I am going through a messy divorce. My husband and I can't even have a two-minute conversation without things turning ugly. My son is angry all the time and my daughter breaks down in tears at the drop of a hat. I am stressed all the time. What can I do to help them when I am so upset?
Any divorce is stressful, even when parents are attempting the Conscious Uncoupling approach my friend Katherine Woodward Thomas developed that was recently brought into the public eye by Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin.
But a separation or divorce filled with bitterness and animosity is devastating for children, showing up as anger, withdrawal, moodiness, irritability, problems with sleep, depression, academic problems, physical complaints and sibling rivalry. Here are my thoughts:
• Get help! The greatest gift you can give your children is to get the support you need to help you deal with your hurt, anger and sadness. Children are extremely tuned in to their parents, unconsciously reacting to their moods. Whether you join a support group, work with a therapist or explore Katherine's work, put on your own oxygen mask first -- to borrow an airplane analogy -- so you can better tend to your children.
• Create an emotionally safe environment. Many children feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions. The may feel disloyal for missing the other parent, confused about who is "to blame" or afraid that they somehow made their parents' marriage fall apart. The more you normalize what your children are going through, the less likely they will be to act out their emotions in hurtful or unhealthy ways.
"This is a really tough time right now. I wonder if you're missing mommy/daddy?"
"You look like you could use a cuddle, sweetheart; is your heart hurting?"
"Things don't feel the same without mommy and daddy at the dinner table. It's hard to get used to so many changes."
• Treat the other parent with respect. My friend Katherine talked about this in a dialogue we had last year. "The image I offer is like a Japanese tea ceremony, a deep bow of formality and honor and respect... the conversations you have with your former partner should be formal-you're going to be honoring, you're going to be respectful and... solution-oriented."
I understand this may seem impossible when you're in pain, but consider the lengths you and your husband would go through to lovingly join forces to take care of your children if they were physically hurt. Call forth that level of commitment to keep your children from the "emotional injuries" that result when they have to witness poisonous exchanges between their mommy and daddy.
• Maintain a united front. It is very important for children that both parents stick to similar rules and routines. I realize that you may not agree on precisely how long your kids can play with an iPad or what time they should be in bed, but the more you can be in sync, the better it will be for your children. You may find it helpful to have a few sessions with a family therapist to establish co-parenting agreements you can both live with.
Co-parenting my son after the ending of my marriage required doing the work of moving through my own grief, stepping into acceptance and forgiveness and reaching for a version of myself that would allow me to show up for my son as the mother he needed and deserved.
My hope is that any parent who is facing the unraveling of a partnership--after having done everything possible to turn things around -- will do everything possible to ensure that their children have two caring parents whose love for them -- and whose mutual kindness and respect -- remains steady and true, no matter what.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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