicate dance? Certainly, and one that sometimes requires the assis- tance of outside support from friends, family, teachers or a therapist.
We see some parents martyr themselves and forego dating or pursuing new relationships in an at- tempt to protect kids from negative feelings about yet another change. This can increase the likelihood that the parent will become depressed or isolated and that the children will end up feeling emotionally responsible for that parent over time. Parents need to model being a healthy, functioning adult for their children.
- Be Honest & Direct
Parents should be honest and direct with their kids, all while being conscious of the importance of keeping it age appropriate. Many kids who have been through di- vorce have issues with trust, betrayal and secrecy. Chil- dren are extremely perceptive and often know what you aren’t saying to them directly. Trust is a critical aspect of your relationship with your children and one that should be nurtured and strengthened at every turn.
Introducing interest in dating another person is a game changer. A child or adolescent suddenly under- stands the notion that his or her parent is a sexual being. This is something that should be handled in an age- appropriate way. What you share with your 18-year-old will be different than what you share with your 5-year- old. Still, over sharing or under sharing can create dif- ferent issues and problems. If handled in a direct and honest way, dating can be an opportunity to illustrate for your kids how to navigate through life and relationships in a positive way.
- Get Support
Face the fact that this is a big transition and you will
all need support. Talk to friends, read books, attend a support group or see a therapist. Get your kids sup- port as well, even if they decline. You and your children will need to connect with others who understand, and a respected therapist who has expertise in sorting through the issues of separation, divorce, new relationships, and blended families will likely be able to help guide your children in a positive direction regardless of the ques- tions or anxieties they express.
Struggle is natural. Do your best to remember that the most painful transitions in life often offer the opportuni- ty for the deepest healing and growth. Focus on a happy and strong outcome, and reassure your children that your love for them is unconditional. Joy is ahead.