GUIDELINES FOR SEPARATED/DIVORCED PARENTS
SO YOUR KIDS WON’T “HATE” YOU
No matter how you look at the situation of separated/divorced parents, the amount of trauma that is inflicted by separation/divorce on the children is staggering in terms of the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical chaos inflicted. As adults operating in our own “world,” we miss the fact that children will pick up on the clues that their parents’ relationship is struggling and, at the same time, the children will watch for attempts by the parents to bring about healing, reconciliation and growth in their relationship. It’s important to note that parents may not even be at a point in their recognition of their struggles where they are discussing their problems with each other, but the children will still pick up on the discomfort in the relationship.
If children see that a legitimate investment is being made by the parents to address the issues involved, two things will probably happen. First, the children will make the proper assumption that they are not the ones who have created this divide between parents. And, second, they will retain a level of hope that the marriage – and therefore the family – will remain intact and all will turn out well. If so, they will learn a valuable lesson of how to cope with difficult situations and persevere through it.
But, let’s back up for a moment and understand what’s going on if there is no known effort being made to reconcile by the parents. Most, if not all, children will question the role they may have played in the demise of their parents’ relationship. And, generally, they will not express this perception of blame to their parents, but will contain it inwardly where it festers and expands the children’s level of emotional trauma. On the other hand, while parents usually know that their children have little to nothing to do with the breakdown of the marriage, parents seldom affirm to their children that the children have no role in the struggle. The parents often will only respond when the children begin to exhibit behaviors tied to their internal anxiety. And, remember, the parents may not even be talking about their problems at this point!
These behaviors can manifest in a variety of ways. First, children can become “clingy” and “force” themselves onto one or both parents in order to find comfort through the parents’ recognition of the behavior and response to it. As long as parents are responding “positively” to this behavior at some level, the child will find some level of comfort and embrace that they are not the problem. But, if the parents react negatively, and it may be out of ignorance on the parents’ part, it serves to confirm the child’s “suspicion” that they are the cause. The problem is that the parents generally don’t or won’t explore the fact that they, the parents, are behind the problem and will often look for other reasons as to the children’s aberrant behavior.
A second form of seeking affirmation in the midst of uncertainty is to engage in a variety of attention-getting antics, either positive or negative. As positive antics are often overlooked, it becomes easier to engage in negative antics. Negative antics tend to “force” a parental response and are far less likely to be ignored. It can also be a reflection of the inner pain and discomfort the child may be experiencing, couched in the unacceptable negative behavior. To hear that such might be considered a cause in the potential separation/divorce would/could be mentally and emotionally devastating to the child yet, down deep inside, they feel they want to know the “truth.” What a terrible conundrum!
A third form of behavior is manifested in the physical well-being of the child. Cessation of eating, over (or comfort) eating, sleeplessness, irritability, reduction in conversation, stomach pains (possibly accompanied by diarrhea), headaches, etc. are just a smattering of the physical symptoms that can manifest. Again, while the behavior is possibly noted by parents, they may not make the connection as to the root cause if husbands and wives are not communicating about the marriage issues.
A fourth kind of behavior can reveal itself mentally and emotionally in places such as school and church Sunday school classrooms. It may show up in sports and social activities as well as other interactions outside the home. Again, these are clues being presented to secure the parents’ attention and hoped for affirmation through outside sources who will, in turn, talk to the parents on behalf of the child, even though the “root” cause is not actually being presented.
Finally, children may begin to engage in addictive behavior patterns in order to escape the stress they are feeling. This can be shown in a variety of addictive patterns such as substance abuse (alcohol and drugs), use of pornography, comfort eating, perfectionism, extraordinary television watching, preoccupation with video games, unusual increase in sleep, isolating oneself in a room while reading books constantly, etc. Every human being has the possibility of developing addictive patterns in order to try to control the uncomfortable life experiences around us. The role of addictions is to provide an escape from reality. As long as someone is engaging in the addictive activity, they can escape from the emotions they are having to face and are unable to control. Tragically, addictions are unhealthy and counterproductive.
As we can see, we have to come face-to-face with the reality that unwillingness on the part of parents to address their marital issues carries with it extensive trauma on the children. Many of the aforementioned behaviors by the children are happening before the parents are even approaching a conversation of separation/divorce. Imagine the heightened stress if the child does not see movement by both parents toward healing, reconciliation and growth in the marriage! And, more often than not, attempts to address the issues of the marriage never really happen.
As a pastoral counselor, my heart breaks at the number of couples who choose to make no effort to walk through the issues that confront them. Parents, one or both, are often so egocentric that all they are concerned about is their own well-being and they really, if brutally honest, don’t care that a large part of their egocentrism comes at the expense of their children’s mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. I have repeatedly heard parents say they want to do what’s best for their children, but it’s usually a surface lie they have chosen to embrace because separation/divorce is seldom in a child’s best interest. God created marriage to be a lifetime mental commitment based on the definition of unconditional love: I choose to commit myself to enable my spouse to become all he/she is ever intended by God to ever become without expecting anything in return. Obviously, that’s not the definition used by our secular world today.
The world operates under a false (pseudo) understanding of “love” which is actually an uncaring and insensitive “conditional love” based on a distorted mindset that says, “I will do for you and I expect that you will do for me in return.” Society says that both spouses are expected to put in 50% each into the relationship (others say 100% each depending on who defines it). The failing of that “love” is that it becomes an “obligation” which means I’m only doing this to stay “even” with my spouse so I will constantly be receiving a “return” on my “investment.” In other words, “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Sorry, but that’s not love at all.
