In last week’s blog entry I set a context for parenting through divorce and reviewed some common parenting traps. This week I will focus on positive parenting practices and offer some qualifiers.
The following can be very helpful to your child as your family adjusts to divorce:
• Having positive conversations with your ex within earshot of your child.
• Offering sincere compliments regarding your ex within earshot of your child.
• Affirming to your child that your ex loves him or her.
• Qualifying or disagreeing with negative statements that your child makes about your ex (see last week’s entry for the rationale).
• Keeping your child unaware of any ongoing court battles.
• Making peace with your ex as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. Sacrifices rendered along these lines, as long as you can manage them, are in service of giving your child a precious gift.
• Allowing and welcoming your child to voice feelings of loss pertaining to your ex. This can be very hard to bear but your child will likely appreciate your selflessness across time.
• Allowing your child to talk about, and play through, feelings pertaining to the divorce.
• Providing the your child with methods for coping with the divorce (e.g., readings—for example see the book for kids by Isolina Ricci, a child divorce support group, counseling and so forth).
I have four qualifiers for this material:
1. Many parents in my practice will say things like “Ok. Fine. But, what if I play by these rules and my ex doesn’t. My child will end up hearing only complaints about me from my ex and only positive statements about him from me. This could cause my child to be turned against me!” I have two responses. First, I’ve found that when you widen the lens across time, instead of only considering the here-and-now, you will find that most kids, or adult children, will be able to tell which parent is acting in a loving fashion versus which parent is acting more out of hurt and anger. Second, I would use your child’s psychologist to help you with this. She or he can be in touch with the other parent and/or help your child to recognize how much your behaviors along these lines are evidence of your selflessness and love.
2. Sometimes parents challenge: “But, he gets drunk when my child is with him.” “Or, she has sex in common and open areas of the house with her boyfriends while my kids are sleeping in their beds.” Or, fill in the blank with some other potentially abusive or seriously neglectful behavior. The question becomes “how can I allow my child to be exposed to situations like this?” In my experience these situations are sometimes innocent or easily adjusted, while at other times they represent a serious and ongoing problem; it can be almost impossible for you, as the ex, to make an objective determination about which is the case. However, a child psychologist can help you to both understand what is going on and craft a reasonable intervention plan. But, regardless, be reassured that no reasonable adult believes that it is okay for a child to be subject to abuse or neglect.
3. You want a formula for creating burnout? Insert the following three elements into a person’s life: (a) the notion that a given outcome is very important, (b) the idea that that person is responsible for that outcome and (c) the person does not have the power to significantly affect the outcome. This is why the serenity prayer is so commonly used in recovery programs. If I try to control how my ex parents I am setting myself up for significant stress because such involves an important outcome over which I have very little, if any, control. This is another scenario where a good child psychologist can be very helpful.
4. If you find that you cannot follow these indicators because your feelings of hurt and anger are too great, it would be highly advisable for you to consider starting your own counseling. (This might be a good idea even if you can act with intention.) If research on parenting tells us anything, it is that promoting your own wellness is an act of love towards your child. (I have some searchable databases on my website: www.helpingfamilies.com/referrals.html.)
Every crisis contains both pain and opportunity, with the dosing of opportunity often exceeding the dosing of pain. Parenting a child through a divorce usually involves plenty of pain. But, such situations also include opportunities to manifest and model both excellence in parenting and selflessness. There is no way to calculate the incredible value of such manifested love.