7 Things for Divorcing Parents to Discuss
When you start dating, what guidelines will you follow with regard to introducing the children to your significant other? Setting up expectations in advance can make a world of difference in a process that often leaves parents feeling fearful and powerless. Consider talking about these questions with your ex:
- When and how will you tell the kids you are dating someone?
- How will you explain the new dating relationship to the kids? What will the kids call him/her?
- Will you text/talk on the phone with the new SO when you have your kids with you?
- Will you go on dates during your custody time (meaning the kids are with a babysitter)?
- How long will you date someone before:
- You talk about them with your kids?
- Allow the kids & your SO to meet?
- Have outings/activities with your kids and your SO at the same time?
- Allow the kids to meet your SO’s kids?
- Go on outings with the SO & his/her children? Overnights?
- Allow the SO to come over to your house?
- Allow the SO to sleep at your house when the kids are present?
- What role will the new SO play with the kids? Will he or she discipline? How will you handle the inevitable difference in parenting styles?
- Do you want to introduce your new SO to your ex? (Do you want to meet your ex’s new SO?)
Parents should realize that as each party moves through the divorce process, naturally they will each grow apart from each other and will be increasingly less able to influence the other. Furthermore, it’s hard to think objectively about one’s new SO when you’re in the exciting and love-struck phase of a new relationship. For both of these reasons (and more,) I highly recommend setting up some mutual expectations about how to parent around new romantic relationships as soon as possible. I hope these questions give you a starting off place for the conversation.
This tragedy is so horrible I almost can’t bear it. My heart hurts, and I know yours does, too. And yet, we still have to keep going, because we are our children’s first protector, explainer and comforter. So take a deep breath, send some love to those families, yourself and your kids, and then you can begin to help your child understand.
However, that being said– if you can avoid the conversation, that’s probably your best bet. Young children can’t cognitively or emotionally process this event (it’s challenging for adults, too) so if they don’t already know, perhaps you can protect them from this news. I certainly, strongly recommend turning off the TV tonight. News programs don’t present information in a way that is appropriate for children. If your child already knows what happened, or has some inkling of what happened, you may need to help them understand, process, or put it in to context.
Remember that the most important thing you can do for your kids is to be and stay open to their communication. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to give your child a particular piece of information, or say a particular phrase. Parenting is never accomplished in one moment. Parenting is all about repeated experiences/events/conversations. Remember–it’s all about the RELATIONSHIP, and you want to have the kind of relationship where your children know that they can come to you to talk about difficult, awkward, or emotional topics. So: make this a “talkable moment,” be honest, calm, serious, supportive, loving, and listenlistenlisten.
As far as specific language, you might say something like:
- A man killed children and teachers today in Connecticut.
- He shot them with a gun in their school.
- He also killed himself.
- We don’t know why he did it.
- He might have been mentally ill, which is when your brain doesn’t work properly.
If your child has questions or unspoken fears about his or her own safety at school, it might be helpful to share information about that.
- Your school does things to keep you and your classmates safe. Your school has (locked doors, a buzzer system, metal detectors, etc… whatever is true.)
- Although the idea of someone shooting at school is very scary, it is actually very rare. It seems scary right now because it just happened and because people are talking about it. Your scared feelings will get smaller and smaller as time passes.
And for children who are having a hard time moving past their big feelings about this, you might remind them that there are things we can all do to help manage big feelings, for example:
- Put our attention on parts of our lives that we have happy or secure feelings about—for example make a list of 10 things in our life that we love, 10 things that happened this week that were funny, or 10 people who care about us and help us.
- Older children might be able to look backwards at something that they felt frightened of in the past and be able to compare how their feelings have since changed. This can help them to imagine how today’s feelings might get better with time, too.
- Write a note/draw a picture expressing condolences to be sent to the school or the first responders in the situation.
And then, for yourself, consider limiting your own exposure to this tragedy. Check in tomorrow if you need to, but spend tonight away from a screen, and with your own precious family.
When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change. Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow. That desired change?—it begins in the brain.
Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better. Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life. This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears. Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.
Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.
- Sleep. Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough. I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture. It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
- Good nutrition. You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better. Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
- Physical activity. Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity. Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
- Novelty. Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness. But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change. So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation. It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
- Focus of attention. What are you paying attention to? Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain. More energy and information=more growth.
- Safety. Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all. It is absolutely essential.
- Mindful awareness. This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting. I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode. Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show. Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.
If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list. The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.