True love requires that I commit to another by giving myself freely to that other person with no personal agenda. This is done without expecting anything in return. That is truly unconditional love. What people don’t realize is that, if we make this kind of gift toward another, we always receive back more than we give if we give with the right motive. Jesus gave His all on the cross to pay the price for our sins, fully knowing many would reject His free gift of unconditional love. But, scripture is clear; we reap what we sow. If we sow unconditional love into the life of another, we will reap a harvest that is 30, 60 and even 100 times more than we planted.
But, in fairness, we need to understand that most people get married without adequate preparation. There are five distinct areas where we need to know as much as we can about the other before we come to the altar. Even with that preparation, it will still be a lifelong learning process. We need to understand male-female differences, personality differences, learning style differences, background (how we were raised and what we were taught) differences and life (what traumas we’ve experienced in life) experiences. Working through these before marriage creates and develops meaningful communication between persons along with a patient understanding and concern for each other. Knowledge leads to communication which creates a bond that is harder to break.
Most of us do not get married knowing this and, as a result, most of us struggle to develop the kind of communication needed to have marriages that reach their full potential. But, the good news is that, in virtually every marriage situation, things can be learned and marriages can find healing, reconciliation and growth. My premise is that your marriage can become more than you’ve ever experienced and your need for separation/divorce can dissipate and be replaced with true love built on a foundation of understanding and communication that actually works as you are blessed through being a blessing to your spouse. And, most importantly, your children are spared the trauma of separation and/or divorce.
While I’d like to think couples would choose to work through their issues and become whole, complete and fulfilled, many will still struggle to do that. If such is the case, I want to encourage spouses that are still planning to separate and/or divorce or are in the process of the same to follow some basic “rules” to spare their children as much trauma as possible.
1. Always tell your children what’s going on – all of it. From the moment problems begin, both parties need to be open and tell their children two things:
· It’s not the children’s fault you are getting a divorce. (You’ll need to say this more than once).
· We’re having problems but we’re exploring what we can do to work through them. If you tell them this statement, make certain you follow through with this. And, never do this with a hidden motive of still desiring to get out of the relationship and only doing it to say you tried. That is simply dishonest and your children will figure that out.
· Be honest with your children even if it will embarrass you. They need to know exactly what’s going on. Never let your children hear the facts from others. That will quickly destroy their trust in you.
2. Never speak ill of your spouse with your children. If your spouse has some serious issues, tell your children that the parent is having difficulties in his/her life at the moment and that we need to be praying for him/her. If you speak ill of your spouse, your children will ultimately figure out the truth and it may not be what you told them. Their response will be to distrust you.
3. Never ask your children what your spouse is doing or saying. This simply places your children in a position of feeling that they have to choose sides. They want and need to be able to have two parents – not just you.
4. Never give our child an ultimatum regarding your spouse. A child should never be threatened with shunning by one parent because they won’t “give up” the other parent. Never “close the door” on your child because they don’t agree with you or tell you what you want to hear regarding your spouse.
5. Always encourage your child to spend time with the other parent. To not encourage your child to spend time with the other parent is a subtle form of control used to sabotage the child’s relationship with the other parent. You shouldn’t wait for the other parent to ask to spend time with the children. Remember, the children need their relationships with both parents.
6. Always let your children know where you are at all times. There should never be a time when your children don’t know where you are and how they can reach you in a moment’s notice, even if they’re with the other parent. They need this security level at all times. If they know they can reach you, they are less likely to call you. But, they will try it at least once to check to see if you are truthful about your availability.
7. Both of you are still the parents and you still need to be involved together in all of the following areas:
· Medical decisions.
· Legal decisions as it relates to the legal concerns of the children. (These are not your legal concerns of separation/divorce but the legitimate concerns of the children.)
· Issues of discipline. Remember, children will still work both parents to get what they want. Don’t allow them to put a “wedge” between you as they will use your separateness to create more division between you if you don’t set discipline processes together.
· Vacation and holiday plans. The children now have multiple vacations with one parent separate from the other. Develop a plan before the start of each new year so agreement can be reached for equity. As to holidays, alternate stays every other year seems to be the most equal but make certain you agree in advance before the new year starts.
· Adjustments to the custody agreement for special circumstances, e.g. alternating birthdays, school events, social events, sports and activities.
· School issues.
8. Never forget the trauma your child is experiencing because of your issues. We cannot lose sight of the fact that our children are suffering the consequences of our selfish choices. We have chosen our path without real consideration for our children, even though we say we may be doing it for them. We are forcing dramatic, life-altering changes on our children because we want what we want and think we deserve. And, it’s generally done without any real regard for what the delicate emotional minds of children will have to address. Their comfort, safety, security and stability are shattered. Remember that children have not had the chance to learn how to cope as adults (although most adults have minimal coping skills themselves). This uncertainty can easy be overwhelming. And, if a parent himself/herself went through this as a child, they are encouraged to stop and remember what they themselves went through.
9. Take the initiative to address your personal issues even if you do separate/divorce. Our issues are what bring us to these situations. Help yourself and your children – and your future and their future – by learning why you do what you do and overcome behavior patterns that take life away from you and others around you. But, once you begin to work on your issues, see it through! Statistics tell us that 85% of counselees will never get to the wellness stage because they bog down when the change necessary to bring about wellness is required. And, we so dislike change, even if it can save our life. Instead of becoming free from our issues, we remain locked in them and they continue to adversely affect our children’s present and future.
In conclusion, I trust these thoughts will be of benefit to you as you face these challenges. The bottom line is that we have One who can make all the difference in how we address the situation of separation/divorce. I encourage you to seek His wisdom, insight and understanding for we know that the beginning of wisdom is the understanding that God alone has the real answers to the real problems of life and offers to us the only true power to heal.