Raising Well-Adjusted Children, Despite Divorce
Amy Sherman, LMHC is one of the contributors to my internationally-acclaimed book, How Do I Tell the Kids about the Divorce? A Create-a-Storybook Guide to Preparing Your Children — with Love! Today she shares some of her wisdom based on her private practice and years of working with pre-teen and teen populations.
Parenting is a continual learning process, which is compounded when you are going through a divorce. Not only does it require an understanding of the child’s needs and the skills to meet those needs, but it requires additional special attention. Talking to your children about the divorce could be one of the most difficult experiences of parenting, because you want, of course, your wisdom to be heard and then your child to apply it. From my work with divorced parents and their children, I have gained much insight into what we, as adults, need to do to make the relationship work effectively on both sides.
The major complaint that parents have about their children is that they just don’t listen. Not surprisingly, children have the same complaint. “My parents don’t hear me. They would rather lecture me.” If we want our children to feel comfortable talking with us during this trying time, we must adhere to several key principles that can enhance our relationship with them, and ultimately, help them to become well-adjusted and emotionally healthy.
The following are 10 important components to raising healthy, open children – even after they experience their parents’ divorce:
- Be willing to listen first, then offer opinions — rather than turning the dialogue into a lecture. You do not want your children to feel like you’re not working on their same wavelength. This could lead to misunderstandings and fights. However, you are not their peer, so it is always necessary to maintain the parental role.
- Improve your understanding by using good body language. Be sure that your facial expressions and words are in alignment, because body language reveals an overall emotional tone.
- Repeat back what the child says. “I hear you say that you’re afraid of the changes that are happening in our family. Is that right?” This is called reflective listening. “I understand what you’re saying. However, I want to assure you that…”
- Encourage a free expression of feelings, thoughts and ideas without shutting down the child. This keeps the conversation open and maintains your awareness of the child’s perspective.
- Allow “kid contact time” that engages the child in a positive interactive xperience with you. In other words, save time in your day for quality time with your eight year old or shopping with your twelve year old. Make a point to praise something every day and be generous with your love, hugs and compliments. This encourages a sense of trust and closeness, essential components for a child whose parents are no longer living together.
- Be empathetic. By putting yourself in your child’s shoes, you begin to remember what it was like to be that age — what you were afraid of, what your most important concerns were, what you needed from your parents. Remember that what your child is experiencing is very real.
- Set down some rules and guidelines and be consistent with following through. However, if there are too many restrictions, children have more opportunity to fail. On the other hand, too few rules, too much permissiveness, offers no guidance and no structure. Studies show that children prefer to know what they can and cannot do. House rules help children to understand expectations and to develop self-control. Invite your children to participate in developing those rules, because their input is important for their self-esteem and confidence.
- Practice being a good role model. Therefore, express the traits you want your children to copy, such as respect, fairness, friendliness, honesty, kindness and tolerance of others. How you handle your anger, for instance, is the behavior you pass on to your children. If you don’t like what you see, take a look at yourself.
- Be a strong support system for your children. As a support, you are available when they need to talk. You are there to help and encourage them. Seize every available moment to make a connection. Help your children identify other supportive people in their lives with whom they can also talk.
- Make flexibility a priority. Try not to base your expectations on “shoulds.” Every child is different and his/her response to the divorce will be unique. Some children will react with anger, sadness, or guilt. Others will react with complete silence. Adjust your handling of each child according to the personality and needs of the individual.
Understand that stress comes with the enormous responsibility of parenting your child before, during and after the divorce. Be aware of your own needs and limitations. You have strengths and weaknesses and with an awareness of both, you can be kinder and gentler with yourself. If you take care of yourself and your own well-being, you are modeling an important value for your children, as well.