Sharon Fields of Bellevue says the most difficult aspect of divorce isn’t the actual divorce itself, but rather, how it can shut down children’s abilities to communicate openly with parents. Her two kids are 11 and 9.
“Even though their father was the one who left, I felt like they blamed me for the divorce,” Fields says. “It took several months before either of them started talking about their feelings – or much of anything for that matter.â€
Many parents complain that they have difficulty getting their children to talk to them about their divorce or whether they are affected by the changes in the family. As a family counselor and divorce mediator, I know that kids often clam up during a parent’s divorce. If you ask the average child of divorce, “How are you doing?” the typical answer usually comes in monosyllables – “fine,” “good” or “OK.â€
Then the parent usually follows up with a statement like, “Well, I just want to make sure you are OK with the divorce,” or “Let me know if you ever need to talk.” Unfortunately, if a child is feeling sad, angry or even glad, the follow-up statements aren’t really helpful. Sometimes kids don’t need to express their feelings as much as they need to be understood. Here are a few tips that will help your child open up to you about their emotions if you are or have experienced a divorce.
Create an open line of communication that is non-judgemental.
Kids need to know that they are allowed to feel anything without being judged for it. They are allowed to express love for their other parent. They are allowed to express anger about the situation. They are allowed to be disagreeable, and they are allowed to keep their feelings private.
If children feel that they must think and feel like their parents in order to be accepted, they will learn to distrust their own internal feeling monitors, preventing them from making wise decisions as they grow older. Parents should support their children’s feelings and teach them how to manage their negative emotions. After a divorce, parents are particularly vulnerable to trying to control their children’s feelings, often worrying about losing their love and support.
“Chipping through the silence barrier with the kids was a long process for me,” says Fields. “The wall finally started crumbling when I began having conversations with them that it was OK if they were mad at me; it was OK if they blamed me; it was OK if they even felt like they hated me.
“All I could do was keep telling them, â€˜I love you,’ and that whatever it was they were feeling was 100 percent valid, and they didn’t have to feel afraid to talk about their emotions, and finally the floodgates opened.â€
Keep in mind that children do not exist for their parents’ purposes. It is not your child’s job to make you feel good. Parents exist for their children’s purposes, and it is the parent’s job to make sure children’s feelings are supported – not the other way around.
Name your child’s feelings for him.
In order to check out your child’s emotions, tell him how you think he is feeling, and then watch for his reaction. Imagine what your child might be feeling given the circumstances. Instead of asking him, “How do you feel about this visitation arrangement?” (which will probably elicit a one-word answer), say, “I bet it’s hard sometimes to have to go back and forth between two houses.â€
Even if your child is silent after your comment, he will get the notion that you understand how he is feeling. If he disagrees with your statement, chances are he will express that and say, “No, it’s not that bad. Sometimes I like having two rooms.” Either way, you are addressing an important need of your child’s to feel understood.
Don’t take your child’s strong or negative feelings personally.
Kids often express anger or disagreement to the parent who feels safest to them. If your child is disappointed with the other parent’s actions or behaviors, don’t be surprised if he takes it out on you. He may even blame you for the other parent’s lack of integrity.
If you respond by defending yourself or blaming the other parent, you are likely to shut down your child’s communication with you. Instead of automatically assuming your child doesn’t understand your feelings, accept that he is just venting his frustrations. Coming to you means he trusts that you can hear it without falling apart or judging him.
Even though it may not seem logical in the adult world, from a child’s perspective, he needs to have at least one parent who can be the non-anxious one who can calmly tolerate his sporadic outbursts and still love him unconditionally.
I counsel parents who tell me their children ask them not to attend school events, for example, because it makes them “uncomfortable.” One dad I counseled recognized that his son asked him to stay away because he knew that having both parents in the same place might cause a conflict. So, the son was trying to manage the conflict.
Instead of judging his son for asking him to stay away, the dad simply said, “I can understand why having me there might make you uncomfortable. If your mom and I get into a fight, you might feel responsible. So, I’m going to come anyway because I want to be there, but I’m going to promise you that I will never create a scene or get into a conflict with your mom at a school event. Even if she tries, I will walk away.
It’s not your job to worry about our conflict … that’s our job.” He said his son didn’t have much of a response other than, “OK.” Dad kept his word, though, and his son never expressed the discomfort again. I suspect the boy felt relief that the adults promised to take control of the adult issues so he could be a kid.
How do you get your kids to talk to you? Prove that you can be trusted with their feelings – no matter what they are.
Diane C. Shearer, M.A., CFLE, is a family counselor, divorce mediator and parent educator. She is author of Solo Parenting: Raising Strong and Happy Families (Fairview Press; $12.95).