I have the pleasure of writing for SWParents.org occasionally. One of my latest articles has basic information that is important, and so potentially helpful in protecting kids, that although I don’t usually cross-post, I will today.
This is a topic that pretty much every one of us would rather not think about. But please do spend at least a minute on it–parents need this critical information. We can take steps to protect our kids from predators. Click the link below to read the article in full.
A mom asked me on Facebook the other day for recommendations on how to foster a positive self-concept for her kids. I thought it was such a great question that I’m sharing my answer here. I ended up with a long list, but the good thing about that is that you will probably find some strategies that you are already doing, some that surprise you, and some that you’ll be excited to try. So, in no particular order, here are 10 things parents can do to help their children to develop (or strengthen) a positive self-concept.
- The first place that children begin to form their self-concept is within the parent-child relationship. Within that relationship, we teach children that they matter: their needs, opinions, experiences, feelings, and preferences are an important part of the family culture and decision-making. Children aren’t the only voice in the family, but they need to know that they do have a voice.
- Let them have experiences that include: working really hard, succeeding, and failing. All three things are a normal part of a healthy adult life, and for children to feel good about themselves, they need age-appropriate experiences of these things, too.
- Feel good about yourself, and let your words reflect this. When you speak about your actions, your habits, your body, your brain, your hair, your clothes, your life—try to speak to and from your best self. Of course, no one is perfect, which leads to:
- Acknowledge that you are not perfect. We are ALL learning and growing, and we are healthiest when we can acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, and practice self-compassion. (Self-compassion is critical to health, as mistakes are inevitable and frequent, in both childhood and adulthood.)
- Be careful how you word your judgments of others, especially your children. Try to criticize actions, not the people who take those actions. In other words, come from the perspective that for the most part, people do the best they can with what they have. Having compassion for others makes it easier to have compassion for oneself.
- Give your children power and control over age-appropriate decisions. Let them flex their muscles both literally and figuratively.
- Make sure your child gets enough good sleep, healthy foods, and exercise. The mind cannot be healthy when the body is not. (And make sure you do it for you, too, parents are usually deficient in this.)
- Assertiveness. People feel better about themselves when they feel empowered—assertiveness skills are a key component of feeling empowered. Teach good communication, and validate that your child has a right to ask for what they want! (which also then leads to the useful learning opportunities of dealing with it when you don’t get what you wanted.)
- Give your children permission to have their feelings. Even when feelings are uncomfortable, send the message that all feelings are okay. (The expression of feelings is another matter, and another blog post.)
- Cultivate a sense of humor. A sense of humor is another key component of resiliency—the ability to bounce back from problems, setbacks, frustrations, failures.
So there ya go! 10 ways to help a child’s growing positive self-concept. What else would you add to this list?
There are several articles on this blog written specifically to help parents through the divorce process. They are collected below for easy reading.
- How to tell the kids
- When to tell the kids
- 7 Things kids want parents to remember
- Book recs about divorce for kids
- Book recs about divorce for parents
- When parents start dating again
- Parenting Well Through Divorce Workshop
Please feel free to email me with questions or to set up an appointment for parent coaching around divorce, co-parenting, or however you think I can help.
Parents come to see me for this specific question more than almost any other single question. Although divorce is a very challenging time for families, the silver lining is that there are many choices that parents can make to protect and take care of their children during this time. Below I share 5 of the more important things to do/think about/remember when first sitting down to tell your kids that their parents are divorcing.
Before you meet with the kids:
- Sit down with your spouse and agree on the basics of what you want to say to the kids. You will want to craft a very brief statement, including:
- The core message at its simplest form, and
- A small concrete example of why you are separating/divorcing. The reason should be explained in a brief, neutral, non-blaming, concrete way, using minimal details. Referring to something your children have already been witness to is an ideal choice for an concrete example.
- For example: “For a while now, your father and I have been arguing a lot. You have even seen some of our arguments.” Then dad might plan to say: “We have seen a marriage counselor to help us work things out, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to. So, your mother and I have decided that we are going to live separately for a little while.”
- Still with your spouse, prepare for questions. Different ages and personalities and situations will all respond differently, but here are a few typical examples: “who is moving out?”, “where will I live?”, “will I still get to go to school/karate/music lessons/my friends’ house?” Kids are concrete thinkers, and their typical reactions center around the concrete ways that this change will affect them. Discuss these likely questions, and mutually-agreed upon answers with your spouse.
- Privately, do whatever you can to ready yourself emotionally. You may need to practice saying the words. You may need to cry or yell or throw a fit (privately) prior to this meeting. This conversation is for your children, and it’s a big one–they need you to be emotionally available for them.
