For parents facing divorce, especially one characterized by high conflict, the struggle to be child focused while navigating the necessary changes can be overwhelming.
I admit to sometimes wanting my kids to feel better than they should have about a grade or accomplishment, because I was simply too emotionally and physically exhausted to fix things that were barely broken. As a single mommy, the ability to triage by praising what was working, address what wasn’t and make sure that the chicken nuggets didn’t burn was more than a notion!
Being “present” for the kids during the divorce can be tough – some parents disappear emotionally, some disappear physically. On my hardest days, I was that parent. Regardless of how good of a parent you are, the sense of abandonment felt by our kids can be heartbreaking.
Todd, a 36 year-old old father of 8 and 11-year-old boys shared his sadness at believing that his boys were suffering from his inability to focus on them as he dealt with his own depression. That he might not be hearing his own child’s cry for help was one of his greatest pains.
Through tears, Todd told the class, “I simply didn’t have the energy to kiss the hurt and make it better, especially when I was hurting myself.” Todd said it was particularly painful given that at nearly the same age – he experienced the same sense of emotional abandonment from his father while his parents were going through what, eventually became, the end of their 26 years of marriage. For a reason he never understood, Todd’s mom had left he and his brothers to be raised by his father.
Todd described a summer fishing trip when he was age 10. Just as he always did, when the others were near the water, he was climbing on the rocks. On one trip, Todd slipped and fell down a small embankment where he’d been climbing. Todd managed to limp to the area where his dad was standing and I said, “Daddy, I fell, I hurt my leg, it really hurts.” Todd recalled that his father’s only response was to scold him from wondering off.
Todd told the class that – even though his leg was hurting, he did what every 10-year-old boy would do. “I went back up on the rocks.” When the pain grew worse, Todd managed a one-legged hop to where his dad and brothers were talking. “By this time, I couldn’t even hold up my leg. I mean it was bad. I asked my dad to look at it, thinking that I could convince him that something was wrong.”
This time, Todd’s dad took a closer look at his son’s knee, only to declare the scratches too small for anything to be really wrong – again, telling Todd to “Go somewhere and sit down.” Within a few minutes, Todd went back over to where his father was standing with his brothers. “This time, I admit I was crying…. my older brothers were saying, stop being such a wimp… stop crying.”
The trip ends and Todd, his dad and brothers go home. The next morning, Todd wakes up to the worst pain he’s ever had. Once at the ER, x-rays are taken. Todd is crying when he hears the doctor tell his father that, “When your 10 year old son fell yesterday – he fractured three small bones in his leg.”
Todd’s tried to avoid crying when he said, “All I could remember is that, three times I told someone I was hurting – and no one believed me.”
You may be feeling that the ability to be both emotionally and physically present for your child during what is likely to be one of the most difficult times in your life, is overwhelming. Yet, now more than ever – it’s important to:
- Keep your eye at heart level. Attentive to the normally mild mannered child that’s become verbally or physically aggressive towards his peers. Todd talked about his 8-year old son who was showing more aggression than normal – particularly while playing basketball. “The coach actually had to bench him a few games for pushing other kids on the team… not just the opponents, but his teammates too!” Remember, not all kids show pain and hurt in the same way. Watch for behaviors and reactions that just don’t look like them.
- Keep your ear at heart level. Listening for cues that your child may be having trouble with the divorce or all the changes taking place, i.e. sudden silence from the usually talkative child. Todd’s precocious 10-year old son who “never met a stranger,” was barely talking at all. ”Getting him to respond to a simple question like, ‘How was your day?’ was like pulling teeth.”
- When you’re present, be really, really present. I believe that one of the best gifts is your full, undiluted attention. No technology, no agenda. I learned just how important this was with my daughter Melissa who refused to tell me anything important unless I stopped what I was doing and gave her my full attention. For her this meant listening to the “backstory,” before she actually got to the question. And, since Melissa was not one to actually be asking me for advice, the question was usually, “So what do you think about what I said?” That I failed to have a deep, thoughtful and judgement free response at my immediate disposal was – for Melissa – evidence plenty that I was never actually listening. Eventually she’d become frustrated with my frustration, and storm out the room in a teenage diva huff. The compromise was that – unless someone was bleeding or the house was on fire – I’d be allowed to finish up whatever I was doing (no more than a few minutes) – then she would have my full attention.
- Set aside time to be “available,” even if your child isn’t. I remember the day my teenage son (who rarely volunteered three unsolicited words when at home), told me that he didn’t really want to talk to me. But, he liked “just knowing you’re in the other room… just in case I wanna tell you something.” When just he and I were at home alone and the house became too quiet, he’d occasionally peek his head into the room where I was. If I managed to look up before he got away, he’d smile and say, “just checking.” It’s important to understand that, sometimes the only thing your teen wants is access, knowing you’re there, “just in case.”
For sure, parenting through divorce is tough stuff. But, as with most important efforts, time and attention to detail will go a long way towards success.