During the conversation:
- Deliver your short, prepared statement to the kids.
- Stop talking.
- Sit back and take a deep breath.
- Pay attention to what is going on in your children at that moment. Take another breath. What faces is she making, how tense is his body?
- From this point forward, your primary goal is to be tuned in to your kids and what they need. Don’t talk too much, but don’t hurry the conversation, either. Stay tuned in to what you think your child needs at this point. (Space? Answers? Permission to be sad, or angry, or worried? Try to give it to them.)
A few more notes:
- Both parents should be present and participating in this conversation.
- Pick a time/place that is private, quiet, and unrushed. (more here on WHEN to tell the kids.)
- Parents should primarily talk about themselves, or both parents together, and avoid making too many statements about the other parent (in order to avoid provoking–we want a smooth, peaceful conversation.)
- Your children may want more information and details, or not. It is normal to want them, and it is normal not to want them. Every child is different.
- If they ask specific or inappropriate questions about wrong-doing etc, please remember that the appropriate response is to lovingly but firmly refuse to answer! “I understand that you want to know more about that, but it is a private matter between Mommy and Daddy. “
- If you get an appropriate question that you aren’t sure how to answer, please remember that you can tell your child “That’s a good question. I can’t give you an answer right now, but your father/mother and I will talk about it and get back with you soon.”
Separation and divorce are hard on everyone involved. At a time when parents are themselves taxed, their child’s needs increase, and it is difficult not to get bogged down in the stress. Here are 7 reminders from a child’s perspective about what is important to them.
- I want to be loyal, at some level, to both parents.
- It’s incredibly hard to be equally loyal to both parents, especially when they are separated. If I try to do this, it will take a huge chunk of my mental and physical energy. If I don’t do this, it will hurt my heart because it feels like I am rejecting one parent (and therefore rejecting a bit of myself, too.)
- When you speak negatively of my other parent (or even just roll your eyes) it’s hard on me. I know that half of me comes from each parent—so if one parent is a jerk or a loser or crazy—that means I am, too. It makes me feel badly about myself.
- Some of my behaviors are related to the separation/divorce. I may act angrier, more anxious, more sad, more clingy, or more rejecting.
- If I have a lot of somatic/physical complaints (headaches, stomach aches) it may be that I am feeling worried or unhappy.
- With time, I can heal from the separation and/or divorce if you handle yourselves with respect, cooperation, and good boundaries. When disrespect and anger are present, it is tremendously harder for me to be healthy.
- I feel safer and happier when the two of you are friendly and cooperative with each other.
Head over to Southwest Parents to see a short (4 minutes!) video covering some basic information about talking with your children about sex. FYI, this video is kindof funny, because I say “use the correct terminology for body parts” without actually saying the correct terminology for body parts. Silly, I know, but the folks paying the bills really wanted things to be G-rated. (*) So other than the phrase “talking to kids about sex,” it is safe for work, even! :^)
If you’d like a refresher on what words I would have used, check out my article called “What are the correct names for private parts, anyway?”
(*) For the record, I think using the correct words for our anatomy is appropriate for all ages.
Once parents are certain that they are separating or getting a divorce, they begin to think through when/what/how they should tell their children. Regarding WHEN to tell children about a divorce or separation, here are some tips.
A few concrete suggestions:
- Avoid major holidays and birthdays, etc.
- Consider the child’s school or extracurricular schedule (major tests or events, etc.)
- Don’t tell them right before bed/school/playdate. Plan to have plenty of free, unscheduled time after you tell them in case they need a break or to be alone or whatever reaction they have. (If they need to be distracted after the conversation, that can be done impromptu.)
- Think about your own energy level and make sure to schedule this conversation at a time when you aren’t tired or stressed or otherwise taxed.
- Try to tell them enough in advance that they will continue to see you and your spouse co-parenting and running the house as you always have just a little longer. The idea is to show the kids that while the marriage is ending, the co-parenting and cooperative, cordial adult relationship is not ending.
But my most important piece of guidance about scheduling this conversation:
There is no “perfect time” for this conversation. Of course, as a loving parent you are trying to manage every detail in order to minimize their upset feelings, but even with all that they will still have those feelings. If they are going to feel agony, they will feel agony no matter what day you tell them. And, you want them to feel 110% permission to feel their feelings about this very big change, so the best thing I can tell you might be to just worry a little less about the scheduling and instead do what you can to be prepared to listen and watch and breathe and love them whenever you do tell them.